One strange statistical quirk from the 2018 season was the lack of pass rushing production from linebacker Darron Lee. Most experts would agree that Lee’s overall game took a step forward in 2018, especially in coverage. However, it’s been overlooked that he was completely ineffective as a blitzer.
Entering into this study, there was no obvious reason why that might be. Lee had shown in 2017 that he could be an effective blitzer, but followed that up by ranking dead last in PFF’s pass rushing productivity among qualifying linebackers.
Officially, Lee had just two quarterback hits and no sacks in 2018, having had three sacks and six quarterback hits in 2017. He had also generated almost five times as much total pressure in 2017, according to PFF’s numbers. Here’s an example of a successful rush:
At least one recent article has suggested that Lee’s pass rushing numbers were down because he was employed in coverage more. However, that’s an inaccurate assumption because he actually had more pass rush reps in 2018 than 2017 - despite missing the last four games through suspension.
However, if this was some kind of scheme related difference, it didn’t affect Demario Davis and Avery Williamson, Lee’s inside-linebacking partners in each of those years. Both Davis (15th in 2018 and 16th in 2017) and Williamson (17th in 2018 and 13th in 2017) ranked about the same in 2017 and 2018, whether or not they were playing alongside Lee on the Jets.
So, we’re ultimately left with a series of theories, which are difficult, if not impossible, to test:
- Was Lee focusing more on his coverage duties in 2018, so his blitz numbers suffered as a result?
- Was Lee neglecting certain coverage responsibilities in 2017 and putting up higher blitz numbers as a result?
- Was he used more in a containment role and therefore not always assigned to try and generate pressure?
- Was the standard of the pass rush generally better in 2018 so it was more likely someone else would get home before he could?
- Were defenses more prepared for his blitzes specifically in 2018 and able to mitigate them more effectively?
- Is this just a statistical anomaly that would ultimately have corrected itself with bigger sample sizes?
Unfortunately, while there may be some level of truth in some of these concepts, it’s impossible to discern that with any level of accuracy from the film.
Nevertheless, in order to ascertain whether there were any obvious differences between the blitz assignments given to Lee in each of the past two years, we reviewed the footage from last year and a few patterns did emerge.
First of all, in 2017, a higher percentage (43 percent as opposed to 30 percent in 2018) of Lee’s pass rush attempts came on obvious passing downs. You might expect a higher sack/pressure rate on such plays as the quarterback would be more likely to hold onto the ball longer to try and make something happen.
Secondly, a higher percentage of Lee’s pass rush reps in 2017 came out of the dime package and he seemed to have good success operating out of this personnel group. The Jets’ dime package featured seven defensive backs, including four safeties, and we dubbed it the “Miles/Davis” package because of the variety of creative ways in which Demario Davis and Rontez Miles were deployed.
Thirdly, a much higher percentage of Lee’s 2018 pass rush reps came as he was lined up on the edge and, based on the footage, his primary role on many of these seemed to be to occupy a blocker on the edge so that the Jets could generate pressure up the middle.
Ironically, during the offseason last year, there were a couple of ill-judged articles suggesting Lee could be converted to an edge rusher. This is something some Jets fans have suggested for Jonathan Vilma and even Calvin Pryor in the past, but Lee’s lack of success when deployed in that fashion underlines that you need more than just quickness to be able to get around a 300+ pound tackle at the pro level.
On the whole, there does seem to be some evidence that although Lee had just as many pass rush attempts as in the previous season, he was routinely deployed in such a way as you wouldn’t expect him to generate pressure as often.
On five occasions in 2018, Lee blitzed and didn’t generate pressure but someone else got to the quarterback for a sack (although one was negated by a defensive penalty). On one other occasion, the Jets intercepted a pass on a play where he blitzed. So, they still had some success on plays where he was sent on a rush, even though he wasn’t producing directly.
There were some negatives too, though. Golden Tate was completely uncovered underneath for an easy touchdown on opening day, Frank Gore had a game clinching first-down on 3rd-and-long the following week, Tarik Cohen had a long touchdown as nobody covered him out of the backfield in the loss to the Bears and tackle-eligible Dion Dawkins leaked out for a touchdown later in the year. These breakdowns all came on plays where Lee blitzed.
Of those four, at least two appeared to be Lee’s responsibility. Williamson confessed to the Cohen touchdown being his fault, though. Maybe plays like these made the Jets’ defensive coaches reluctant to send Lee all-out on a blitz.
This drop-off in production from Lee last year, especially within the context of the best season of his career so far, seemed likely to be something we were just going to have to chalk up to being “one of those things”.
However, there were a few distinct differences between the pass rushing assignments Lee was given in 2018 compared to his role in 2017 and that does seem to explain the discrepancy in his numbers to some extent.
With a new scheme in place, maybe Lee will produce more in this area in 2018. While his season ended in disappointing fashion with the suspension, we shouldn’t let that overshadow the fact that he took his pass coverage to the next level in 2018 and if he can continue to work at the other aspects of the game, he can perhaps start to live up to his first round status under Gregg Williams.