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NY Jets defense’s collapse vs. WAS revealed vet free agent’s value

NY Jets, Defense, Commanders, Free Agent
Solomon Thomas, New York Jets, Getty Images

The New York Jets felt the absence of this impending free agent

Midway through the third quarter on Christmas Eve, the New York Jets’ elite defense was well on its way to another vintage performance.

Through their first 10 offensive drives, the Sam Howell-led Commanders offense generated seven punts and two turnovers while mustering up just 89 total yards. Washington managed to score one touchdown, but that came on a drive where they got the ball at the Jets’ 12-yard line.

Then, Jacoby Brissett trotted onto the field – and everything changed. With Brissett under center, the Jets’ defense had no answers for Washington. New York’s elite unit wound up recording its worst second-half performance of the 2023 season.

Brissett led the Commanders to a touchdown on each of his first three drives. The first of those only required 29 yards due to a 52-yard interception return by Washington linebacker Cody Barton, but the Brissett-led unit marched down the field with ease after that. Brissett followed up the initial touchdown with a nine-play, 77-yard touchdown drive and completed the hat trick with a six-play, 83-yard touchdown drive.

Altogether, across his first three drives in the game, Brissett led the Commanders to 21 points and 189 yards in just 10 minutes and 57 seconds of possession time. This was easily the worst stretch of the season for the Jets’ defense. It’s the most touchdowns and points they have allowed in a single half all season – let alone with all of that coming in a span of just three drives. The performance is especially disappointing when you consider it came against a struggling Commanders team.

There were a multitude of reasons for Washington’s sudden success under Brissett. Many of them were just momentary lapses from players who have otherwise been excellent for the majority of the season, so it’s not necessarily anything to worry about for the team’s long-term outlook.

However, I think one aspect of the collapse stands out as an important takeaway for the Jets’ future: the impact of Quinton Jefferson’s absence.

Quinton Jefferson’s value to the Jets was proven against Washington

After being placed on injured reserve with a hip ailment, the 30-year-old defensive tackle missed his first game of the season. This was the first time that we saw the Jets’ defense operate for a full game without Quinnen Williams’ veteran sidekick, and his absence was felt.

Without Jefferson, the Jets pushed Solomon Thomas (who is usually the No. 3 DT) up to the No. 2 spot on the DT depth chart. Practice squad call-up Jalyn Holmes filled Thomas’ shoes while defensive end Micheal Clemons kicked inside to fill the fourth interior spot.

Jefferson’s absence caused a negative trickle-down effect. Each level of the depth chart experienced a decline in impact compared to its usual level.

Thomas is having a solid season for the Jets in his role as the third defensive tackle. However, his efficiency suffered against Washington whilst having to take on a larger role than he usually does. Thomas played 39 defensive snaps on a 64% ratio – his season averages are 27.7 and 41%.

The increase in snap-count volume led to a decline in production. Thomas, who entered the game with a good pressure rate of 9.4% (which ranked 34th out of 104 qualified DT), finished with zero pressures on a season-high 24 pass-rush snaps against Washington.

This certainly hurt the Jets’ pass rush, as in the same role, Jefferson was averaging 2.2 pressures per game with eight sacks across 13 healthy appearances. One of the Jets’ biggest issues against Brissett was the fact that they never brought him down for a sack; the decline in pass-rush juice from Jefferson to Thomas is a big reason why they couldn’t get it done.

Thomas also performed poorly against the run. He typically isn’t the greatest run-stuffer anyway, but he was particularly porous against the Commanders, earning a PFF run-defense grade of 29.4 that stands as his second-worst of the season.

On film, you can see that Thomas was at least partially at fault for allowing each of Washington’s three rushing touchdowns. The Commanders ran straight past him on each of the two goal-line touchdowns, and on Chris Rodriguez’s 12-yard score, Thomas missed a tackle in the backfield.

Jefferson is no star as a run defender, but he’s a good fit in the Jets’ penetrating defensive scheme, which allowed him to defend the run at essentially an average level this year.

The Jets allowed 4.0 yards per rush attempt with Jefferson on the field, which is actually a tad lower than the 4.1 yards per attempt they’ve allowed with him off the field. Jefferson also has a run-stop rate of 6.5%, which ranks 69th out of the 128 defensive tackles with at least 100 run-defense snaps (46th percentile). His net-zero run defense allows him to make a positive impact through his strong pass rushing.

Between Thomas’ non-existent pass rushing and lowly run defense, he was a substantial downgrade compared to Jefferson in both phases as the No. 2 DT. It didn’t seem like Thomas was capable of handling the high-volume role.

Moving down the depth chart, the Jets also saw a downgrade from Thomas’ usual production to Holmes. The Jets missed the above-average impact that Thomas typically provides in the third spot.

Filling Thomas’ role, Holmes had zero pressures on eight pass-rush snaps. Holmes also struggled against the run, getting a PFF run-defense grade of 48.0. The Commanders averaged 6.7 yards per rush attempt with Holmes on the field, the highest mark of any Jets defender in the game.

Finally, Clemons did not make much of an impact as a full-time defensive tackle. He had zero pressures on nine pass-rush snaps and earned a 51.6 PFF run-defense grade. Clemons did record an assisted tackle on one stuffed run at the line of scrimmage, but the Commanders ran directly at him on Rodriguez’s 12-yard touchdown, successfully plowing him out of the way with a double team (seen in the third clip above).

Jefferson is set to hit free agency this offseason. He already proved his value to the Jets through his own individual performance when on the field, but the impact of his absence only further established how important he is to this defense.

New York would be wise to prioritize re-signing Jefferson this offseason.

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