Is the New York Jets defense actually playing at an elite level?
There is an immense amount of hype surrounding the New York Jets defense right now. The unit is even being mentioned in the conversation to be the league’s best.
Who has the best defense in football? pic.twitter.com/ivy4sgrJld
— PFF (@PFF) October 21, 2023
However, the overall numbers don’t seem to suggest that New York’s defense is actually playing at an elite level.
The Jets are 13th-best in points per game allowed (19.8) and 24th in yards per game allowed (351.8). The per-drive stats paint a more accurate picture (since they account for the number of drives and weed out D/ST points): New York is 11th-best in points per drive allowed (1.67) and 15th in yards per drive allowed (30.5). That’s good, but certainly not elite.
Jets fans will argue those numbers are in fact elite when accounting for the high level of competition New York has faced, but even if you take that into consideration, the unit still doesn’t appear elite.
Based on defensive DVOA – a metric that accounts for the quality of competition – the Jets defense is still only 10th-best. According to Pro Football Reference’s DSRS, which is another competition-adjusting defensive metric, the Jets are 13th.
The DVOA system acknowledges that the Jets have faced the third-hardest schedule of opposing offenses based on offensive DVOA, and the Jets’ defensive DVOA earns a large boost because of that. The problem is, in DVOA’s estimation, the Jets’ raw defensive production is subpar without accounting for the competition. In non-adjusted defensive DVOA (which does not account for competition quality), the Jets are 19th. The competition adjustment pushes them up nine spots.
Therein lies the issue. Sure, the Jets have faced a hard schedule so far, and that has had a massive effect on their raw numbers, but even if you account for that, their overall production just hasn’t been great. It’s been good, but not close to the level of greatness they showed last year.
Last year, the Jets defense was unquestionably elite. They allowed the second-fewest points per drive (1.57) and the second-fewest yards per drive (27.3). Critics pointed to the Jets’ lack of competition, but competition-adjusting metrics still loved the Jets. They were sixth in defensive DVOA and first in DSRS.
So, what gives? How is this year’s Jets defense not ranked at an elite level?
The main flaw with the 2023 Jets defense is that it allows teams to move the ball between the twenties with relative ease. Fortunately, they have continuously bailed themselves out with timely plays. These timely plays have led to victories and thus caused people to forget about the underlying issues that could come back to haunt the Jets in the future.
This is the complete opposite of last year. The 2022 Jets defense was extremely hard to move the ball against, but the Jets rarely generated takeaways (29th with 0.9 per game). They were so dominant, however, that they managed to remain elite even without many takeaways.
Conversely, the 2023 Jets are relying too heavily on timely playmaking. Most of the time, the defense isn’t actually playing all that great. They’re 15th in yards per play allowed (5.1), and more importantly, they’re 30th on third down (46.5% conversion rate allowed). Because of these numbers, the Jets are allowing opponents to run 6.1 plays per drive, which ranks 21st. They are not getting off the field quickly.
But since the Jets are second in takeaways per game (2.2) and fourth in the red zone (36.8% touchdown rate), they have been able to survive despite allowing plenty of long drives.
This is a much harder formula to sustain than the one New York rode to success in 2022. Turnovers and red-zone play are wildly erratic facets of the sport. They have a massive impact on the results of games, yet because of their fluky small-sample nature, they are highly unpredictable.
Your play-to-play performance between the twenties is far more predictable and sustainable because of the larger sample size and the lesser reliance on volatility to determine the outcomes. In other words, you can turn an entire game with a couple of random takeaways on unforced errors (terrible decision by QB, dropped pass leading to INT, bad snap, etc.), whereas preventing the opponent from moving the ball consistently across 50+ plays per game requires sheer skill and cannot be aided by luck.
Is this year’s Jets defense really doing anything more than last year’s to create turnover opportunities? Not necessarily. They were first in QB hits and seventh in sacks last season, but this year, they’re 14th in QB hits per game and 20th in sacks per game. They’ve just been lucky enough to have things go their way more often. It was overdue to happen considering how brutally unlucky last year’s unit was in the turnover department.
