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How Much Can a Safety Hurt a Team’s Run Defense?

New York Jets v Miami Dolphins Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

In a dismal defensive season, a few statistics about the 2021 Jets run defense stand out to me.

The Jets allowed 9 runs that went for 30 yards or more last year. Unsurprisingly they led the league in this category.

No team allowed more yards on run plays gaining at least 30 yards than the 354 by the Jets.

Despite accounting for 1.7% of the rushing attempts against the Jets, these plays accounted for 15% of the yards the team allowed on the ground.

Amazingly, on all other run plays last season the Jets allowed only 3.7 yards per attempt.

This is actually par for the course. While the perception is bad run defenses are built on allowing constant 6, 7, and 8 yard gains, there is plenty of evidence that avoiding the homerun play makes the greatest difference in run defense.

Last year across the average gain on all run plays in the NFL was 4.3 yards.

Now let’s consider how much big plays impact things. The worst run defense in the NFL against runs of less than 30 yards allowed an average of 4.4. Essentially every run defense in the league becomes average if they just figure out to eliminate these homerun plays.

Among these 9 runs of 30 yards of more, there was a strikingly consistent culprit. On 5 of these plays, Ashtyn Davis played a primary role in turning a bad play into a disaster.

On four of these runs, Davis just took a horrible angle.

On the fifth he gets too aggressive and runs himself into a block.

To put this into context, there were only seven teams in the NFL that allowed five 30+ yard runs over the course of the full season.

On the Jets you have a defender who only played 62% of the snaps responsible for 5 himself. It is thus difficult to overstate how much Ashtyn Davis damaged the Jets’ run defense a year ago.

Now when you are writing an article like this sometimes your research takes you in surprising directions. When I started researching this, my hypothesis was that Jordan Whitehead was brought in to fix this problem. Even though he was known more for playing close to the line of scrimmage, he still had a fair share of experience deep.

The thing is once I started studying, I found out that Whitehead didn’t appear particularly adept at starting deep and then coming down at the snap to stop the run.

Where Whitehead appears to be a destructive force is starting near the line of scrimmage and attacking.

That makes him a perfectly fine fit for the Jets defense. As far as I could tell from my film review and numbers I examined, Robert Saleh does differentiate a bit between having a safety who plays primarily deep and one who plays closer to the line of scrimmage. Whitehead will likely fill that close to the line of scrimmage role.

That leaves a big question mark deep, however. The current presumed starter is Lamarcus Joyner. He is 31 years old and coming off a season where he played 13 snaps. (It is worth noting that over 80% of those snaps were from a deep alignment suggesting this will indeed be his role.) Beyond that, Joyner hasn’t been a full-time safety since 2018. Asking for 900 to 1,000 quality snaps out of him might be a lot.

This leaves the Jets perilously close to having Davis as the last line of defense again. The only other in house option I could even come up with is Jason Pinnock who played reasonably well in late season action after a shift to safety. I’m not sure the team wants to depend on a late round pick drafted to play cornerback, though.

Finding a plug and play deep safety either in the Draft or the late stages of free agency seems imperative for the Jets.

I think it would be a bit of a stretch to say replacing Ashtyn Davis would fix the Jets’ run defense. They still allowed 4 runs of 30 yards that weren’t on Davis. Those 4 alone would put them safely in the top half of the league. It is also worth noting that most of those plays were already failures because of the poor work of the defensive line and linebackers. Bad play up front created too many opportunities to turn negative plays into catastrophes.

Still I think this is an area the Jets will need to address before the offseason is out. The defense won’t be fixed without it.