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One overlooked factor could ultimately decide Jets-Giants

Xavier GIpson, NY Jets, Punt Return, Stats, Special Teams
Xavier Gipson, New York Jets, Getty Images

In the matchup between the New York Jets and their crosstown rivals, the little things could reign supreme

And he’s gonna go! New York Jets win it!

That was Joe Buck’s call of Xavier Gipson‘s walk-off punt return touchdown in Week 1 against the Bills. It was one of the most exciting special teams moments in Jets history.

That’s been part of the story for the 2023 Jets, though — a lot of strong special teams play. It may be one of the main reasons that they’ve been able to keep games close. That’s a radical departure from 2022 when many aspects of their special teams play fell apart.

The New York Giants, on the other hand, are going in the opposite direction. They came into the season with major questions on special teams, and those fears have been more than confirmed.

In the Battle of MetLife, 2023 edition, victory may well come down to special teams superiority. The Jets seemingly have the edge in that area. Can they keep it going in Week 8?

Kicking and punting

Michael Nania already detailed how well Greg Zuerlein and Thomas Morstead have been playing. Zuerlein has made 14 of 15 field goals this season (93.3%) and all of his extra points. He’s also garnered a touchback on all 23 of his kickoffs.

Meanwhile, Morstead ranks sixth out of 34 punters in net punt average at 44.3, largely because he’s allowing returns only 34.5% of the time (9th). The 6.2 yards per return on his punts is sixth-best, and he ranks second with 12 fair catches against. His numbers are top-10 in many other metrics, as well.

For the Giants, Graham Gano has had his struggles this season after being nearly perfect in 2022. Gano’s first kick of the season was blocked and returned for a touchdown, but his next field goal attempt was a 37-yard miss. Overall, Gano is 10 of 14 this season, a 71.4% rate that ranks 30th out of 32 qualified kickers. Three of those misses were from under 50 yards (although one was the block).

Gano also has 21 touchbacks on 25 kickoffs. Since those four returns have a 28.0 average, though, his opponents’ starting field position is 25.6, which is eighth-worst among kickers.

Punter Jamie Gillan is having an excellent year for the Giants and has been their lone bright spot on special teams. He is averaging 45.0 net yards per punt, ranked third in the NFL. He’s tied with Morstead with 14 punts downed inside the 20 and leads the NFL with 14 fair catches. He’s middle-of-the-pack in terms of return rate and yards per return, but his other numbers are outstanding.

Coverage

The Jets haven’t had to worry about kickoff coverage, while the Giants have defended only four. Three of them have been returned to the 28, 28, and 38-yard line, though. It’s not a big deal, necessarily, but Gipson does have a 30-yard kick return this year.

Punt coverage is more of a toss-up. Gillan has been so dominant this year that even with his 7.5 yards per punt return average, he still has a better net average than Morstead. Still, Morstead’s combination of an excellent net average and very few yards per return allowed indicates that both he and his coverage have done a good job.

It’s worth mentioning that the Jets’ special teams coverage was still strong even without one or both of their gunners. Justin Hardee and Brandin Echols have each missed time, but the team didn’t miss a beat, largely thanks to Irv Charles.

Overall, this part of the game has been strong for both teams, mainly thanks to their kickers and punters.

Returns

This is another tremendous difference. Xavier Gipson has quieted down after that walk-off touchdown in Week 1. Outside of his 65-yarder, he’s averaged 8.0 yards per return on his other nine attempts, which is certainly nothing special. He’s also muffed a punt that the Jets lost and fumbled on another punt return that the Jets recovered. He has six kick returns at a 23.8 return average, also unremarkable.

Still, that’s better than what the Giants have put out there. Rookie running back Eric Gray had two muffed punts, and Sterling Shepard muffed another one in Week 7. The Giants’ returners have 38 punt return yards on 10 attempts, a measly 3.8 yards per return. They also have five kickoff returns for 79 yards, a 15.8-yard average.

With Gray on injured reserve, the Giants signed veteran special teamer and returner Gunner Olszewski to their practice squad this week. It’s likely that he gets elevated this week. Olszewski has some thump as a punt returner; he averages 12.0 yards per return on 75 attempts across five seasons. He’s also been fairly reliable, with three muffs on 118 total fielded punts, or one every 39.3 (the league average is roughly one in 29).

Through this week, the Jets’ return game has been more solid and had higher upside than the Giants’. Olszewski could potentially shift that, though.

Penalties

Per nflpenalties.com, the Giants are tied for the third-most special teams penalties in the NFL with seven. They have the eighth-most special teams penalty yards with 55. The Jets, meanwhile, are tied for the fifth-fewest with three special teams penalties and second-fewest with just 15 special teams penalty yards.

This is one of the reasons the Jets’ average starting field position is the fourth-best in the NFL at 30.8, while the Giants’ is second-worst at 26.0. Turnovers and a generally better defense also play a role (as well as an ability to move the ball between the 20s), but the Jets don’t shoot themselves in the foot on special teams, while the Giants do.

Outlook

This feels like a game that will come down to the details. Neither team has a good offense or a good offensive line. It has the hallmarks of a defensive slugfest. In those kinds of games, special teams is often the difference-maker.

It’s certainly possible that one big special teams miscue will decide the game. While the Jets would seem to have the advantage in that area, they will need to keep it up to truly win New York supremacy.

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