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Two ways the NY Jets’ defense could get even better in 2024

Chuck Clark, NY Jets, NFL, Defense, Stats
Chuck Clark, New York Jets, Getty Images

The New York Jets could exceed their 2023 defensive heights

Yes, I’m worried about the New York Jets’ run defense in 2024. I’m as aware as anyone else of the weaknesses in their defensive tackle and safety rooms. Still, I think the Jets’ defense could be… better in 2024?

Allow me to explain. Neither of these points will be new to Jet X readers, but put them together and you have the potential for a truly elite defense.

Chuck Clark over Jordan Whitehead

Jordan Whitehead allowed seven of the 19 receiving touchdowns scored against the Jets in 2023. Five of Whitehead’s allowed touchdowns were to tight ends, to whom the Jets gave up a league-worst eight scores.

Chuck Clark’s strength is not necessarily his coverage, but if there’s one area of coverage where he is fairly strong, it’s covering tight ends. Clark allowed three total touchdowns to tight ends over his previous two seasons in Baltimore. He gave up just 122 yards on 27 targets (4.5 yards per target) with a 59.3% coverage success rate against the position.

Even more significant is the upgrade from Whitehead to Clark in the run game. Yes, Clark might not make those splash plays in the backfield that we’d see from Whitehead from time to time. Whitehead’s 4.3% run stop rate* from 2023 dwarfed Clark’s 2.6% from 2022.

a defensive stop is a tackle that constitutes a failure by the offense, which in the run game means gaining less than 40% of the required yards on first down, 50% on second down, and 100% on third/fourth down.

Still, Clark’s smart and conservative tackling angles, coupled with his surehanded wrap-up, will be a major upgrade from Whitehead’s miserable tackling. Michael Nania detailed how Clark scrapes over the top of plays rather than coming from a flat angle, making sure he’s in position to prevent further damage. Whitehead was the exact opposite, as I showed on many of the Jets’ worst run defense plays in 2023.

The Jets’ run defense might not be great, but Clark will be there to mitigate the worst of the damage.

Playing with more leads

Once again, Nania covered this in depth. Aaron Rodgers and the Jets’ offense can keep the defense both well-rested and in good situations to succeed. Offenses will be forced to pass more often, playing into the strength of the Jets’ defense, their pass coverage. Additionally, it will allow their pass rushers to pin their ears back rather than accounting for the run, which gives them a better chance of wreaking havoc.

In 2023, the Jets faced the fourth-fewest pass attempts per game (30.7) and the third-lowest opponent pass rate (52.4%). In the fourth quarter, that was 41.6%, also the third-lowest. Defenses have the best shot at creating big plays when opponents are desperate in the fourth quarter. The Jets did not have those opportunities in 2023.

Of all the Jets’ pass rushers, obvious pass-rushing situations should benefit Will McDonald the most. That will be McDonald’s specific role, which means more playing time for him. But more than that, McDonald contended with many rushing situations in his limited sample size as a rookie.

Only 55.2% of McDonald’s snaps were pass plays. He could not pin his ears back and rush the passer. Contrast that with Bryce Huff, who played this role in 2023; Huff played 69.4% of his plays against the pass. Huff’s pass rush efficiency decreased when he was asked to account for the run. With McDonald’s excellent pass rush win rate as a rookie, he could elevate his game tremendously with more opportunities in pass-only situations.

Remember, this was why the Jets drafted McDonald in the first place. His best stat in college was his wild pass rush win rate in true pass set* situations — 45.8%. He also forced 11 fumbles in college thanks to his 34⅞-inch arms (91st percentile among edge defenders). McDonald ranked 18th out of 127 defenders with a 22.7% true pass set pass rush win rate in  2023 (albeit in a tiny sample size), showing he can carry it over from college. The potential is there for McDonald to make many game-altering plays.

true pass sets are plays that isolate defender vs. offensive lineman without screens, fewer than four pass rushers, releases in under two seconds, or play-action.

Not trivial changes

It’s easy to look at the Jets’ run defense as a bigger problem than these two changes are solutions. Still, many of the best defenses in the NFL in 2023 were mediocre against the run in one way or another (including the Jets’). The thing is that they were rarely tested in run situations.

For example, the 49ers had Javon Kinlaw in the middle in 2023, the same player Jets fans are so worried about for his run defense. San Francisco ranked 15th in run defense DVOA*, one spot below the Jets. Overall, though, their defense ranked fourth in DVOA (also one spot below the Jets).

* DVOA stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. It is an efficiency metric adjusted for opponent and game context.

One way they overcame a mediocre run defense? By tying for the fewest rush attempts faced per game (22.8). Their run defense hardly mattered.

Clark’s improvement over Whitehead could solve two of the Jets’ biggest defensive issues: tackling and covering tight ends near the end zone. Again, Whitehead allowed 37% of the Jets’ receiving touchdowns in 2023. That’s potentially a massive upgrade.

I can’t say that I definitively expect the Jets’ defense to be better in 2024. There are definitely issues that could bring them down. Still, these two improvements could propel the Jets’ defense to the No. 1 spot in the entire league.

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