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5 overlooked issues that separate NY Jets defense from dominance

Sauce Gardner, NY Jets, Defense, Stats
Sauce Gardner, New York Jets, Getty Images

The New York Jets’ defense is great, but should not be treated as if it is untouchable

This New York Jets defense is fantastic. That statement is indisputable.

But to claim they are “dominant” would indeed be disputable based on their performance this year. For all the hype surrounding the Jets’ defense, they have shown some consistently exploitable flaws in 2023, especially this past week against the Buffalo Bills.

For once, the Jets’ defense was about as poor as the offense. According to Pro Football Reference, the Jets’ defense generated -14.64 expected points against Buffalo, which is a season-low and the unit’s second-lowest total since the start of 2022. The only game where the defense performed worse was Week 2 of the 2022 season, generating -17.92 points against the Browns.

We can excuse the Jets’ defense for one bad performance against the high-octane Bills since New York had previously dominated Buffalo’s offense to a level that is rivaled by no other team. Josh Allen was horrid in his previous three games against the Jets. Even with his strong performance this past Sunday, his overall body of work against the Jets remains very poor by his standards. Buffalo was due to make some noise against the Jets at some point, so we can cut the Jets some slack for this game.

Still, the Jets’ season-long defensive performance remains a tad underwhelming in comparison to the hype. When discussed by fans and media, the defense is typically treated as one of the league’s top-tier units, but that is not exactly the case.

The Jets’ defensive numbers are great. They’re fifth-best in defensive DVOA, fifth-best in points allowed per drive, and sixth-best in total expected points added defensively. However, they’re a long way off from the league’s top-tier defenses, namely Baltimore and Cleveland. In most metrics, they’re closer to the league’s 10th-best defense than they are to the league’s best or second-best.

DVOA (via FTN Fantasy):

  1. Cleveland (-29.8%)
  2. Baltimore (-22.9%)
  3. Dallas (-12.9%)
  4. Kansas City (-12.6%)
  5. NY Jets (-11.0%)
  6. Jacksonville (-11.0%)
  7. Pittsburgh (-7.9%)
  8. San Francisco (-6.5%)
  9. Detroit (-4.1%)
  10. New Orleans (-2.8%)

Points allowed per drive:

  1. Cleveland (1.24)
  2. Baltimore (1.29)
  3. Kansas City (1.40)
  4. San Francisco (1.55)
  5. NY Jets (1.59)
  6. New Orleans (1.60)
  7. Buffalo (1.61)
  8. Dallas (1.62)
  9. Jacksonville (1.65)
  10. Pittsburgh (1.68)

Expected points added defensively per game (via Pro Football Reference)

  1. Cleveland (8.86)
  2. Baltimore (6.78)
  3. Dallas (5.43)
  4. Kansas City (3.24)
  5. San Francisco (3.23)
  6. NY Jets (2.21)
  7. New Orleans (1.93)
  8. Jacksonville (0.81)
  9. Pittsburgh (0.74)
  10. Buffalo (0.49)

The point here is not to say the Jets’ defense is bad, mediocre, or even above-average. It is indisputably great, as I previously said. However, it feels as if the defense is treated as some sort of immaculate juggernaut that has no flaws, whereas in reality, the Jets are a tier or two behind that level. The Browns and Ravens exemplify what that type of defensive dominance looks like. The Jets are not close to that level.

Playing with a bad offense certainly harms the Jets’ defense, but the Browns also have a bad offense (28th in DVOA and 30th in yards per play), yet it has not stopped their defense from achieving complete dominance. The issues separating the Jets’ defense from reaching the pinnacle are largely within their own control and independent of the offense’s struggles.

The Jets have the defensive talent to be just as impeccable as the Browns and Ravens. How can they get over the final hump and fulfill their defensive ceiling?

Here are some of the issues that separate the Jets from joining Cleveland and Baltimore among the NFL’s truly unbeatable defenses. Some of these issues can be figured out in-season and some will have to wait until the 2024 offseason.

Bad tackling

The Jets are not doing a good job of wrapping up. According to Pro Football Reference, the Jets have missed 7.7 tackles per game this season, ranking as the third-most in the NFL.

Many of the Jets’ worst defensive plays this season were a result of bad tackling.

The primary culprit is Sauce Gardner. Gardner’s 10 missed tackles rank third on the team behind Quincy Williams and Jordan Whitehead (11 apiece), but Williams and Whitehead make a higher volume of tackles by the nature of their positions. Gardner’s 23.8% missed tackle rate is the worst on the team and ranks third-worst in the NFL among the 95 cornerbacks who have played at least 300 snaps.

