One area that obviously improved for the Jets from 2021 to 2022 was their run defense. Heading into the offseason, the main priorities are widely viewed in terms of fortifying other areas. However, the Jets need to be careful because any improvements they make will be undermined if the run defense regresses to 2021 levels.
The extent of the improvement
Let’s first consider just how dramatically the Jets improved in this area. In 2021, the Jets were the fourth worst run defense in terms of yardage surrendered. However, in 2022, they improved to 16th so they were right in the middle of the pack.
They also improved from 24th best to 10th best in terms of yards per carry allowed and halved the total of rushing touchdowns surrendered from 28 in 2021 to 14 in 2022.
One common theme with the 2021 defense was that when they were bad, they were really bad. They gave up over 170 yards six times, but this only happened twice in 2022. This included 203 yards against the Saints and 260 against the Colts. There were no 200-yard games given up in 2022.
Clearly this is a notable improvement, but it had been even more significant for most of the year. Their final three games saw them give up three of the four largest rushing totals of the entire season so they fell off down the stretch as the team’s overall collapse took hold.
Being competitive makes a difference of course. There will have been plenty of games in 2021 where the opposing team had a comfortable lead and ran the ball a lot to keep the clock moving, which would obviously lead to a higher rushing yardage total, albeit that it might also have an adverse effect on per-carry averages (especially if they took a knee a few times at the end of the game).
Similarly, there will have been more games in 2022 where the Jets held a lead and opposing teams abandoned the run and tried to pass more.
Up the middle
The keys to the improvement up the middle were that CJ Mosley and Quinnen Williams provided the team with pro bowl level play, although both had played in 2021 too so it’s worth wondering whether the main issues lay elsewhere in that year.
Going forward, the significant thing to note here is that literally all the other main contributors up the middle (Sheldon Rankins, Solomon Thomas, Nathan Shepherd, Quincy Williams and Kwon Alexander) are out of contract. The Jets will need to be smart about which of these players they bring back and which they look to replace.
The improvement was surprising, especially since the team lost the player many considered to be their best run-stuffer (Folorunso Fatukasi) in free agency. However, the fact that the defensive line held up much better without him points to the fact that other moves helped out here.
One change was that the Jets brought in Alexander and opted to play more packages with base personnel on the field on running downs. They did this just under 30 percent of the time in 2022, compared with just over 20 percent in 2021. This obviously helped the Jets hold up better in the box, without exposing them to being easily exploited in the passing game due to their upgrades in the secondary.
Setting the edge
The Jets did a much better job of preventing big runs off the edge, most of which can probably be attributed to the upgrades they made to the defensive end positions. In games like the Colts game mentioned above, players like Jabari Zuniga, Tim Ward and Shaq Lawson were routinely being sealed to the inside but the Jets cleared out these players and improved their depth.
In total contrast to their key run defense personnel up the middle, the position on the edge is pretty stable. John Franklin-Myers, Carl Lawson, Jermaine Johnson and Micheal Clemons should all be back, with Johnson and Clemons looking to build on a promising first year against the run. Both were excellent but Johnson did get sealed inside on a couple of big runs.
Bryce Huff may or may not be back but the team never used him on running downs in 2022 anyway. Presumably they identified him as part of the problem in 2021.
Beyond the second level
Another key to the Jets’ run defense was that the defensive backs contributed to fewer runs turning into big plays. The likes of Jordan Whitehead, DJ Reed and Sauce Gardner all made good plays against the run, proving to be upgrades over the likes of Ashtyn Davis - who had a habit of overpursuing and taking bad angles and Brandin Echols - whose awareness on the boundary was poor.
In 2022, the Jets only gave up 10 runs of 20 yards or more having given up a total of 16 in 2021.
Once again, this is an area where the Jets have good stability heading into the 2023 season with Reed, Gardner and Whitehead all under contract.
The run defense seems to be an area that many people are taking for granted, in spite of the downturn over the last three games. However, the Jets would be wise to ensure they don’t have any downgrades because any holes will damage their chances of staying in the postseason mix.
The improvements on the edge and in the secondary should hopefully continue but the Jets still have to re-sign or replace most of their defensive tackles and linebackers and then decide whether to continue to operate out of base personnel as much as they did in 2022 since that seemed to help.
It’s an exciting offseason ahead with the possibility of a new quarterback, another overhaul on the offensive line and perhaps an injection of youth at some positions. Hopefully the Jets don’t overlook the run defense though, despite the fact it’s not been a major topic of conversation.