If there’s one question Jets fans keep asking after these past few games, it’s what they’re doing – or trying to do – in the defensive secondary. The current regime has specifically seemed to target long-armed, athletic cornerbacks that are ideally suited towards press coverage and, yet, we see the team constantly being exploited in zone coverages and Donte Moncrief running past the new $72.5 million cover corner completely unencumbered for a long touchdown. What gives?
For the purposes of this study, we’ve charted how often the Jets have been playing press coverage and then looked at a few other games to get some context as to whether we could and should expect them to do this more often.
What is press coverage?
It’s important to define exactly what we consider press coverage to be in terms of this study. While other studies may exist, we’ll only use our own data to ensure uniformity of approach.
Press coverage is usually associated with the cornerback lining up opposite the receiver and jamming him at the line of scrimmage to impede his progress. However, a cornerback will often line up in press coverage position but not make an attempt to jam, much as Trumaine Johnson did on the aforementioned Moncrief touchdown. He might even bail out completely into off-coverage. We’re therefore going to track two things; did the cornerback line up in press coverage position and did he jam the receiver?
For the press coverage position, if the cornerback is three or more yards off the line scrimmage then that doesn’t count. He must also be directly opposite the receiver at the snap and it must be a player in a receiver stance, not a tight end in a two or three-point stance. The receiver can’t be in motion at the snap and if the cornerback bails out before the snap that also doesn’t count, whereas if he bails out as the ball is snapped, that does.
In terms of the jam, we tracked any play where the cornerback made an attempt to impede the receiver’s initial release. If they just made cursory contact as they passed the player off to someone else or as they backed off the line with them, that would not count. It also doesn’t count if the contact comes after the receiver has stopped or changed direction following their initial release, so a cornerback making legal contact within five yards isn’t necessarily jamming. It also doesn’t count if the receiver initiates contact – for example on a receiver screen. However, if the cornerback attempts to make contact and whiffs completely, that does count.
It should also be noted that we’re only considering cornerbacks in this study so if a safety or linebacker was in press coverage, that was ignored. You must also be in press position for a jam to be counted. It wouldn’t be counted if a player ran from deeper to engage a receiver or moved laterally into a receiver’s path to chip them. We also only looked at plays where the quarterback dropped back to pass.
That hopefully covers everything. Now let’s look at the numbers from the first four games of this season.
Total numbers from the first four games
Here are the totals from the first four games. Of course, these are essentially meaningless without any context:
Total cornerback coverage snaps – 488
Number of times in press position – 152 (31% of the time)
Number of times jamming receivers – 49 (10% of the time, or 32% of the time when in press position)
Now let’s start to drill down into those numbers and see if we can spot any trends.
Some fans complained that the Jets have stopped using press coverage as the season has gone along, but is that perception backed up by the facts?
Let’s see how the numbers look for each game to see if they’ve been doing less of it as the season has gone along.
Game 1 @ Detroit: Press position 27% of the time, jamming 11% of the time (or 39% of the time while in press position)
Game 2 v Miami: Press position 38% of the time, jamming 14% of the time (or 38% of the time while in press position)
Game 3 @ Cleveland: Press position 35% of the time, jamming 11% of the time (or 31% of the time while in press position)
Game 4 @ Jacksonville: Press position 27% of the time, jamming 5% of the time (or 18% of the time while in press position)
As you can see, the frequency with which the Jets have cornerbacks up at the line doesn’t deviate significantly from the overall average of 31% in any one week. However, the Jets have been jamming receivers a lot less over the last few games, so that perception was indeed accurate.
Of course, game situation will have an effect on these numbers. For example, in week one, the Jets were comfortably ahead for most of the first half, so you’d perhaps expect them to be less aggressive. However, the difference between games two and four is pronounced, despite the fact each one saw the Jets fall behind early but then battle their way back within a couple of scores.