I’ve noticed that Gardner has a very strong tendency to try and go for punch-outs this season instead of wrapping up. Perhaps the offense’s ineptitude has Gardner feeling like he needs to take risks and try to force turnovers if the Jets want to win games. If true, that’s a fair thought process – he’s right, after all – but it doesn’t necessarily excuse such a high rate of missed tackles. Gardner is good for one or two bad whiffs per game this season. It’s a weekly occurrence and he has to fix it.

Gardner was an excellent tackler in 2022, missing just six tackles in 17 games with a missed tackle rate of 7.6%. He’s gotten sloppy this year and must clean it up if he wants to help the Jets become a truly elite defense.

Fortunately for the Jets, Gardner’s past success as a tackler provides hope that he can turn things around over the final seven games. It’s somewhat comforting to know that one of the defense’s worst issues can be primarily attributed to a star player who has previously succeeded in the same area. That’s better than if the issue could be blamed on a lack of talent, which means the issue could not be fixed in-season.

Safety duo

The Jets’ safety duo of Jordan Whitehead and Tony Adams is a weakness. New York is stacked with talent across the rest of the defense, but the hole at safety separates the Jets from teams like Cleveland and Baltimore who are loaded from front to back.

Choosing to run it back with Whitehead was a risky decision after his rough season in 2022 and the Jets are paying the price. Sure, Whitehead has snagged four interceptions (three coming in one game), but he has also allowed six touchdowns into his coverage, per Pro Football Focus, which ranks as the most among safeties. No other safety has allowed more than four.

The young Adams has shown glimpses of potential, but for the most part, the Jets’ gamble to start an unproven second-year UDFA has not paid off. Adams has taken a lot of poor angles as the last line of the defense in the open field, causing big plays to become enormous plays.

Adams still has plenty of potential – he’s allowed zero touchdown receptions into his coverage, committed zero penalties, and made some good stops against the run – but overall, he’s been a below-average starter this year due to his propensity for poor open-field tackling.

Among 74 qualified safeties, Whitehead has the 16th-highest missed tackle rate (16.2%) and Adams has the 19th-highest (15.5%). They are the next culprits in line after Gardner when it comes to the Jets’ tackling woes. Perhaps Adams can shore up his tackling technique as he gains experience, but Whitehead has been a poor tackler for a long time now, so the Jets just have to deal with that for seven more games.

Look for the Jets to target an upgrade(s) at safety this offseason.

Loss of Al Woods

While Al Woods was a massive liability as a pass rusher for the Jets, he did help them out against the run. The Jets allowed 3.1 yards per rush with Woods on the field and are allowing 4.5 with him off. That’s a margin of -1.4, which is tied for the best of any player on the team who has spent an adequate amount of time both on and off the field (save for players who have only played a handful of snaps or C.J. Mosley, who was only off the field for a handful of snaps).

  • Al Woods, -1.4 (3.1 on, 4.5 off)
  • Jamien Sherwood, -1.4 (3.1 on, 4.5 off)
  • Brandin Echols, -1.3 (3.1 on, 4.3 off)
  • Micheal Clemons, -0.7 (3.8 on, 4.5 off)

The Jets have missed Woods since his final game against the Giants. His replacement, Tanzel Smart, has been a massive downgrade against the run. New York is allowing 4.8 yards per rush with Smart on the field compared to 4.1 with him off. His +0.7 margin is the worst of any defensive tackle on the team.

A downgrade against the run was expected when switching from Woods to Smart, but the hope was that Smart would make up for that by providing an upgrade against the pass. Smart hasn’t done that, as he is yet to record a pressure over three games. Because of his equally non-existent pass rushing, Smart has been an overall downgrade from Woods.

The drop-off from Woods to Smart highlights the importance of having a good run-stuffing specialist in the Jets’ interior defensive line rotation. In the future, the Jets should ideally find a run stuffer who is a better scheme fit than Woods (more athletic and explosive) and isn’t quite as incapable of a pass rusher, but I admittedly overlooked the positive impact he was making against the run. Without a Woods-type in the lineup, the Jets’ run defense is soft up the middle.

Covering running backs

Buffalo’s performance on Sunday was a masterclass in exploiting the holes in this Jets defense. New offensive coordinator Joe Brady hammered every type of play that we see the Jets consistently struggle to defend.

