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Upgrading at Cornerback Was More Than a Luxury for the Jets

Syndication: The Record Chris Pedota, / USA TODAY NETWORK

Why did the Jets focus on upgrading at cornerback this offseason when they already had Bryce Hall?

This is one of the most commonly asked questions I have heard from the Jets fanbase. The Jets made a splash at corner during the offseason adding DJ Reed in free agency and picking Sauce Gardner fourth overall in the NFL Draft.

The Jets already had a seemingly competent starting cornerback in Bryce Hall, though. Couldn’t they have used their resources to address bigger needs?

Hall’s disaster preseason game against the Falcons might have changed some minds about the need to upgrade at cornerback, but that comprised only a handful of preseason snaps. It is not a meaningful sample size.

I think it is fair to say that based on Hall’s 2021 production, the Jets probably could have gotten by with him as a starting cornerback.

Is getting by good enough, though?

Interestingly, one of the biggest complaints I heard from the fanbase about the 2021 defense is that it was too vanilla. The Jets were too frequently playing in a soft Cover 3.

I would imagine there is an overlap between many of the fans who question the attempts to upgrade at corner and those who felt the scheme was too basic last year.

In many ways, though, sticking with Hall at corner and expanding the playbook are mutually exclusive propositions. The Jets base Cover 3 (which frequently mixed with Cover 4 last year) was designed to limit the responsibilities of the cornerback. Almost any competent NFL cornerback can handle defending a constricted area on the deep part of the field.

Asking for a more aggressive defense will require more from the cornerbacks on the team.

In fact the Jets defense was far less vanilla in 2021 than you realize. They actually were among the top ten teams in blitz rate.

As you can see, they blitzed. They just weren’t very effective at it. Much of that goes to trouble at corner.

You might be saying, “Wait a minute. I watched that defense last year, and it seemed so soft and conservative.”

I’m not sure you are completely wrong there. The Jets base coverage was fairly conservative. The cushions the corners left exposed the flat areas of the field, and opponents took advantage. Failures like that tend to stick in your memory.

I think there is an additional reason you might remember the defense as basic and conservative. It changed on third down.

In the aftermath of last year’s loss to Buffalo in the Meadowlands, the Jets coaching staff received a lot of backlash from key moments where they allowed Stefon Diggs to match up one on one against Javelin Guidry. The star receiver torched the undersized backup cornerback.

The coaching staff was asked why they did not have Hall follow Guidry around. Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich provided the following answer.

In this answer Ulbrich might have given away more information than he intended.

Ulbrich specifically states that the corners are assigned a side of the field and take whichever receiver comes to their side. However, he specifies this is only true on first and second down.

It implies that on third down the Jets do have their cornerbacks match up with a specific receiver.

Why is this relevant? Matching a specific corner with a specific receiver has limited utility when the defense is playing zone coverage. The corner is covering an area of the field. Sure, if your top corner is on the same side of the field as the other team’s best receiver it is more likely that receiver will run into his zone, but you can’t guarantee that you will get the matchup you want.

Man coverage is a different story. The corner is assigned a specific man to cover. He is with that receiver for the entire play.

When a defense blitzes, it is usually playing man coverage. With extra players rushing the passer, there aren’t enough defenders to cover all of the zones on the field.

As the numbers showed us, the Jets blitzed a great deal last year. Their defense took on some extra aggression during third downs.

The results weren’t great, though.

I took a look at how defenses performed last year when their opponent threw on third (or fourth) and long (6 yards to go or more).

The Jets allowed a first down conversion on 41.3% of these passing plays. That was the worst rate in the league.

Of course there are two components to pass defense. Coverage matters, but so does the pass rush.

Was the pass rush to blame? Well, the Jets’ sack rate in these situation was 10.6%, squarely in the middle of the league at 17th.

If you are league average in getting to the quarterback and worst at allowing conversions, it is a clear sign coverage is the issue.

The biggest culprit was Bryce Hall. Of the 43 passing conversions the Jets allowed on third and long, Hall was in coverage and either allowed a drive-extending completion or committed a penalty on 12 of them.

It is also worth noting that Hall’s play deteriorated over the course of the season. Eight of the twelve conversions Hall allowed came in the final seven games of the season. Down the stretch, Hall was responsible for more than one of these drive-altering plays per week.

The Eagles, Patriots, and Giants allowed less total third down and long passing conversions from Week 12 on than Hall did himself.

Hall was allowing these in every way. My discussion above was on man coverage while blitzing, but Hall was losing even on zone coverage when the Jets weren’t blitzing. He was getting beaten on horizontal and vertical routes. He was getting beaten short and deep.

I would imagine these plays stuck in the minds of Jets decision makers. Allowing third and long conversions changes the game. Hall’s trajectory wasn’t positive.

I think the Jets want to be aggressive on third downs. If you want to do that, cornerback is not a luxury. And if you want the Jets to be less vanilla on early downs, it is even less of a luxury.

I don’t mean to disrespect Bryce Hall. I think he is a much better player than he showed in that Falcons game. He wasn’t the most glaring weakness of the team last year, and he’s perfectly capable of playing competently in a soft zone scheme where he has to cover a small area. You can’t say that about every corner in the league.

But if you want a more dynamic defense, just competency at cornerback might not be enough.

The Jets got DJ Reed to upgrade one of their two starting spots during the offseason.

Couldn’t they have left the tough matchups to Reed, and given easier assignments to Bryce Hall on key downs?

Sure, but again if you want your defense to have aggressive blitz calls at its disposal, you want as many lockdown one on one corners as you can get. Enter Sauce Gardner.

Competency is nice. Lockdown corner play takes a blitzing defense to another level.