In 2022, the Jets recovered 21% of opponent fumbles, ranking 32nd. This year, the Jets have recovered 56% of opponent fumbles, ranking eighth. This is something that has a massive impact on their performance but can be almost entirely chalked up to pure luck.
The 2022 Jets tied the Eagles for the fewest yards per play allowed in the NFL (4.8) and were 11th-best on third down (38.1%). You could count on them to get teams off the field quickly on a weekly basis, regardless of whether or not the turnovers bounced their way that week. There were six games where the Jets defense forced zero turnovers and they still allowed only 15.8 points per game in those contests, which is incredible.
As previously mentioned, this year’s defense is 15th in yards per play allowed (5.1) and 30th on third down (46.5%). With those rankings, the Jets are clinging dangerously tightly to their ability to generate turnovers and get stops in the red zone. If they ever stop thriving in those categories, their inability to prevent teams from moving the football will catch up to them.
We’ve already seen this. The Jets are 0-3 when forcing less than three turnovers. They’re 3-0 with at least three takeaways, and all three of those wins still came down to the wire.
If the Jets can continue forcing three turnovers per game all the way through the Super Bowl, then by all means, it’s a great strategy. But if we’re being realistic, that is not going to happen. To achieve sustained success throughout the rest of 2023, the Jets defense has to reclaim the 2022 edition’s ability to succeed without relying on takeaways.
Right now, it’s hard to trust the 2023 Jets defense to be successful without the aid of takeaways, and that’s troubling. Take a look at the difference in the Jets defense’s performance on drives that did not end in an interception or a lost fumble:
- Yards per drive allowed: 28.4 in 2022 (4th), 33.0 in 2023 (19th)
- Points per drive allowed: 1.72 in 2022 (2nd), 2.02 in 2023 (13th)
- Percentage of drives allowing a score: 35.2% in 2022 (3rd), 43.9% in 2023 (19th)
- Percentage of drives allowing a FG: 18.8% in 2022 (23rd), 26.3% in 2023 (30th)
- Percentage of drives allowing a TD: 16.5% in 2022 (1st), 17.5% in 2023 (8th)
Last year, the Jets were shutting teams down even without taking the ball away. On drives that did not result in a takeaway, their 1.72 points allowed per drive ranked second-best behind only the 49ers, who were just a hair ahead at 1.71.
This year, the Jets are 13th at 2.02 points allowed per non-takeaway drive. While that’s not bad, especially considering the competition, it’s troubling to see their No. 19 ranking in yards per drive and No. 22 ranking in score rate. The Jets have mitigated those rankings by using their excellent red-zone defense to turn potential touchdowns into a boatload of field goals, but if they do not sustain their elite red-zone defense, they will start to pay the price for allowing teams to march down the field on non-takeaway drives.
While last year’s defense was also great in the red zone, they didn’t need red zone excellence to be successful on non-takeaway drives. They still ranked fourth-best in yards per drive and allowed the third-lowest score rate. Coupling that with elite red-zone defense made them flat-out dominant overall, but their ability to prevent teams from driving into scoring range gave them a high floor even if the red zone did not go their way. The 2023 defense has a low floor because it allows teams to get into scoring range fairly often.
It’s clear: The Jets defense must be better outside of generating takeaways and getting red zone stops. How can they do that? Let’s identify a few specific areas where they can improve.
Third-and-long pass defense
Dominating without takeaways comes down to one thing: succeeding on third down. The Jets, as previously mentioned, are not doing that right now. They rank 30th on third down, allowing a conversion 46.5% of the time.
New York is actually doing an excellent job of digging teams into deep holes on third down. The Jets’ opponents have faced an average of 7.5 yards to go on third down, tied for fourth-best. The problem is that they are not taking advantage of the favorable situations they have created for themselves.
With 6+ yards to go on third down, the Jets have allowed a conversion 38.2% of the time, the worst rate in the NFL. They have allowed 21 third-down conversions of at least six yards, a league-worst average of 3.5 per game.
This includes a particularly brutal 32% conversion rate with 10+ yards to go, ranking second-worst in the NFL. That is nearly double the league average of 16.5%. The Jets have allowed eight such conversions, more than one per game.
