I wrote the other day about how Rex Ryan might be building the wrong kind of defense in this Age of the Pass. Rule changes and team philosophy have sky-rocketed the efficiency of the pass, even in that last 3 years, and Rex's defensive scheme which is based on pass rush, man coverage (often) and low completion rates is poor at producing interceptions, one of the most affected dimensions of the passing game. Teams are giving up fewer and fewer INTs, and Rex's Jet defenses have never been very good at producing them, and are getting worse.
But the biggest question about Rex Ryan pass defense really has to be his noted ability to generate a pass rush. This is the peg he hangs his Genius Hat on, for the casual fan. He confuses QBs, his pass rush produces chaos, and bad things happen to the opposing offense, or so it goes. But the careful watching fan noted that Rex's overload blitzes started to lose their effectiveness even as early as 2010, as teams adjusted. Long downs became a problem at time rather than an mouth-watering opportunity, quizzically enough. It all just seemed to not be working quite as well as the headlines and pre-games were saying it should. So maybe it isn't to sacrilegious to ask: Have the Jets been good at the pass rush in the Rex Ryan Era?
The Rex Jets and the Sack
The first bit of evidence that the Jets are not quite as good at producing pass rush as the Rex reputation would suggest comes in the form of Sack %, a stat from NFL Football Reference that tells of the rate of sacks in relation to number of pass plays. This is an improved stat over total sacks of course because a team that faces more pass plays has more chances at a sack. Looking back at the last 5 years we see that the Jets really have not been "stand out" in producing sacks in terms of efficiency:
The way this graphic is calibrated is a percentile you get 100 for leading the league, and 50 for being average. The Jets in the 5 years have been slightly above average (14th out of 32). And even if you throw out 1/5 of the data (2012) the still are only 10th, bottom of the top 1/3. They are not, despite reputation, a great sack producing team, at least in terms of sack rate.
But as we have Rex say often, it isn't sacks, its about pressures and hurries. One gets the feeling that he's a little defensive about his team's sack total, as he is supposed to be the Sack Master. But fair enough. You may not get to the QB, but you want pressure him into mistakes with hits and hurries.
PFF stats on Pass Rush Productivity
So I decided to go back 5 years and take a look at how each position fared for the Jets in Pass Rush Productivity. The PRP is a pass rush stat provided by the pay stat site Profootball Focus. What is good about the stat is that it doesn't just count sacks. It counts hits and hurries as well. The way it works is this:
sack = 1.00, hurry = 0.75, hit = 0.75
add up all the sack, hit and hurry values, and then divide by the number of pass rush attempts.
Because it divides by rush attempts it is a rate stat. Basically they express the efficiency of a pass rusher...how successful a rusher is on average when trying to rush the passer.
I used the 25% of snaps data set and I gave each player a 1-100 rating based on percentile of ranking for that year. 100 means you were the best in PRP, 50 means you were average, 1 means the worst. Interestingly enough it has been pretty rare for the Jets to have a pass rusher who is in the top 20% of the league in terms of pass rushing efficiency. And in the front 7, where the bulk of the pass rush is done, it has only has happened twice in 5 years. Below is the graphic data with standout performances noted by name, and these were the best year to year performance in PRP ranking
The lack of pass rush pressure from the DT position is notable in the last two years, especially because the Jets seem to be relying on the 3 man line more for pressure. Basically if an offense runs a pass play on a non-pass down there is a profound weakness in the rush from DT.
Note: The Defensive End, DT and Outside Linebacker data is a little complex because in the 1st Rex Ryan year PFF counted the Jets to be primarily in a 4-3 scheme, and they keep their data (somewhat) organized by scheme. So to keep the data presentable I grouped the 2009 DEs with the rest of the 2010-2013 OLBers.
(above) - Despite looking pretty damn great, Richardson actually hasn't had the production in terms of efficiency of pass rush, when compared to the league. In fact he has produced less than all 3 Defensive ends of last year in terms of league rank (though technically better than Devito, green 2012 in actual production 5.1 to 4.3, the data competition was just stronger in 2013). Note though that Coples had the 2nd most productive pass rush season of any Jet DE in the Rex years in 2012.
(above) - note that Coples in 2012 went from one of the best pass rush productivity seasons as a DE, to the worst in all of Rex Jet history (against league performance). Also note that while the Outside Linebacker should be a big pass rush productivity position (in most worlds) the Jets have gotten their most production out of two players that were barely in the league (Maybin and Pace). It would appear that the pass rush for Rex is a system, and the actual pressures come from non-elite, borderline players. Whether this is a good thing is maybe something to think about. It allows you to save money on parts or positions in the defense, but it also may not be producing the dynamic, feared pass rush that people assume a Rex Ryan defense brings.
