Rex Ryan suffers is criticized from a variety of directions but few of his detractors take aim at his calling card: Defensive Genius. While a Rex Ryan fan, I do have to say that there is a little too much to the aura of Defensive Genius that surrounds him. He no doubt can pull out some unexpected performances (such as the run defense this year), but should also be open to critique on some probably misses (like moving Coples to OLB) or his reliance on vets at times. But I'd like to raise a larger question, though it is certainly not a question I think is answered. Is Rex Ryan building the wrong kind of Defense?
The Passing League
The biggest thing to consider is how much this has become a passing league. There have been gradual rule changes since 1977 or so, but things really have accelerated in the last few years. Records are being broken at an unprecedented rate. This article from a year ago does a pretty good job of discussing some of the rule changes (an excerpt)
Since 1995, the NFL has allowed a WR forced out of bounds by a defender to return in bounds and make a play. This helped eliminate the move of "chucking" a WR out of bounds to remove him from a play. In 1996, the NFL announced they'd actually enforce the illegal contact penalty, created in 1978, more stringently than before. The rule was no longer just a recommendation. In 2001, the NFL announced Roughing the QB penalty would be enforced more strictly and specifically targeted late hits. By 2002, they protected the QB even further by barring helmet-to-helmet contact with a QB at any time, even after a change of possession. The NFL again tightened down enforcement of already existing rules for illegal contact, pass interference, and defensive holding in 2004. QBs received even more protection in 2006 when the NFL barred hits to the QBs below their knees unless the defensive player was blocked into the QB. WRs saw additional protection in 2009 when contact to the head of a defenseless receiver was prohibited. The NFL expanded the rules for defenseless receivers to include all players in 2010. They also threatened an additional crackdown on these penalties and threatened players with suspensions.
In 2013 there were additional anti-rushing rule changes like the crown of the helmet rule and the peel-back block rule, which add to the advantage of passing.
You can see a very good treatment of the passing game revolution from the historical POV in this Bleacher Report article through 2012 which has great graphics like these:
be sure to check out the article
The truth of the matter is that many of the principles that made very good sense, if even a few years ago might not even be best principles now. We stand at something of the apex of this this year as our pass defense has suffered by far its worst year in the Rex Ryan Era, while our Run Defense toyed with historic numbers. One has to perhaps draw back and ask if Rex Ryan is actually building a defense that will succeed, even if things go right. As I wrote yesterday, the Jets have drafted Defense heavily in the last 3-4 years, but it could be that Rex is moving in the wrong direction altogether on that side of the ball.
Just Talking About INTs
I don't want to decide the issue here, I just want to point out one fundamental element that has changed over the years, and that is the role of the Interception (you can see it in the 2nd Bleacher Report graphic above). We always talk about how important turnovers are, and we have even heard Rex talk about how important forced turnovers are on Defense, but somehow we don't regularly think about how the Jets do in producing INTs. Even their stud cornerback Revis wasn't top of the league in this, and with the drafting of Milliner who by reputation and this year's performance isn't a ball hawk there is something of a grand de-emphasis on the interception in how the Jets Defense has been designed from the start with Rex. The idea, no doubt, has been to create havoc and confuse QBs so that errant throws are put up that lead to INTs, but overall that isn't want has consistently happened. To some degree the league rules (and the league adjustment to what Rex does) has cushioned opponents from the woes of the interception, and the change in interception frequency is one of the marked differences in the passing game over the years.
above is one of the stalwart measures of QB performance, the ratio of TDs to INTs. As can be seen TDs have become more frequent in ratio to interceptions. But if you place Jet Defense performance in line with this trend you see that in only 2 of the 5 Rex years have the Jets had a better TD to INT ratio than league average (you want to be lower than than average):
Now seasonal stats can be a little bit finicky, so another view of INTs may help. Below is the INT % rate by league average. This is the percent of attempts that result in INTs (higher is better for the Defense, below).
One can see that again, in only 2 of Rex's five years has his defense produced interception rates better (from the Jet perspective) than league average. The INT takeaway simply is not a major component of Rex Ryan Jet pass defenses. You can see this in the chart below which show the rank (in terms of league percentile) of Rex Ryan defenses in both completion % allowed and interception %. The hallmark of Rex Ryan defenses has been keeping completion %s (which also have been rising in the league) very low, but it has not been producing interceptions.
Rule changes and Offensive philosophies have helped dramatically change the success rate of passing in the league, and there can be no doubt that this is being seen in interception rates and ratios. What is perhaps troubling is that this grand league-wide trend is not being countered in the Rex Ryan area of specialty....Defense. I'm very sure that there are lots of things that are involved in producing interceptions. Important factors such as pass rush, number of defenders put in coverage, defensive schemes are all in play. But one might presume that there is such a thing as a defensive "playmaker", just like there is on Offense, ball skills that help turn a well defended pass into an interception. When evaluating a defensive talent how much emphasis do you put on ball skills (for instance, a noted question mark with Milliner). A playmaker aptitude does not only exist for corners, it is there for linebackers and safeties as well. While the pass rush is somewhat improved for the Jets this year, with the help of a loaded Defensive Line produced through the draft, there is concern that as much as "coverage" has been an issue in the secondary, there simply are not playmakers either. The linebackers are not ball hawks, and almost the entire secondary isn't either. It would seem that a significant component to Defense in this changing league is missing from the Rex Ryan approach.
One might be somewhat relieved from the a possible interception concern if the other hallmark of a Rex Ryan offense was on the rise. The one thing that Rex Ryan is supposed to be doing as good as anyone in the league is generating pressure on the QB (along with coverage confusion). That, in the end, is supposed to produce the turnovers. But if one looks at how the Jets have performed in sack % - the rate at which sacks come in relation to pass attempts the Jets really are not powerhouses of the league either (where 100 leads the league, 50 is average):
The Jets in the Rex Ryan term have actually averaged slightly better than 14th in the league in terms of how frequently they can generate sacks, just about league average. Even if you throw out 2012 as an outlier (1/5 of the data) it still isn't better than an average of 10th in the league, certainly not in keeping with the reputation (though the way the Rex depends on the blitz may be different than his reputation).
This all could very well have consequences that go beyond defensive efficiency. If the pass defense isn't producing interceptions it also stands to reason that there is an even greater pressure for the offense to not turn the ball over. The offense necessarily shouldn't be a high risk offense in the Ryan view of things. I took a look at turnover rates for the defense overall and ranked them to in percentiles to the league with 100 leading the league, 50 representing average:
For Rex's first 3 years Turnover rates were pretty good for his defense (despite the slump in INT% in 2010). They were in the 70s and 80s in terms of league percentile rank. But the Jets have been south of league average for 2 years in a row now, plummeting this year to a terrible low. In fact this year if the Jets do not improve in their final few games, their mark of a turnover forced once every 86 plays will be the worst mark for a defense since 2009, in the entire NFL (this year's Houston team is a close 2nd worst).
As always, these are hand collected stats, there may be errors.