Lichtenstein: Jets Defense Also Has Something To Prove

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When compared to the dumpster fire that has been the Jets offense this season, everything else with this team appears golden.

That includes Gang Green’s defense, which, statistically speaking, seems to be holding up its end of the commitment through the four losses to open this season. This despite the field position handicaps foisted upon them by the worst attack in the game. They’re ranked in the middle of the league in most defensive rankings, including yards and third-down success. The Jets’ 28th-placed sack total (6) is the exception.

Most importantly, the defense is unexpectedly not hemorrhaging points. Not counting the two Eagles pick-sixes on Sunday, the Jets are yielding a very reasonable 21.8 points per game. They’ve even contributed two interception return touchdowns themselves, the same point total New York’s offense has produced this season. 

This evidence has led some to believe that once the Jets develop into something better than a high-school offense, maybe as early as this Sunday against the Cowboys when starting quarterback Sam Darnold returns to the field after missing the last three games recovering from mononucleosis, that all will return to normal. 

Well, normal for other NFL teams.

Don’t rush to your local betting parlor. In games that are decided by halftime, statistics can be very misleading.

After 30 minutes of their last three games, the Jets have trailed 21-0, 20-0 and 16-3 to Philadelphia, New England and Cleveland, respectively. In each case, the opponents’ pass/run ratios were 2:1 or 3:1 in the first half and 1:1 or 1:1.5 in the second half, suggesting that they took their feet off the gas. Maybe the knowledge that Jets quarterback Luke Falk wasn’t going to beat them turned their focus to, “Let’s keep the clock moving and get out of here without getting anyone hurt.” Even New England coach Bill Belichick, well-known for piling it on, went off script by replacing QB Tom Brady with his club well-ahead in the fourth quarter. One Jamal Adams pick-six later on an awful Jarrett Stidham throw and it was back to Brady.

New York Jets strong safety Jamal Adams (33) prior to the game against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field.Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Another common theme: Each opponent produced points on both their first and last possessions of the first half. They went through the Jets’ defense like a knife through warm butter. 

I’m not trying to denigrate the effort from the Jets defense in these blowouts, but if the games were closer, do you really have confidence that this unit could get a big stop? 

They failed the one time they were put in a position to win a game. That was seemingly eons ago in the season opener, when the Bills rallied from a 16-0 deficit to score 17 points on three consecutive second-half possessions.

Granted, that occurred immediately after Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley injured his groin. He hasn’t even been able to practice since and the Jets clearly have felt his loss. It hasn’t helped that fellow linebackers Avery Williamson and Jordan Jenkins are also out and that Brandon Copeland will be returning from his four-game PED suspension on Sunday.

However, Mosley’s primary area of expertise is defending the run. He’s not a pass rusher nor is he all that outstanding in coverage, placing 31st among 61 NFL linebackers with at least 500 snaps in ProFootballFocus.com’s pass coverage grades for Baltimore last season (though he was excellent in Week 1, with an interception and a pass breakup).

Again, in the last three games, Cleveland (3.3 yards per carry), New England (2.8) and Philadelphia (3.2) didn’t beat them by running the ball. Rather it’s when opposing QBs have dropped back that the Jets have had major issues.

A weak pass rush and not enough defensive backs who can cover is a lousy combination, one that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams can’t just scheme away.

The Jets have received almost nothing from starting defensive ends Leonard Williams and Henry Anderson in the season’s first quarter: no sacks and 5 QB hits after combining for 14 and 25 last season. I wrote about Williams’ lack of impact in my last post and now Anderson is sidelined with a shoulder injury. Per PFF, the Jets’ best pass rushers have been Neville Hewitt, in the relatively few times (32) he’s blitzed from his inside linebacker position, and Terrell Basham, who’s tied for 22nd among NFL edge rushers with at least 50 pass rush opportunities with a 9.1% pressure percentage.

On the back end, safety Adams (1st) and slot corner Brian Poole (4th) are among the highest-graded at their positions this season by PFF. But here’s a quirk with 11-on-11 football. With as many as five guys running pass patterns, if two are covered, the quarterback still has other options.

I’ll never forget the nightmare of sitting through a Jets loss in 1991 to the Warren Moon-led Houston Oilers. The Jets started a cornerback on the left side named Don Boyd Odegard. Moon went after him mercilessly all game, first to Haywood Jeffires and then to anyone else the Jets had Odegard attempt to cover. It was like Moon was playing against a shadow defense, that’s how wide open his receivers were.

Has that been any different than what we’ve seen from Jets cornerback Trumaine Johnson this season? I wanted to cut Johnson some slack, given his injury woes since signing a big-money free agent contract in 2018. Just because prior general manager Mike Maccagnan paid him like a shutdown number one corner, that didn’t necessarily morph Johnson into one.

Earlier this season, I thought Johnson’s hamstring injury was hindering his ability to cover opposing receivers crossing the field. When asked after Buffalo’s John Brown torched him and the Jets with 7 receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown (beating Jets cornerback Daryl Roberts on that play), Johnson noted that he gives speedier receivers a larger cushion. That didn’t matter in Philly, when Nelson Agholor blew by Johnson twice, forcing him to hold. The Jets were very lucky that one was missed and was not able to be overturned by a replay review.

Roberts’ coverage numbers aren’t much better—opposing QBs have recorded a 105.1 passer rating and three touchdowns when targeting receivers covered by Roberts.

So let’s see what happens when the Jets are actually in some competitive games before we anoint the defense with honors beyond bravery in the face of inevitable defeats.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1