Credibility is a hard thing to come by in a topsy-turvy league like the NFL. One week’s victor is the next week’s outright embarrassment, while only a select few teams consistently remain good.
For the past four years, the New York Jets were anything but good, let alone credible or reliable. Under former coach Rex Ryan, the swings from week to week or sometimes quarter to quarter were wild and unpredictable. Last season, the Jets stunned the eventual AFC North champion Pittsburgh Steelers before their bye week. After the break, they lost by 35 points to the Buffalo Bills, who, mind you, couldn’t practice the entire week because their players were snowed into their homes. So you can understand why, with a rookie head coach and a quarterback room in some modicum of turmoil, the Jets weren’t exactly thought of as good by the general public entering the 2015 regular season.
As often happens with preseason predictions, we were wrong. The Jets are good – good enough to go toe-to-toe with the New England Patriots on the road Sunday. Despite the loss, Todd Bowles’ group proved their 4-1 start wasn’t a matter of luck or convenient scheduling. Instead, the Jets have been remarkably consistent. Though seven weeks, New York is sixth in the NFL in point differential, fifth in turnover margin and first in total yards differential. In a mediocre AFC, the Jets are not only a legitimate playoff contender, but potentially a bigger threat to the Patriots or the unbeaten Cincinnati Bengals than any other team in the conference.
This idea might catch some off-guard, or even strike others as outrageous. The Pittsburgh Steelers are about to add Ben Roethlisberger back to the NFL’s best offense and a surprisingly frisky defense, while the unbeaten Denver Broncos possess an equally terrifying defense and a much headier group of names on offense than the Jets, including quarterback Peyton Manning. But those offensive weapons have grown stale with Manning’s physical limitations even more readily apparent behind a bad offensive line. Truth be told, behind far better protection, Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been more effective than Manning through six starts.
Although hardly perfect – the Patriots dropped at least four potential interceptions Sunday – Fitzpatrick has played to the limits of offensive coordinator Chan Gailey’s system, in the best way possible. With solid pass protection in front and 6-foot-4 Brandon Marshall and 6-foot-3 Eric Decker as his primary targets, a fair amount of Fitzpatrick’s “mistakes” that would normally be incompletions or, worse, interceptions are saved by Decker and Marshall’s size and strong hands at the catch point. Gailey has also done an excellent job of using that size where it’s most inconvenient for defenses, particularly in the slot. Both Decker and Marshall have lined up in the slot on at least 24 percent of their snaps. Decker, in particular, has been a monster inside, averaging 2.58 yards per route run from the slot, fifth in the league according to Pro Football Focus.
While the Jets have been dominant in the short and intermediate passing game, they’ve been less so downfield. Through six games, the Jets have attempted 28 passes of 20 or more yards but completed only five of them, the 31st-best ratio and ahead of only Kirk Cousins and Marcus Mariota. The low success rate is concerning, but not unexpected. It’s encouraging that Gailey continues to call for a downfield attempt two to four times a game. Despite Fitzpatrick’s limited downfield ability, the continued effort should keep defenses somewhat honest, allowing room for the most dominant aspect of the Jets’ offense to flourish.
The emergence of running back Chris Ivory this season has been both bountiful and beautiful for New York. Branded simply as a bruising, short-yardage back when he arrived in a 2013 trade, Ivory is a far more athletic and agile runner than he’s given credit for. Although he can still run someone over – just ask Donte Whiter – Ivory’s patience and vision are criminally underreported, as is his elusiveness in the open field. The concern, as it was in New Orleans and in college, is his ability to remain healthy for a full season. So far this year, Ivory has already dealt with strains in his quad, groin and hamstring, the latter of which visibly limited him in the first half against the Patriots. The Jets are expected to activate former New England back Stevan Ridley in time for Week 8, which should help ease Ivory’s load, especially once third-down back Bilal Powell returns to health, as well.
The backfield trio allows Fitzpatrick and Gailey to keep the offense balanced – 210 pass attempts to 192 rushes thus far – which helps the Jets control the clock and the tempo. On Sunday, the Jets had scoring drives of 15, 14, 13 and nine plays and on the season, New York is sixth in time of possession. With no real big-play threat in the passing game, this manipulation of the clock helps keep the Jets in close games. Against the high-powered offenses in Cincinnati and New England, it also keeps New York’s defense from tiring out before the fourth quarter, something they were unable to do Sunday.