Spearheading Brady’s game plan was an emphasis on using the running backs in the passing game. That has always been a huge problem for the Jets since Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich took over, and the issue persists today.

Running backs James Cook and Ty Johnson combined for six receptions on seven targets for 76 yards and two touchdowns. On the season, the Jets now rank sixth-worst in the NFL with 44.0 receiving yards per game allowed to running backs.

Against Buffalo, C.J. Mosley and Jordan Whitehead were the main culprits. Mosley allowed a five-yard touchdown reception to Cook while Whitehead allowed a 28-yard touchdown reception to Johnson.

Mosley has been a consistent culprit in this department throughout the season. While Mosley has had a strong season overall as a tackler (5.4% missed tackle rate) and playmaker (8th among LB with 38 stops), his coverage has declined at this stage of his career, especially as it pertains to allowing yardage after the catch (which is where RBs primarily feast). Mosley has allowed 7.5 yards after the catch per reception, ranking 56th among the 69 linebackers with at least 300 snaps. Comparatively, Quincy Williams is 19th at 5.3.

Finishing sacks

The Jets are one of the best pass rushing teams in the NFL thanks to their incredible consistency at generating pressure. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, the Jets have the league’s second-best pressure rate at 43.0%.

That’s a tremendous feat and plays a large role in the Jets’ overall defensive success. However, if the Jets want to become a defense that truly dominates games, they have to start converting more of their pressures into sacks.

While the Jets are second-best in pressure rate, they are only 13th in sack rate, recording a sack on 7.0% of opposing dropbacks. They are also just 17th with 2.6 sacks per game. The disparity between their pressure rate and sack production is caused by a low sack conversion rate. Only 26 of their 160 pressures have resulted in a sack, a rate of 16.3% that ranks 22nd in the NFL.

The Jets’ weakness in this department is odd, as it’s not like they are backed by a poor coverage unit that allows teams to get the ball out quickly (making it hard to finish sacks). Despite some flaws, the Jets’ coverage unit is outstanding overall thanks to the league’s best cornerback trio. This has caused opponents to average 2.94 seconds from snap to throw, ranking fifth-highest in the league. Opponents are holding the ball against New York. Yet, the Jets still aren’t finishing sacks. Considering this, it seems the Jets are just flat-out whiffing.

Here is why sack conversion is so important for becoming a dominant defense: Causing pressure usually leads to a good result for the defense, but getting a sack always leads to a good result. The Jets’ low sack conversion rate tells us they are allowing too many pressured dropbacks to result in a pass attempt or scramble, which means they are allowing some positive plays in situations where other defenses would have finished with a sack.

The Jets’ struggles with defending quarterback runs can be traced back to their low sack conversion rate. The Jets have allowed the quarterback to scramble on 8.8% of pressured dropbacks, which is the sixth-highest rate in the NFL. These scrambles have generally led to great results for the offense, as the Jets have allowed the fourth-most rushing yards (227) and the third-most total EPA (20.0) on quarterback scrambles. Turning some of those scrambles into sacks would work wonders for this defense.

Cleveland and Baltimore exemplify the importance of finishing sacks. Both teams are great at causing pressure, as Cleveland is third in pressure rate (42.7%) and Baltimore is eighth (39.3%), but they are also great at turning those pressures into sacks. The Browns are third in sack conversion rate (24.4%) and the Ravens are fifth (23.8%).

Thus, with a high pressure rate and a high sack conversion rate, both teams are elite at generating sacks. Cleveland has an NFL-high sack rate of 10.4% while Baltimore is fourth at 9.3%.

If the Jets converted sacks at the rate of Cleveland and Baltimore, they would be amassing a ridiculous number of sacks. Let’s say the Jets had a 24.1% sack conversion rate (right in between the Browns and Ravens) across their 160 pressured dropbacks. At that rate, the Jets would have 39 sacks, which is 13 more than they actually have. Their sack rate would be an NFL-best 10.5% and they would rank second in sacks per game at 3.9 (behind the Ravens’ 4.0).

The Jets’ inability to turn pressures into sacks is the only thing standing between them having a great pass rush and the league’s unquestionable No. 1 pass rush.

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6 months ago

Very good article Michael, great points.
Fellow reader Robert Papalia makes a good point as well, how much better would this defense be if the offense was able to provide some long drives and rest?

Robert Papalia
6 months ago

Very good article. However if the Jets has any kind of offense they would have a winning record and fighting Miami for the division crown.