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Is NY Jets’ run defense a significant concern?

Haason Reddick, Javon Kinlaw, Chuck Clark, Leki Fotu, New York Jets
Haason Reddick, Javon Kinlaw, Chuck Clark, Leki Fotu, New York Jets, Getty Images, Jet X Graphic

The New York Jets lost two of their best run defenders in the offseason

The main building blocks of the New York Jets’ defense are their pass rush and cornerback play. Quinnen Williams and Sauce Gardner are their best defensive players, leading the Jets to back-to-back top-five defensive finishes in 2022-23. While there are some questions about the pass rush after the Jets lost their top three pressure generators from 2023, it still projects to be a top unit, and the cornerback unit remains the top in football.

The biggest concern for the Jets’ defense in 2024, though, is their run defense. They ranked 14th in run defense DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, an efficiency metric adjusted for opponent and game context) in 2023. They also ranked 11th in Pro Football Focus team run defense grade. That doesn’t tell the full story, though.

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, the Jets allowed 20 rushes with at least 10 rush yards over expected (RYOE, measuring rush yards gained compared to what would be expected based on blocking), tied for the seventh-worst in the NFL. They had the second-lowest stuff rate (rate of rushes stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage) at just 23%, and they ranked 28th in open field yards allowed (yards gained over 10 yards past the line of scrimmage) per rush at 0.96.

Furthermore, the Jets’ run defense struggled the most when the game was within reach. When the win probability in the game was between 20-80%, the Jets allowed 18 explosive runs (15+ yards), tied for the fourth-worst in the league. They allowed the ninth-highest explosive run rate (6.02%) in those situations.

How will the Jets’ run defense change from 2023 to 2024? How much of a concern is this, really?

Lost run defense manpower

With the departures of Al Woods and John Franklin-Myers, the Jets lost two of their best run defenders from 2023. PFF didn’t think particularly highly of either player’s performance, grading Woods at 55.4 (72/151 qualifiers, min. 70 run defense snaps) and Franklin-Myers at 64.3 (38th/70, min. 175 snaps). Still, film-wise, both players had an outsized impact compared to their counting stats. They clogged holes and forced runs into the teeth of the defense.

Both players’ replacements are projected downgrades as run defenders. Leki Fotu, Woods’ prospective successor, had a 40.7 PFF run defense grade, ranking 87th out of 97 interior defensive linemen (min. 160 run defense snaps). Despite his size at 334 pounds, Fotu is far more movable in the run game than Woods was.

Meanwhile, Haason Reddick’s run defense is better than his reputation, but his 240-pound frame makes him largely boom-or-bust: he makes many tackles for loss due to his speed but can also be moved on the edge. His 64.0 PFF run defense grade was better than Franklin-Myers’, but his actual performance was inferior.

Another projected run defense downgrade is from Quinton Jefferson to Javon Kinlaw. Jefferson has historically been a bad run defender, and he was no different in 2023, posting a 38.7 PFF grade. Jefferson played 16 run defense snaps per game, a significant chunk of the total run defense snaps. Kinlaw, his replacement, is somehow worse, posting a 31.3 PFF grade.

Between Woods, Franklin-Myers, and Jefferson, that’s 562 snaps allotted to potential run defense downgrades upfront. There’s certainly a reason for concern.


At the same time, the Jets will upgrade run defense in a couple of areas. For one thing, Will McDonald is a far better run defender than Bryce Huff. While McDonald could stand to add strength at the NFL level, he holds his own and reads the run far better than Huff does. There’s a reason McDonald saw run plays on 44.8% of his snaps compared to 27.9% for Huff. The difference between their PFF run defense grades was 63.2 to 48.0. It’s not a huge difference — Huff had just 134 run defense snaps in 2023 — but improving from atrocious to average could be important.

The other major difference is the change from Jordan Whitehead to Chuck Clark. While Whitehead makes more splash plays than Clark (4.3% stop rate in 2023 vs. Clark’s 2.6% in 2022), he also misses far more tackles (14.9% in the run game in 2023 vs. Clark’s 6.9% in 2022). Considering that the Jets’ biggest issue in the run game was explosive plays, the improvement in safety surehandedness could limit their deficits in that area and have an outsized impact on their run defense.

