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Why are the Jets having so much trouble against screens and checkdowns?

NFL: OCT 24 Jets at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Why can’t the Jets defend a screen?

I have heard some version of this question numerous times over the last few weeks. Some of the plays people are discussing are screens, but some are just checkdowns where the receiver picks up a sizable gain with no blockers in front of him.

There are numerous factors contributing to the Jets’ struggles on these plays, but the biggest one might just be schematic. There is a theme that emerges over and over when you watch these screens and checkdowns turning into big plays against the Jets.

Last Sunday the Jets were in their standard Cover 3 before this play.

As the receivers go into their patterns, the defenders take pretty deep zone drops and leave plenty of daylight in front of the checkdown target because of how far down the field they are. Most of these defenders aren’t even looking back to see where the ball is when Mac Jones checks down.

This goes for a big gain.

Next we have a screen pass with the same theme. Jets in Cover 3.

Defenders dropping deep. Even as the ball is thrown, a number of players continue down the field unaware of what is happening.

There aren’t many players who need to be blocked on this screen with everybody so far down the field.

It’s one thing for this to happen in a game, but it has been happening for the entire season. Let’s go back two weeks to London. The Jets were not in their Cover 3 on this particular play, but again you see extremely deep drops and plenty of room in front of the back.

It’s another nice gain.

For brevity, I’ll skip over the Tennessee game, although I could find examples there. We will go back to the Denver game. You see Cover 3.

You see defenders running down the field and open space in front of the back.

You see a nice gain.

We can go all the way back to Week 1 against Carolina. One more time we get Cover 3.

One more time you get very deep drops with space in front of the shallow target.

One more time you get a nice gain.

Now let’s talk about what is happening here. Why do the Jets keep allowing this? What is wrong with these players?

Well, some of these plays are frankly not great defense. You’d like to see better awareness here to minimize the gains.

On a broader scale, though, it seems like the Jets are really trying to clog the passing lanes down the field, particularly in the intermediate zones. By closing off these lanes, they are preventing these potentially damaging deep throws from even being attempted.

I would presume this is due in no small part to the players the team has at cornerback. This is a young group that would probably have a difficult time holding up one on one against most matchups. Dropping all of these players deep gives them help down the field.

However, when you scheme in football fortifying one area makes another vulnerable. The Jets are particularly vulnerable to these types of checkdowns and screens since their defenders are all downfield. You might think they are almost trying to bait these types of throws rather than risk the quarterback challenging them down the field. I think this philosophy contributes quite a bit to the lack of passes defensed on the stat sheet you hear about frequently and the Jets being the last team in the NFL without an interception. Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich seem to want these open checkdowns. They will even live with nice runs after the catch as long as it means they are not being beaten deeper for even bigger plays.

It is worth noting that Football Outsiders keeps tabs on how defenses perform against each type of receiver. Opponents are currently only attempting 6.1 passes per game to their number one receiver against this defense. Those number one receivers are only producing 51.1 yards per game. Those both rate second lowest in the league.

This isn’t necessarily because the Jets are holding up great against them one on one, though. The opponents just don’t seem to be getting many opportunities because of the style of this defense. In the rare instances where opponents actually can target their number one receiver, the Jets defense rates 30th in the league according to DVOA. When opportunities do come, opposing offenses exploit them against this defense. The Jets probably play this way because there’s no other way to prevent top receivers from beating them aside from giving a ton of help down the field and minimizing the attempts to top targets.

Dropping everybody deep obviously has its disadvantages. It should come as no surprise that the Jets are allowing the most targets and yards to running backs in the NFL.

Is this tradeoff ultimately worth it? The Jets rank 22nd in the league allowing 7.3 yards per attempt.

That number isn’t great, but before the season I think plenty of people would have said this was worse than the 22nd best pass defense personnel. You could make an argument this figure represents some sort of overachievement.

In general I think you’d rather have number one receivers be quiet against you and running backs dominate in the receiving game than the inverse. Top receivers tend to destroy you more than running backs when they have big receiving games.

I think the coaching staff does deserve some criticism for its performance, especially over the past week. Still, there’s only so much coaches can do. This is a players’ league. There’s only so much scheme can help you work around. When you don’t have players capable of holding up one on one, coaches just have to choose where they’re most comfortable being vulnerable. For the Jets that is the short part of the field.

I think this is something to keep in mind the next time you see a screen or a checkdown go for a nice gain.