|Eff. Rating||Adj. Rating||Rank|
|Pass EPA||Rush EPA||Adj. Pass Rate|
I’ll start with the obvious bad news: the Jets fielded one of the NFL’s worst offenses in 2021. After a promising showing in the preseason, Zach Wilson struggled throughout the regular season with decision-making and consistency. The game seemed to move too fast for him as defensive linemen were constantly in his face, forcing him into situations where it was very tough to make a positive play. In fact, the Jets’ best offensive performance on the season came in an upset against the Bengals with Mike White at the helm. It wasn’t the season Jets fans wanted to see from the #2 overall pick.
But I think he had valid excuses. Right out the gate he faced three of the more complex and high-pressure defenses in the NFL in Carolina, New England, and Denver. Belichick and Vic Fangio in particular employ confusing defenses that notoriously fluster inexperienced quarterbacks, so his slow start was to be expected. They also dealt with meaningful injuries from the outset, losing tackle Mekhi Becton for the season and skill players that were in and out of the lineup all year. In the two games he had to play without his other starting tackle, George Fant, and rookie standout receiver Elijah Moore, the Jets played two of their worst offensive games down the stretch against the Dolphins (-0.89 Adj. Rating) and Bills (-1.95).
The coaching staff also gave him no easy outs, insisting on putting the game in his hands. Even factoring out their high volume of passing in garbage time, they passed at the 10th-highest rate on first and second down with the game in reach. With Robert Saleh emerging from the Kyle Shanahan coaching tree and a rookie quarterback behind center I expected a more run-heavy approach. They did run the ball fairly well, finishing 14th in yards per carry and 18th in rushing EPA/play. They just didn’t lean on the ground game much at all. Although rushing success has almost no correlation with winning Super Bowls, the Jets weren’t going to win a Super Bowl this year. Rushing volume can help a rookie quarterback with the NFL’s steep learning curve, the way the Patriots helped out Mac Jones, for example.
Despite all that, the Jets showed vast improvement from their abysmal 2020 showing. Their average Adj. Eff. Rating improved from -1.10 to -0.52, which means they ended up halfway between their 2020 showing and a league-average offense. Wilson was able to make throws when he had a clean pocket, putting receivers in position to turn catches into additional yards, another staple of a Kyle Shanahan offense. They ended up with the 7th-highest yards after catch per completion, which is one way to offset the disadvantage of a young quarterback under constant pressure. It also demonstrates an important and overlooked aspect of quarterback accuracy: the ability to put the ball in spots where defenders can’t make an immediate play. For comparison, the top four offenses in yards after catch per completion were the 49ers (Shanahan), Bengals (Burrow), Chiefs (Mahomes), and Packers (Rodgers). Pretty good company.
Even under pressure, Wilson did a fairly good job of avoiding sacks, as the Jets had the 11th-lowest rate of sacks per pressure. This, in part, excuses his league-worst on-target percentage, as many of his throws were either throwaways or desperation passes. Taking incompletions over sacks doesn’t pad a quarterback’s stat sheet but it does help reduce third-and-long situations, which can help a bad offense out. But without being able to consistently complete passes, the Jets could not get much going on offense. Chart A shows how the Jets performed with Zach Wilson, ranking each opponent by its completion percentage allowed on the season.
Through a combination of pressure and coverage, the Bills, Patriots, Broncos, Dolphins, Saints, and Titans all finished top-7 in completion percentage allowed. These teams held the Jets to an average -0.91 Adj. Eff. Rating (which measures performance relative to opponent strength). By contrast, the Jets averaged -0.53 against teams that permitted a higher completion percentage. Still not great, but materially better.
The Jets played a tough schedule of opposing defenses as well, including seven games against top-10 defenses. With young talent in key positions, good players returning from injury, significant draft capital, and a healthy amount of cap space, there are plenty of ways to spin this as a narrative of growth heading into 2022. But they do have to put it together on the field. Wilson is not a proven NFL quarterback. Saleh is not a proven NFL head coach. Well-placed optimism should not be replaced with an assumption that this offense will be better next year, but the pieces are in place for a big step forward.
|Eff. Rating||Adj. Rating||Rank|
|Pass EPA||Rush EPA||Blitz Rate||Pressure Rate|
Unfortunately, the Jets defense was just as bad is its offense. They were unable to exert pressure on the quarterback or get penetration on run plays. This had negative ripple effects throughout the defense that they lacked the talent to overcome. Even the best NFL cornerbacks will give up plays eventually if opposing quarterbacks are given enough time in a clean pocket. And the Jets corners were not close to being the best.