Biggest question marks

Tony Adams was another higher-variance safety in the run game for the Jets. His 4.5% run stop rate ranked 9th out of 66 qualified safeties (min. 200 run defense snaps), and his 12.5% missed tackle rate ranked 33rd. If Adams can improve his tackling angles with another year of seasoning, that could further limit the big plays the Jets give up.

Furthermore, the Jets’ cornerbacks have a big impact on limiting explosive run plays. Sauce Gardner had a dreadful year in that area, ranking 64th out of 83 qualifiers (min. 200 run defense snaps) with a 57.0 grade. Compared to his 69.2 grade in 2022, that was a significant decline. While his tackling improved as the season went on, he let running backs turn the corner for big gains far too often. Michael Carter II also declined from a 78.4 grade in 2022 to 63.5, although his missed tackle rate improved (15.8% to 4.8%). On the flip side, though, D.J. Reed’s run defense improved from 47.2 in 2022 to 70.2 in 2023. If all three cornerbacks play average run defense in 2023, that could raise the floor of the Jets’ run defense.

Micheal Clemons was a tremendous disappointment as a run defender in 2023 in an increased role. Clemons was PFF’s highest-graded edge run defender in the NFL in 2022 at 86.4 on 164 snaps. In 2023, though, he posted just a 66.3 grade on 210 snaps. The biggest difference was his missed tackle rate, which went from 0% in 2022 to 16.1% in 2023. Clemons has reportedly slimmed back down after bulking up to 286 in the 2023 offseason; whether or not his run defense improves again with it will be a major factor for the Jets.

More leads

The Jets had to play more run defense than they had hoped for in 2023 due to constantly trailing. They drafted McDonald with the hope that he could play in obvious pass rush situations, but there weren’t enough of them to give McDonald more playing time.

With the return of Aaron Rodgers and the improvements in the receiving corps and offensive line, the Jets project to hold more leads in 2023. That would mean the run defense just doesn’t matter that much.

How much does run defense matter?

Despite some sacrifices in the run game, the Jets’ overall defense was better in 2023 than in 2022. Their overall defense DVOA improved from -9.5% to -14.2% despite a decline in run defense DVOA from -14% to -10.5%.

As I explained in a previous article, “There’s a reason that the league-average pass defense DVOA in 2023 was 4.4% while the run defense average was -6.4%: pass defense is usually far less efficient than run defense. The fact that the Jets’ pass defense provided 21.9% more DVOA value than average fully outweighed the small decrease in run defense DVOA.”

Therefore, there may be more reason to be concerned about the pass rush drop-off from Jefferson to Kinlaw and Huff to McDonald than the overall run defense drop-off.

So how concerning is it?

There are definitely reasons to be worried about the Jets’ run defense in 2024. Losing Franklin-Myers is a big blow, and there are a number of low-floor run defenders on the team. Still, the Jets have managed at least middle-of-the-road run defense efficiency in back-to-back seasons with an atrocious offense. They will likely give up too many big plays for comfort and struggle with run stuffs.

Overall, though, if the Jets’ pass rush maintains its superiority from 2022-23, the run defense shouldn’t matter enough to impact games.

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15 days ago

I’m a little puzzled. In the first section, you say that the Jets run defense “fell apart when the game was within reach” and that they gave up explosive runs in those situations at the fourth worse rate in the league. There is nothing more deflating than to see a team maybe behind by one score or less with 2 minutes left give up a huge run on 3rd or fourth down to put the game out of reach, and the Jets did that at least once or twice last season. But then you say at the end that the poor run defense should not matter enough to impact games. I don’t get it. I hope the Jets management isn’t thinking the same way, but it kind of seems like they are so far. It would be a real shame to see a team that is as good as the Jets are on paper be undermined by such a fundamental thing as run defense.