Are there any trends we can identify from looking at each player individually? For example, a few years ago, Darrelle Revis played press coverage less and less as the season went on because he was dealing with a wrist injury. Or, a player might be struggling or thriving in press coverage, which could influence how often he does it.
Totals: Press position 36% of the time, jamming 13% of the time
Totals: Press position 32% of the time, jamming 10% of the time
Totals: Press position 21% of the time, jamming 4% of the time
Others (Darryl Roberts and Parry Nickerson)
Totals: Press position 34% of the time, jamming 14% of the time
Clearly the Jets don’t use Skrine to do much jamming, but otherwise the main takeaway here is that Johnson has been pressing more often than Claiborne.
The game-by-game individual splits also reveals that downwards trend over the last two games:
Johnson’s game-by-game jamming numbers: Game 1: 14%, Game 2: 20%, Game 3: 13%, Game 4: 4%
Claiborne’s game-by-game jamming numbers: Game 1: 12%, Game 2: 13%, Game 3: 9%, Game 4: 4%
Comparisons for context
Clearly there is something to be said for the idea that the Jets perhaps should have been jamming receivers more often over the last two games, especially on Sunday. However, we’d need to compare these numbers with some other teams to determine whether the amount which they typically press and jam receivers is typical and whether doing this more often would be realistic.
Initially, we decided to chart a 2014 game between the Seahawks and Cardinals. This was selected because it is revealing in two ways. Firstly, Todd Bowles was the defensive coordinator for the Cardinals at the time so we can see if the amounts his players have been pressing and jamming receivers are typical with what he used to do while building his head coaching credentials. Secondly, the Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” secondary was at its apex around that time and they were a team that notoriously used a lot of press and jam coverages. The game was also competitive into the second half, despite ending up 19-3 to Seattle.
In this game, Bowles’ cornerbacks were only in press position 23% of the time and only jammed the receiver 7% of the time. So, his 2018 defense has actually been pressing and jamming more than this so far. This opens up a new hypothesis; while Bowles covets cornerbacks who can operate in press coverage, perhaps he’s not a big believer in doing it very often.
Obviously, in an ideal world, we’d be charting much more than one game to get a better result, but from this we can at least see what a typical game might look like. Interestingly, the Cardinals were starting Antonio Cromartie; a player who – when he was first with the Jets – was notorious for not making contact with receivers, even when his coaches wanted him to. However, by this stage he was doing that a lot more often and did it more than the other starter, Patrick Peterson, in this particular game.
If the Jets were to change their scheme around so that they were pressing more often, this Seattle team is a good example that proves you can theoretically do that and have success. In this game, they were in press position 52% of the time and jammed 28% of the time. This also means that they jammed over half of the time when in press position.
We looked at one other game; last year’s wild card game between the Rams and Falcons. This was Johnson’s last game with the Rams so we focused on him to see how his press/jam numbers for that game compared to what he’s been doing with the Jets.
In this game, he was in press position 43% of the time and jammed his man 14% of the time. So, while he was in press position more often, he wasn’t jamming much more than he has been with the Jets – although certainly more than he did in the last game.
According to a study by Ian Wharton, Johnson ranked as the best cornerback in the NFL in terms of press coverage. Unfortunately, this study only lists plays on which Johnson was actually targeted, so it doesn’t provide us with any additional useful data for comparison purposes.
Matchups and scheming
In the aforementioned Falcons game, Johnson was mostly matched up with Julio Jones and came to the Jets with a reputation as someone who can take on elite receivers in one-on-one coverage assignments. However, so far with the Jets, he’s played exclusively on the left and hasn’t been matching up at all. That’s in contrast to last year, where he only played on the left about two-thirds of the time with at least 10 snaps at right cornerback in 10 different games. That suggests he was moving from assignment to assignment most of the time.
Maybe this is because the Jets haven’t faced what they would consider to be an elite receiver, although the agents for guys like Golden Tate and Jarvis Landry would probably disagree with that. Could this be a change the Jets could make that they might benefit from?
