With the Cowboys traveling to New Jersey to take on the Jets this week, many people are talking about two major storylines with this team: Sam Darnold’s return from mono and the fact that Gang Green is winless. Not much is being said about how good the defense is, though, which it is.
The Jets made huge investments in their defense over the offseason, spending the third overall pick on defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and handing a five-year, $85 million contract to linebacker CJ Mosley. Both players left with an injury in the season opener and Williams only returned last week. Still, the Jets are playing quite well on defense in a lot of ways.
They’re 12th in total yards, seventh in rushing yards allowed, third in rushing yards per carry, tied for fifth in most interceptions, tied for third in fumble recoveries, and tied for fourth in passing touchdowns surrendered. Additionally, their defense ranks 10th in DVOA with a score of -5.0%, an improvement from the previous week.
How has New York accomplished this without their two biggest offseason additions on that side of the ball? A lot of it comes back to their new defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams. While he may forever be known as the guy who orchestrated the bounty program while with the Saints, Williams has always been known as a great defensive coordinator too.
After coming to the Jets, Williams decided to modify his 4-3 scheme to incorporate the 3-4 elements the Jets have been used to, and it’s mostly worked. Williams’ scheme already involved some tenets of a 3-4 defense, most notably his aggressive, all-out style of blitzing. With Williams running the Browns defense last year, only the Ravens drew up more blitzes than his unit. His defense specifically sent defensive backs on blitzes nearly 12% of the time, just one indicator of how creative Williams likes to get.
However, the Jets also rank low in some fairly important categories: they’re allowing 25.2 points per game, with only seven other teams allowing more, and their pass defense is 21st in the league and giving up 260 yards through the air each game. From a trend perspective, the Jets defense is kind of similar to the Packers defense that Dak and company just torched: they’ve progressively given up more points each week. New York gave up 17 points in Week 1, followed by 23 to the Browns, then 30 to the Patriots before limiting the struggling Eagles to 17 points.
Part of this is due to the absence of Williams and Mosley. Williams played against the Eagles and recorded five tackles, but Mosley is still likely to miss the Cowboys game. In his place has been an unlikely emergence from Neville Hewitt, a linebacker who went undrafted back in 2015. Hewitt leads the team in tackles (29), tackles for loss (4), and sacks (2). He’s also tied for the lead in interceptions. He’s stepped up in Mosley’s place but he’s one of the few.
Leonard Williams, former sixth overall pick from USC, has only 11 tackles and has yet to register a sack or tackle for loss despite playing the vast majority of the time. He hasn’t even registered a hit on the quarterback since Week 2, a frustrating struggle for the player who’s tallied 14 sacks over the last three years and was expected to perform better in Williams’ new scheme. Similarly, Henry Anderson had seven sacks last year and so far this year has none to speak of. He left the most recent game early with an injury and is questionable against Dallas, but even so he’s been a non-factor so far.
Some of these issues the defense has likely stem from Williams trying to be too creative with what he does. As mentioned, he loves to blitz with anyone, and it’s not uncommon to see him call an all-out cover zero blitz in the middle of the field. He also tends to drop defensive linemen in coverage with frequency to trick opposing quarterbacks. Take this, for example:
Gregg Williams: I've turned down 72 head coaching offers.— Dalton Miller (@DaltonBMiller) October 10, 2019
Also Gregg Williams: I'm gonna ask a 280-pound UDFA defensive lineman to carry Miles Sanders on a wheel route.
I think Dan Snyder should call this guy. pic.twitter.com/jNoOo6bdP1
It’s a weakside blitz with two linebackers and tight man coverage, and the play does work in generating pressure, but Carson Wentz notices a burly defensive lineman trying to play man coverage against his speedy running back on a wheel route and takes advantage for a 36-yard pickup.
At a time in the NFL where creativity is all the rage, and rightfully so, Williams brings plenty of that to a defense that’s trying to make up for a lack of talent, but it sometimes hurts them. If Dallas can take advantage of that, along with some suspect play from the Jets cornerbacks, the offense can pile up points against a defense that’s been giving up too many of them so far. If Dak and company can continue that trend and avoid shooting themselves in the foot like they did last week, Sam Darnold’s return won’t make any difference.