The New York Jets had another poor season in 2023, which can be mostly attributed to the lack of a functional offense. With the loss of Aaron Rodgers four plays into the season and the horrific play of the offensive line this was a likely result. The Jets still won seven games due mostly to a solid defense. Was that defense as good as it could have been?
If you look at yards per game as a defining standard the Jets were fantastic, as they allowed only 292.3 yards a game, which was third best in the NFL. If you factor in the offense that was at times non-existent, that is pretty darn good.
If you look at points allowed as a metric, the Jets gave up 20.9 points a game, which was 12th best in the league. Still not a bad position considering the offense.
The Jets will return most of their starting defense in 2024. Quincy Williams and C.J. Mosley are both under contract, as are Sauce Gardner, D.J. Reed, Michael Carter, Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers, Jermaine Johnson and Tony Adams. The Jets will need to decide how much they wish to spend on Bryce Huff, and Franklin-Myers may need an adjustment to his high salary.
Every NFL team changes every season, even with mostly the same players. Jon Gruden once stated (the most profound thing he ever said) that “an NFL team never stays the same.” They either get better or worse, so you can never count on a team repeating past performances.
Even as players ebb and flow in effectiveness from year to year, how can the Jets improve their defense in 2024? Here are two ways the Jets could improve their defensive unit in 2024.
The Jets had a solid defensive scheme in 2024, but they were lacking in effective game planning for certain teams. Each team in the NFL brings different challenges to your defense from week to week. The Jets played pretty much the same defensive scheme every week. This helps a defense in certain ways. Players automatically understand their roles so there is little chance of a missed assignment. It happens but it’s kept to a minimum, at least in theory.
The problem is, every team has tape on your defense, so they know in advance exactly what to expect. They can work certain plays into the offense on third down or in the red zone they are pretty sure will work against your defensive scheme.
The Jets have an All Pro at cornerback in Sauce Gardner. If an opponent has a go to receiver, they can move him away from Gardner, since the Jets leave Gardner on the same side every week. D.J. Reed is a fine cornerback, but he is no Sauce Gardner. Also, on third down the Jets play a lot of cover 3 zone, which allows an opponents’ receivers to be free of press or man-to-man coverage. Teams with a single top receiver looked to take advantage of the Jets in this regard.
In week 1 the Buffalo Bills targeted Stefon Diggs 13 times, connecting for 10 receptions for 102 yards and a touchdown. No other Buffalo wide receiver had more than four targets during the game.
In week 2 the Dallas Cowboys targeted CeeDee Lamb 13 times, connecting for 11 receptions for 143 yards. Only one other Dallas wide receiver had as many as four targets. In that game Lamb was left wide open on multiple third downs for easy first downs.
In week 9 the Los Angeles Chargers targeted Keenan Allen 9 times for 8 receptions for 77 yards, which accounted for 57% of the Chargers’ passing yards. No other Chargers wide receiver had more than three targets in the game.
In Week 10 the Las Vegas Raiders targeted Davante Adams 13 times for 6 receptions for 86 yards on a night when Raiders QB Aidan O’Connell was not very effective. Adams accounted for 56% of the Raiders passing yards. No other Raiders wide receiver had more than two targets in the game.
The Jets were blown out in week 11 by the Bills. Stefon Diggs again had the most targets for the Bills with 8. The Jets lost 32-6.
The rest of the Jets schedule had teams with multiple quality wide receivers (Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins) or no great wide receiver: the Cleveland Browns (Amari Cooper missed the game), Houston Texans (Nico Collins was out after the first series), Kansas City Chiefs (Travis Kelce is the leading receiver), Washington Commanders (Terry McLaurin is close but not a player to game plan around), Atlanta Falcons (no great wide receivers) and New England Patriots (no great wide receivers).
If the Jets made a plan to take away the opposing team’s best wide receiver, then they would have had a better chance to be successful. The Jets could have used double teams, bracket coverages, a safety over the top or a trap coverage to limit a single receiver’s effectiveness.
Would this have made a difference? I think so. Would it have made the Jets a playoff team? I think not, but it would have given them a better chance to compete against top teams. A few bounces or a single defensive play can turn games around.
The Jets have a team motto of “All gas, no brake”. That sounds good, but in reality it’s best to use caution at times. The gas part of that mantra allowed the Jets to amass 48 sacks on the season, which tied for 7th most in the NFL. The problem with that is that this vaunted defense allowed the 8th most rushing yards in 2023.
The Jets defensive tackles are not a great group outside of Quinnen Williams. Williams had another stellar season with 62 tackles and 5.5 sacks. The two players who played the most alongside of Williams, Solomon Thomas and Quinton Jefferson, had a combined total of 37 tackles and 11 sacks. Pro Football Focus rated Williams the #1 run defender in the NFL at the defensive tackle position in 2023.
Solomon Thomas had a career high in sacks in 2023, but his run defense graded out as the 126th run defender out of 130 players, which is beyond horrible. Thomas has never been a solid run defender in his career and the Jets knew that when they signed him.
Quinton Jefferson also had a career high in sacks, but he rated 91st out of 130 players in run defense in 2023. Jefferson also has never been a good run defender. He graded out nearly the same in 2022 as he did in 2023.
By design the Jets rotate through a lot of defensive tackles, but those players all have similar abilities outside of Quinnen Williams. If the Jets used a couple of run stuffing big men on early downs they could be more competitive in the run game, while using Quinnen Williams more judiciously by keeping his reps down until second and third downs.
The Jets were middle of the pack by allowing 4.1 yards per rushing attempt, but that number is deceptive. The Jets faced the third most rushing attempts because they were behind in so many games. Opponents were running the ball at a higher rate in order to run out the clock. This allowed the Jets to slant the line or roll the inside linebacker closer to the line to make a quick stop.
Both Solomon Thomas and Quinton Jefferson are both free agents this year. We shall see if the Jets use this offseason to find players with better run stopping skills to fit in next to Quinnen Williams. If you can continually stop the run you can make an opponent one dimensional. Since the Jets have one of the best secondaries in the NFL you are making teams work against the Jets’ team strength. When an opponent faces third and long yardage, it gives the Jets the best opportunities to run some trap or gadget defenses that teams haven’t seen much, which could force turnovers.
The Jets defense was excellent in 2023, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be even better in 2024. It doesn’t take a lot of change to make a big difference when you have multiple superior playmakers on your team.