Offenses that know they are facing cornerbacks who are adept at press coverage can take measures to scheme around this. One thing we’ve already seen teams have some success with against Johnson specifically is putting the receiver in motion before the snap, making it harder to prevent him from getting a clean release. However, you can obviously only put one receiver in motion at a time.
In most formations, the split end (or X receiver) will have to be on the line of scrimmage at the snap, making it harder for him to get a clean release if he is jammed. Offenses can avoid this situation by having two tight ends on either side of the line, which means the receivers can line up off the line to potentially get a cleaner release, but that doesn’t prevent them from being jammed altogether. There will also be plenty of formations where both receivers are tethered to the line.
It’s not as simple as just putting your best press cover corner on the X receiver though, because an offense could change who is on the line by way of a pre-snap shift. However, the defense can still exploit this to some extent.
You may recall Pepper Johnson’s bombshell interview with Deadspin recently. During that interview, Johnson spoke about how the Jets didn’t match their coverage with their pass rush. When asked to elaborate, he said that if your cornerbacks are playing off and your pass rushers were pushing the pocket, that makes it too easy for the offense to “play pitch and catch”. So, if that’s your pass rush approach, you’d need the cornerbacks to play up. However, if the cornerbacks were playing off, you’d want your pass rushers to be “shooting moves” or “running games”.
Johnson initially blamed the defensive backs coach – Joe Danna, who has since been replaced by Dennard Wilson – but then went on to say that Bowles runs everything anyway back there. This lack of synergy might be something which is still an issue.
Perhaps in an effort to disguise their intentions, the Jets’ cornerbacks will often mill around, bluffing being up at the line before backing off or moving up at the last moment. That gives the impression that the cornerbacks have the freedom to decide whether or not they are playing off. The trouble with this is that you don’t know when the ball is going to be snapped, so if it gets snapped earlier than you anticipated, you could be down when you should be up, or vice versa. This, in turn, would make it impossible for the pass rushers’ approach to match the secondary. Contrast this with the Seahawks in the game charted earlier. They would typically make it very clear pre-snap whether they were playing up or backing off.
The Jets defensive gameplan has had a lot of people scratching their heads over the last month. However, fans and media are not the only people dealing with confusion. Unfortunately, Jets defensive players also seem to be having serious issues in terms of pre-snap communication and everybody knowing their roles. Furthermore, aside perhaps from the Lions when they were tipping their pitches in game one, opposing offenses have not been fooled.
It seems overly simplistic to suggest that the Jets should simply start playing more matchup-based coverage schemes and get everyone into one-on-one assignments so there is no confusion over who is covering who. The fact that they haven’t done that perhaps suggests they don’t trust their players to handle those assignments, but can it really be any worse than Dede Westbrook putting up all-pro numbers simply by running the same drag route over and over again as the Jets stand around expecting each other to be the one to pick him up?
The Jets obviously don’t have a very good pass rush, which would help, but they can mix in some blitzes to generate pressure. In fact, that’s what Bowles said they would do when asked if he was concerned about the lack of a pass rush during the offseason.
As for the press coverage, these numbers seem to suggest that while Bowles actively seeks players who can handle such assignments, he’s not married to the idea of getting his players to do that all the time and will only do so from time to time or when the situation calls for it. As noted, there may be some autonomy among the players as to how they handle these assignments too, but such decisions should only be undertaken with a holistic understanding of the defensive approach on any given play.
Sunday’s gameplan with much less press coverage than usual was a complete failure and teams will recognize this as a major weakness and attempt to engineer a similar situation by taking measures such as putting receivers in motion, shifting before the snap and mixing up the snap count.
Sunday should be interesting, because we can anticipate changes. Then again, we said the same thing after the Cleveland game and the gameplan didn’t really change, even though it was a long week and Skrine was back from injury. Fixing this in short order is a challenge Bowles must succeed at if he’s going to restore the confidence of the fanbase, media and maybe even his players in him.