Robert Saleh’s NY Jets defense will depend greatly on one factor

Can the New York Jets fulfill the crucial requirement that Robert Saleh’s defense depends on?

Robert Saleh was hired as the New York Jets‘ head coach based on his reputation as a defensive guru. In his first year at the helm, though, the Jets ranked at the bottom of the league in almost every defensive metric.

Other than the growth of Zach Wilson, there is perhaps no other area of improvement as crucial for Saleh in Year 2 as the defense’s showing.

Though there are many culprits for the defense’s abysmal showing, the lack of turnovers forced may be the single biggest one.

With all the zone coverage that Saleh’s defensive scheme relies upon, there is a great need to swing the balance of drives by taking the ball away from the opponent. Considering the suspect state of the Jets’ run defense coming into 2022, turnovers will be ever more important.

The Jets ranked second-to-last in the NFL in that metric last season with only 14 total turnovers forced – 7 interceptions and 7 fumble recoveries. The interception numbers are particularly terrible considering the league’s pass-happy approach.

The website The 33rd Team performed a fascinating analysis in the middle of the 2020 season. They looked back at the previous 10 seasons of teams and Super Bowl champions to search for patterns. Using clustering techniques, which group based on various common characteristics, the study (called “The 7 Traits of Highly Effective NFL Playoff Teams”) concluded that run defense seems to have one of the strongest correlations with both making the playoffs and advancing deep into the postseason.

Of the teams that play bend-but-don’t-break football, the ones that make deep runs almost always have highly opportunistic defenses (and high-powered offenses). Although the Jets are not necessarily expecting a postseason berth this year, the fact remains that to be consistently successful, this defense will need to force turnovers.

The question facing Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich is this: have the Jets done enough to significantly improve in this area?

Analyzing the turnover production of the New York Jets’ roster

Let’s start with interceptions, the primary source of a defense’s turnovers. Those occur mainly in the secondary. D.J. Reed will replace Bryce Hall on the outside. Reed had 2 interceptions in 14 games (68 targets) last season and 2 in 10 games (55 targets) the prior season. In his first two years, Reed did not record a single pick, though he did force one fumble each year (not to be discounted, since he’s a willing and able tackler who defends the run well).

On the other hand, Hall’s weakest point may be his ball skills. In 25 career games played, he has just one interception, which came in 2020. Failing to record a single takeaway as a team’s CB1 is just unacceptable.

While Hall presumably moves to the third cornerback position, Reed’s interception numbers are slightly but not significantly better. Hall still has time to develop ball instincts, since he had a high total of passes defended last season (16, 6th in the NFL), but for now, he is a liability in this area.

Sauce Gardner fared somewhat better in his three years in college. In 33 career games and on 138 targets, Sauce recorded 9 picks. He averaged a pick every 15.3 targets during his college career, a number which would translate to 4-5 picks per season in the NFL (based on the average number of starting cornerback targets). Sauce should come in and immediately increase the Jets’ interception totals.

Michael Carter II and Brandin Echols, the Jets’ fourth and fifth corners for 2022, combined for 2 INTs last season, both by Echols. Neither was a significant factor in the turnover game despite playing large roles on the defense.

At safety, the addition of Jordan Whitehead should definitely help the Jets’ run defense. However, it’s not a particular boon for the turnover conversation. Whitehead has 5 picks and 2 forced fumbles in four seasons (55 starts) in the league. Then again, he is considered a box safety and was brought in as a run-first defender.

The other safety position is up the air for the Jets. The battle seems to be between Lamarcus Joyner and Jason Pinnock, although Ashtyn Davis still looms as a less-likely possibility.

The Jets won’t get much help from Joyner in the turnover department; of the seven seasons he’s played, five of them have ended with zero INTs. His career-high is 3 picks in 2017 with the Rams. He also forced only 2 fumbles over that time, so it appears that forcing turnovers is not a significant part of Joyner’s game.

Pinnock failed to record a pick in 12 games in his rookie season, though he did force two fumbles. He also had 6 picks in 30 college games, including 3 in 2020, so he may have some ball skills. Not something to be counted on, though.

Overall, the Jets’ secondary does not seem to be significantly opportunistic. Many of the players are still young and could develop in that department, though. What about the front seven when it comes to forcing fumbles?

Jets X-Factor Membership

Quinnen Williams has 2 forced fumbles in 41 career games (0 in 610 snaps last season). Carl Lawson has 2 in 51. John Franklin-Myers has 2 in 47. Jermaine Johnson had 3 in 28 games in college. Sheldon Rankins has 3 in 79 career games. Jacob Martin has been the best in this area, with 6 forced fumbles in 61 career games. Martin and Johnson seem to be the most opportunistic of the bunch.

(Note that I use forced fumbles rather than turnovers caused via fumble, because once the ball is on the ground, there is a large element of luck in where it will land.)

At linebacker, the story is slightly better. C.J. Mosley has 8 forced fumbles and 10 picks in 95 career games, which is not bad. He had 2 forced fumbles last season. Quincy Williams has 4 career forced fumbles in 34 games, including 3 last season.

Hamsah Nasirildeen had 3 forced fumbles and 4 picks in 35 games in college, all coming from the safety position. Jamien Sherwood had 1 pick and 0 forced fumbles in 34 games at safety in college. DQ Thomas, the Jets’ undrafted free agent with a good chance to make the team as the roster stands, had 8 forced fumbles and 2 picks in 53 games against inferior competition.

Though turnovers are not an easy stat to measure or predict season-over-season, the Jets should be spending time with their secondary talking about ball-hawking. With a shaky run defense, it’s that much more important for the Jets to swing the game.

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