First-half run defense vs. QBs
The Jets are not playing well against the run this year, ranking 24th with 4.4 yards per rush attempt allowed. While this is slightly skewed by the 5.5 yards per rush attempt they are allowing to quarterbacks (31st), they are still ranked 18th with 4.1 yards per rush attempt allowed to non-quarterbacks.
Most of New York’s run-stopping woes have occurred in the first half. Before halftime, the Jets are ranked 29th with 5.5 yards per rush attempt allowed, including 7.0 by quarterbacks and 5.1 by non-quarterbacks. They are also ranked 32nd with 0.16 EPA per rush allowed.
After halftime, the Jets clamp down on the run game. In the second half, they are ranked 10th-best with 3.4 yards per rush attempt allowed and fourth-best with -0.24 EPA per rush allowed.
Improving the first-half run defense all starts with doing a better job of containing the quarterback. The Jets are allowing an NFL-worst 23.2 rushing yards per game to quarterbacks in the first half, significantly higher than the league average of 9.6. They are also ranked last with 1.7 rushing first downs per game allowed to quarterbacks in the first half, whereas the average team allows just 0.7.
This is something that should naturally improve due to the schedule. The Jets have already faced four of the top eight quarterbacks in rushing yards. Throughout their next 11 games, they will only face up to two more quarterbacks who are currently top eight in rushing yards: Daniel Jones and Josh Allen.
So, the quarterback issue should solve itself. But there is another chronic issue with the Jets’ first-half run defense that will require plenty of attention to be solved: outside runs.
First-half run defense vs. outside runs
On first-half carries by running backs that went outside of the tackles, the Jets are ranked last in yards per attempt (8.1), EPA per attempt (0.25), and first-down rate (42.3%). They have allowed 11 first downs on these carries, which is nearly one per quarter (only the Packers have allowed more per game).
To eliminate their poor first halves against the run, the Jets need their edge defenders and defensive backs to come out in the first quarter with a specific focus on maintaining their outside responsibilities and forcing runners to go back inside toward the traffic. So far, running backs have been able to get to the edge at will in the first half of games, and that is one of the main reasons why teams are getting off to fast starts offensively against the Jets.
Are the edge defenders and defensive backs coming out of the gates trying to play hero ball instead of doing the dirty work correctly? That’s a purely speculative theory, but whatever the problem is, Jeff Ulbrich and the Jets seem to be aware of it because they continuously make the proper adjustments at halftime. New York is fourth-best with 2.5 yards per rush attempt allowed on outside RB carries in the second half.
Whatever they’re doing differently in the second half, it’s time to start figuring out how to do that for four quarters instead of two.
The Jets defense has the talent to be the league’s best, but it needs to iron out the finer details to get there
It’s been a treacherous road for the Jets defense to this point. They’ve already faced each of the top three pre-season Super Bowl favorites and four of the top six. To boot, they’ve faced each of the top three quarterbacks in last year’s MVP voting, and they had to face one of them without Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed. On top of that, they have had immense pressure placed upon them by a low-scoring offense.
What the Jets defense has accomplished so far despite all of those obstacles is nothing short of amazing. They have proven they can be the best defense in the NFL. But the key word in that previous sentence is “can.” Right now, they’re not the best defense in the NFL. There are a lot of issues that need to be cleaned up before they get there.
With a softer schedule ahead, it’s time for the Jets defense to erase all remaining doubts about its excellence. The quality-of-competition arguments will dissipate as early as this week – the Jets are about to face a Giants offense that ranks last in DVOA and points per game. Two weeks later, the Jets will face the Raiders’ 31st-ranked DVOA offense.
No more excuses. No more caveats. Just go out there and put up scintillating numbers that make it indisputable that you are an elite defense.
The takeaways and red zone stops will come and go. To ensure they remain consistent over the rest of the season, the Jets defense needs to start pumping up the third down stops and shaving off the yards – especially in the first half.
With six of their next 11 games against teams that are currently ranked no higher than 20th in offensive DVOA, we are about to find out if the Jets defense truly deserves to be in the No. 1 conversation.
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