Again, a non-elite player about to be out of the league (Bart Scott) proves to be the most efficient pass rusher in the Rex Era. The overall efficiency numbers are a little bit better than league average.
Safeties and Corners
Cornerback and safety pass rush efficiency numbers are fairly small in sample size, so they don't really speak to the overall efficacy of a pass rush, but because Rex has been known for his original blitz packages you would think that there were some efficient performances. Drew Coleman (and I believe it is Ellis Lankster) have been the best CB blitzers.
It is interesting to note that despite a fair number of blitz attempts Jet safeties in 2010 were well below league average in producing QB pressure, and that only the Rex problem-child Kerry Rhodes has been a standout from safety as a blitzer.
The Role of the Nobody
Now notably these rankings are year to year rankings, so it is perfectly conceivable that someone could rank low in one year, but still have a better PRP than someone with a better rank in another year. The rankings are dependent on the competition of that year. The disadvantage of precision is perhaps balanced a little by the fact that league trends are taken into account. When there are better, more efficient pass rushes in a league you have to perform better to rank well. All that being considered, this presents a fairly consistent performance ranking picture.
The biggest impression may be that the star of the Rex Ryan pass rush is Rex Ryan himself, the scheme. It is not designed to unleash dynamic players that cannot be stopped on a regular basis. It would seem that it is more suited for situations like Wilkerson eating up attention while players like Calvin Pace of Aaron Maybin perform at 60% of league efficiency rates. The problem is that as nice as an approach as it seems in the long view, and as great a Defensive name as Rex is, it isn't very good at producing a pass rush in terms of efficiency.
Now someone will object that the Rex Ryan pass rush isn't designed to be efficient. It is designed to get off the field in important downs. At significant times in the game they just turn it on, the bring the house and it is doom for the QB. That would be nice if it is so, but it would appear that it is so less and less. The Rex Jets have had consistent problems getting off the field on important downs and drives, despite success in others. There is a sense in which the dog might have more bark than its bite.
Now there can be no doubt that the Jets have put together a very nice young Defensive Line this year, a line with promise. But part of doing this has included moving Coples from a position he did very well in as a rookie (in terms of efficiency) to a position that he has struggled in (and yes, he has struggled). It also seems that Rex's approach involves non-stud Outside Linebackers in general (he has yet to draft one, h/t John B). The beefing up of the DL seems to go right in line with the trend of a non-dominant pass rush. The effects of this non-elite pass rush approach may be far-reaching in this passing league. If you can't generate a dominant pass rush, and your coverage isn't going to be top notch (linebackers, safeties and corners) it is going to be hard to win in this passing league. If you add to that the Rex tendency to revert to a low-risk, low-scoring offense when push comes to shove, the concern is doubled. It would seem that the Jets need, at the very least, one great, athletic pass rusher, a star from the OLBer (or even ILBer) position something hard to find in this league and something they have not drafted for, and even then it is unclear if the Rex scheme can be as feared as its name.
It is one thing to say that the scheme is the star, and nobody in it is going to be a top of the league performer in terms of efficiency, but it does seem like there is evidence that the scheme itself isn't the star either in terms of actual production. There can be no doubt that Rex is an inventive, visionary coach, but it is also good to perform reality checks and ask just what is he inventing, what is he envisioning, and does it match up with what it is claiming to be. Should not a top pass rush coach produce top pass rush player numbers at least more than occasionally? I say this as a Rex Ryan fan, and as a general believer in his defense attitude and aptitude. But my heart and my eyes see different things. The point about a Rex Ryan Defense isn't that it is bad, it is that we may be assuming that aspects are just far better than they are. As fans one might feel that a Rex Ryan pass rush is a 9 out of 10, when in fact it is much closer to a 6 out of 10. One might feel that a Rex Ryan pass defense is aggressive and that it produces interceptions at a 7 out of 10 rate, when in fact it is closer to a 4 of 10. We can go through a season or several and not realize that our assumptions are a little off. When strengths are not quite as great as we assume, then weaknesses become more problematic.
There are a lot of interesting things in this ranking data, I would love to hear what others see as many watch the Jets more closely through the years than I do.
As usual, these are hand collected figures, there may be errors.