Against the Patriots, the Jets’ defense did something it hadn’t done all season – surrender a lead in the second half. Entering Sunday, the Jets had outscored their opponents 68-21 after the second quarter and had yet to allow anyone to score more than seven points after halftime, a sign of a bright coaching staff able and willing to adjust their plan on the fly.
As it did with Bowles’ defense in Arizona, the Jets’ success on defense starts in the secondary. Cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie are asked to play a heavy dose of press-man coverage on the outside, with slot cornerback Buster Skrine and safeties Marcus Gilchrist and Calvin Pryor ranging and moving throughout the formation based on the play-call. Revis has been his usual dominant self, limiting opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 36 this season and allowing 0.65 yards per coverage snap, according to PFF. While the Island understandably gets the headlines, the development of Pryor, along with the play of Skrine and Gilchrist, has made Bowles’ scheme sing thus far.
In Arizona, Bowles used Tyrann Mathieu as his ultimate chess piece, a safety/slot corner hybrid who was just as likely to blitz off the edge as he was to drop into deep coverage or play press man against a 6-foot-3-plus tight end. While the Jets don’t have Mathieu, they use Skrine, Gilchrist and Pryor to fill his shoes in Bowles’ scheme. Skrine is primarily the nickel corner, although he has the ability to move outside. This flexibility allows Bowles to give the defense different looks regardless of situation. The Jets have made use of that by blitzing Skrine on 10 percent of his pass coverage snaps and he’s responded with six total pressures, more than all corners except one – Mathieu. This leaves Gilchrist to centerfield, a role in which he’s excelled after being a liability in San Diego last season. Gilchrist’s even play and good deep coverage skills have also allowed Pryor to flourish in his second season. After a rookie year in which he was clearly unprepared for the speed of the NFL, Pryor is taking much better angles to the ball-carrier and making sound open-field tackles. Known primarily as a “box safety” or run-stuffer coming out of college, Pryor’s coverage skills are much improved. It’s not a coincidence that once he left the game Sunday, Brady began to heat up over the middle of the field, attacking Pryor’s replacement, Dion Bailey.
Part of what makes New York’s secondary so potent is a domineering front line, particularly in the run game. Led by the unblockable Muhammad Wilkerson, the defensive line has spent much of the season toying with offensive linemen, stringing run plays out for dozens of horizontal yards before they or linebackers Demario Davis or David Harris come to collect. The Patriots respected the Jets’ run defense so much they only handed off five times in 61 plays Sunday. The consistent lack of success on early downs then forces offenses into obvious passing situations, which plays right into Bowles’ blitz-happy tendencies.
Although the Jets’ sack numbers are lagging behind their overall pressure metrics, Bowles’ scheme is predicated as much on forcing the passer out of his comfort zone as it is bringing him down for a loss. By altering the quarterback’s throwing lanes or by rushing the decision-making process, Bowles and defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers dictate the terms of engagement. For the most part, the plan has worked as well as could be expected, with the Jets totaling 15 takeaways thus far, two more than they had all of last season.
The concern up front is the lack of a true edge-rusher, something Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan chose not to address in their first offseason. Although Wilkerson is in the midst of a career year – he’s well on pace for a career high in sacks and his 31 pressures are second only to J.J. Watt among 3-4 defensive ends – New York’s inability to dynamically affect the pocket in under 2.5 seconds is evident against a passer of Brady’s caliber. Instead of selecting Vic Beasley at No. 6 in April’s draft, the Jets chose defensive linemen Leonard William, who’s been outstanding in his first season but isn’t a pure pass-rusher. Still, the Jets have managed 90 hurries and 39 quarterback hits through six games, indicators that the defense is not only affecting the quarterback’s decision-making process, but physically getting their hands on him. The law of averages suggests it’s only a matter of time before some of those hurries and hits translate into sacks.
Much like the rest of their team, the Jets’ pass-rush is just a piece of a well-designed puzzle. The front seven and back end are symbiotic, with linebackers and defensive backs moving effortlessly throughout the field. On offense, the run game works off of the passing attack, which takes advantage of the room in the middle of the field created by safeties and linebackers creeping up to stop Ivory. It’s all a function of the Jets’ best trait – balance. There’s no one asset that stands out egregiously over the other. They’re sixth in offensive DVOA, second in defense and sixth in Football Outsiders’ variance metric, which, to put it simply, measures how consistent teams are from week to week.
The Jets don’t have the high-end potential of the Steelers or the high-end names of the Broncos, but they do have a well-rounded group on offense and defense with an 83.2 percent chance of making the playoffs. Once they get there, it’s anyone’s game.