Jets confident secondary upgrades will boost porous run defense

The upgrades to the Jets’ passing defense are obvious.

They signed cornerback DJ Reed and safety Jordan Whitehead in free agency, drafted corner Sauce Gardner No. 4 overall, selected pass rusher Jermaine Johnson later in the first round and will get Carl Lawson back on the edge. The defense should be much improved against the pass.

But what about against the run?

The Jets were 29th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, giving up an average of 138.3 yards. Rushers averaged 4.48 yards per carry against the Jets, 24th in the league.

This offseason, the Jets lost their best run stuffer, defensive tackle Folorunso Fatukasi, and they did not spend any premium resources on the interior defensive line or linebacker. Even though the NFL is now a passing league, it feels as if the Jets could be vulnerable against the run.

But head coach Robert Saleh said his team was better against the run in 2021 than the numbers indicate.

Jets coach Rob Saleh believes his team’s run defense will improve after upgrading the secondary.
Bill Kostroun

“A lot of the things that skewed our numbers is at the second level of the defense in terms of eliminating explosives,” Saleh said. “When you’re a single-high [safety] team like we are, you’re going to get creased, you’re going to get to the second level, and can you get it down before it breaks for 80 and before it breaks for 60 and some of those big, long runs that we gave up? So, from an efficiency standpoint, just studying it through analytics and all the different stats that are out there, from an efficiency standpoint we were at the top half of the league in run game. Unfortunately, we gave up, we are one of the worst from an explosive standpoint, which is 12 yards or more. We gave up a lot of explosive plays and massively explosive plays that really skewed the numbers out of whack.”

The Jets’ internal stats say that they were 22nd in the league in explosive play percentage on called runs (no quarterback scrambles). They were 10th in tackles for loss and 18th in EPA per play (expected points added).

Saleh pointed to the explosive plays (12 yards or more) as the biggest issue. The Jets just had one game, a win over the Bengals, in which they did not give up an explosive play in the run game. They had seven games in which they gave up three or more.

Their worst performance was against the Colts, when they gave up 260 yards rushing, including touchdown runs of 78, 34 and 21 yards.

Saleh said there needs to be a collective effort on all three levels of the defense to avoid big runs.

“It’s everybody,” Saleh said. “You get creased. The run game crease is now under the secondary, so the last line of defense saves it, keeps it inside 12 yards, and if it gets past them, that’s where you get — for example, the Indianapolis game, we were gapped out. We missed the gap and hits in the B-gap, gets to the second level and [the secondary needs to] save it. I think that’s probably one of the more underrated things we ask out of our secondary. The great ones can keep it inside 12, and if you can keep it inside 12, your run game is always going to be good.”

Sheldon Rankins
Bill Kostroun

The Jets’ run defense will be tested immediately in Week 1 against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, one of the best rushing teams in the NFL. The Jets do have some additions that should help. Whitehead is a safety who is active around the line of scrimmage and he has already made some big plays in training camp to blow up runs. The Jets boosted their linebacker corps with the addition of Kwon Alexander in camp.

“I think a big thing is just going to be everybody just doing their job,” defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. “I know that sounds simple, but there were a lot of times where sadly we were down early in some games and guys are pressing to make plays, guys are trying to do too much, trying to make plays that aren’t there or trying to make plays they anticipate being there. Then you get out of your gap and it’s an 18-yard run or it’s a 30-yard run. Those things add up over the course of a game. I think it’s as simple as guys doing what they need to do. It’s not some big secret. It’s not some big formula.”


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