To be fair, the Jets also suffered significant injuries on this side of the ball. They looked poised in the offseason to take a step forward on defense after signing edge rusher Carl Lawson to join stud Quinnen Williams on the defensive line. But he tore his achilles before he could take a snap. This set them back initially, and then star safety Marcus Maye also tore his achilles halfway through the season. They had good plays and good moments, but you can’t win in today’s NFL without some combination of rushing the passer and strong coverage. They did neither well.
Their worst games came against basic run-heavy teams with quarterbacks who need time in the pocket to succeed. Opponents did not need an elite playmaking quarterback or a variety of weapons in the passing game. If a team could win up front they could either run into the heart of the Jets defense or get the ball to their primary options in the passing game. Their worst relative defensive performance of the season (-2.55 Adj. Rating) came against Indianapolis, who succeeded only when they could run the ball and give Wentz a clean pocket. Chart B shows the Jets’ defensive adjusted rating ranking each opponent by its rushing EPA/play on the season:
Three of the Jets’ four worst defensive performances involved getting sliced and diced by IND (-2.55), PHI (-1.36), and NE (-1.47). Each of these teams finished top-10 in rushing EPA/play but did not otherwise boast a potent offense. In those three games, the Jets gave up nearly 200 rushing yards per game. This put the opposing quarterbacks (world-beaters Carson Wentz, Gardner Minshew, and Mac Jones) in such a comfortable position that they completed a combined 72.5% of their passes in those games for over 9 yards per attempt. By contrast, the Texans (+0.42) and Dolphins (-0.10 and -0.37) were unable to capitalize against the Jets because they lacked the run game to take advantage.
Teams with bad run games also tend to give their quarterbacks less time in the pocket, as it typically represents a weakness on the offensive line. So, as Chart C illustrates, there was also a correlation between the Jets’ defensive Effectiveness and how much time each opponent spent in the pocket on average.
This data shows us a weakness in the Jets defense, but it does more than that. This offensive archetype that needs to run the ball and give the quarterback time is an NFL staple. We see it every year in offenses led by Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Andy Dalton, Kirk Cousins, and the list goes on. These quarterbacks can put up numbers when things go their way, and can look like they orchestrate a top NFL offense when the conditions are good. But if you disrupt their timing and take away their run game, things can go downhill. Analyzing the Jets defense demonstrates this dichotomy. Betting on these offenses that need to cross a certain threshold against inferior competition like the Jets can be profitable, particularly when you fade them once they get overrated as a result of an outlier performance.
This may not continue into 2022 for the Jets, however. If Lawson and Maye return healthy they could take a step forward. But once again, things need to go their way and they are running out of excuses. They don’t have a huge margin for error and they are one or two bad injuries away from another hopeless season. Robert Saleh will need to get his defense to buy in and build trust. They had good moments to build on, but changing the culture takes time. The number one priority will be getting pressure on the quarterback, which I think will determine whether they can improve in 2022.
When to bet on the Jets: I’m not eager to get my money on the Jets out of the gate. They still have so much to prove on both sides of the ball. But public perception is arguably too low, which can inflate spreads and create value. I’m only looking to capitalize against teams who may have vulnerability on the offensive line, allowing them to get pressure and stop the run. If they can’t do that, it’s hard to trust them even as underdogs.
When to fade the Jets: I’m also not assuming they continue to be bad in 2022. But if they don’t show improvement, I will look to back teams with average offenses that thrive under the best conditions, like this year’s Colts. I don’t trust the Jets to stop teams focused on one or two offensive weapons and am not ready to back Wilson in a shootout.
What to look for in the offseason: Keep an eye on the recovery timetables for Carl Lawson, Marcus Maye, and Mekhi Becton. They also have excellent draft capital, including picks 4 and 10. If they draft NFL-ready players to bolster the offensive line and/or defensive secondary, the Jets could be on the right path. Their roster holes are obvious and can be fixed. With so much youth at key positions, they may not start hot out of the gate. But barring injuries, they could be poised for a strong stretch run.
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