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Would it even matter if NY Jets’ run defense struggles?

Isiah Pacheco, NY Jets, Run Defense, Rank
Isiah Pacheco, New York Jets, Getty Images

The New York Jets can thrive with a mediocre run defense

I’ll be honest: I have concerns about the New York Jets’ run defense going into 2024.

On the interior, the Jets are soft beyond Quinnen Williams. None of Javon Kinlaw, Leki Fotu, or Solomon Thomas are known for being quality run-stuffers who can hold their ground and plug gaps.

On the outside, the Jets lost their strongest edge-setter over the past two seasons, John Franklin-Myers, who quietly played a big role in helping New York thwart the outside run game. They didn’t add anybody who is capable of replicating Franklin-Myers’ ground-game impact.

That’s not to say I think it will be a “bad” run defense. The Jets are anchored by a quartet of strong run stuffers: Quinnen Williams, Quincy Williams, C.J. Mosley, and Jermaine Johnson. With these guys on the squad, I can’t see the Jets’ run defense being anywhere close to abysmal. Last season, they were 14th in run defense DVOA and 11th in yards per carry allowed despite similar issues, so it’s difficult to see them dropping too far.

Having said that, I can envision the Jets’ holes dropping their run defense to an average or slightly below-average level. They were only middle-of-the-pack last year, so with the (on paper) downgrades from Quinton Jefferson and Al Woods to Javon Kinlaw and Leki Fotu, along with the loss of Franklin-Myers, it’s not far-fetched to think they could drop a handful of spots into the late teens or early twenties in key run defense categories.

But would it even matter?

For a few reasons, the Jets’ shaky outlook in the run game isn’t something that fans should lose sleep over.

1. You can be an elite defense (and team) without a great run defense

Out of the four primary facets of football (pass offense, pass defense, run offense, run defense), run defense is arguably the least important. You can still be an elite overall team while struggling to stop the run. In fact, you can still field an elite overall defense while being vulnerable on the ground. We see plenty of examples every year.

The 2023 season featured a collection of elite teams – particularly elite defensive teams – that ranked poorly against the run (in terms of per-play efficiency). The Super Bowl champion Chiefs ranked 24th in yards per carry allowed at 4.46. The AFC runner-up Ravens were 25th at 4.48. Despite these rankings, Baltimore had the league’s top-ranked overall defense based on DVOA, while Kansas City was seventh-best.

The Browns went 11-6 and had a top-two overall defense by most measures, ranking second in defensive DVOA, second in points allowed per drive, and first in yards per game allowed. Yet they were 19th in yards per carry allowed (4.27).

The Bills went 11-6, allowed the fourth-fewest points per game, and were 12th in defensive DVOA, yet they ranked 28th in yards per carry allowed.

Ultimately, of the 16 worst teams in yards per carry allowed, 11 of them had a winning record:

  • 32. Denver (4.97), 8-9
  • 31. NY Giants (4.74), 6-11
  • 30. Cincinnati (4.70), 9-8
  • 29. Arizona (4.67), 4-13
  • 28. Buffalo (4.60), 11-6
  • 27. Seattle (4.57), 9-8
  • 26. Washington (4.49), 4-13
  • 25. Baltimore (4.48), 14-3
  • 24. Kansas City (4.46), 11-6
  • 23. Green Bay (4.42), 9-8
  • 22. New Orleans (4.41), 9-8
  • 21. Pittsburgh (4.31), 10-7
  • 20. Philadelphia (4.29), 11-6
  • 19. Cleveland (4.27), 11-6
  • 18. Las Vegas (4.21), 8-9
  • 17. LA Rams (4.19), 9-8

The combined record of the 16 worst teams in yards per carry allowed was 143-129 (.526). Compare this to the combined records of the 16 worst teams in the other three phases, using similar metrics:

  • Net yards per pass attempt allowed (Pass defense): 126-146 (.463)
  • Net yards per pass attempt (Pass offense): 107-165 (.393)
  • Yards per carry (Rush offense): 127-145 (.467)

Unsurprisingly, pass offense is the costliest facet to be below-average in, with bottom-16 teams in net yards per pass attempt combining for a .393 win percentage. Bottom-16 teams in rush offense (yards per carry) and pass defense (net yards per pass attempt) weren’t as doomed as bad passing offenses, but both had losing records. Yards per carry allowed was the only category of the four in which bottom-16 teams combined for a winning record. It wasn’t even particularly close; they were 17 wins ahead of the closest stat (yards per carry).

Struggling to stop the run is easily the most manageable issue among football’s four primary facets.

2. Teams won’t run against the Jets as often, allowing the Jets’ elite pass defense to outweigh the run defense

Generally speaking, the better your team is, the less important run defense becomes. Why? It’s simple: The more time you spend in the lead, the heavier your opponent’s run-pass split will skew toward passing.

As we recently discussed, the Jets were on the wrong end of this spectrum in 2023. With an awful offense that couldn’t build leads, the Jets’ opponents passed on only 52.4% of their plays, third-lowest in the NFL. This rate dropped to 41.6% in the fourth quarter, also third-lowest.

The 30th-ranked opponent pass-play rate was a negative formula for a Jets defense that was much more productive against the pass (3rd in pass defense DVOA) than against the run (14th in run defense DVOA). The Jets had a top-three pass defense, but they used it less often than 29 other teams. Meanwhile, their run defense was only about average, but they were forced to use it more often than 29 other teams.

Even if the Jets’ offense is (worst-case scenario) mediocre, they’ll achieve a much healthier opponent run-pass split in 2024, creating more opportunities for their strength to shine while decreasing the number of times their weakness will be placed in the limelight.

Look at the Browns, for example. While their defense was elite, their offense was, quite frankly, very bad, ranking 28th in offensive DVOA at -12.3%. Yet, even that was miles ahead of the Jets’ 32nd-ranked offensive DVOA of -29.9%. The gap between Cleveland and New York was 17.7%, larger than the gap between 28th-ranked Cleveland and 13th-ranked Indianapolis (1.9%). Simply by having an offense that was bad-yet-not-historically-bad, the Browns managed to force their opponents into passing on 57.8% of their plays, ranked 14th-highest, including 63.6% in the fourth quarter.

If the Jets field a legitimately strong offense, as they hope to do, they could tilt the split even further in their favor. Look at the Ravens, another elite defensive team that ranked poorly in yards per carry allowed (25th) but thrived against the pass (1st in net yards per pass attempt allowed). On the strength of the NFL’s fourth-best offense (per DVOA), Baltimore’s opponents passed on 62.5% of their plays overall and 72.5% in the fourth quarter.

This is why many great defenses manage to achieve excellence despite allowing good efficiency on the ground. Their dominance in the passing game severely outweighs their struggles in the run game since pass plays are far more common. If you have an elite pass defense, then as long as your offense is not catastrophically inept, you can force your opponent to pass on about three-fifths of their plays overall. Good offensive teams can push it above 70% in the fourth quarter.

While it’s possible to be an elite defensive team with an elite pass defense but a mediocre run defense, the inverse is impossible. New York has the crucial part figured out. While it would be great if they could find a way to dominate in both phases, it’s not the end of the world if their run defense is middling – as long as the pass defense maintains its excellence.

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