EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - NOVEMBER 24: Free safety Marcus Maye #20 of the New York Jets and his teammates react after stopping the Oakland Raiders one yard short of a first down during the second half of the game at MetLife Stadium on November 24, 2019 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

New York Jets DC Gregg Williams led an island of misfit toys to a top-10 defense in 2019. Will he be able to find that same success in 2020?

Kyle Newman

The New York Jets defense was supposed to be a disaster waiting to happen in 2019. Trumaine Johnson and Darryl Roberts were the starting corners and the team had no pass rush.

Things only looked worse when the injuries started to pile up. Avery Williamson, C.J. Mosley, and Quinnen Williams were just some of the important players who went down with significant injuries.

Halfway through the season, the Jets were starting Neville Hewitt and James Burgess at linebacker with Arthur Maulet and sixth-round rookie Bless Austin starting at cornerback. The Jets defense was mostly a collection of veteran minimum players combined with unproven young guys.

Despite that, Gregg Williams not only found a way to make the defense competent, but he made them elite. The Jets defense finished 10th in DVOA, seventh in yards allowed, fifth in yards allowed per drive, second in rush yards allowed, and first in run stops.

With new pieces added and the team not losing anyone too important, the defense should only improve in 2020 right? There are a ton of reasons to expect the Jets’ defense to regress in 2020. It’ll be a huge challenge for Gregg Williams to repeat his miracle revival of this defense.

Run Defense

The Jets’ run defense in 2019 was beyond dominant. They decimated some of the best running backs in the NFL. Saquon Barkley averaged .08 yards per carry, Adrian Peterson averaged 2.8 YPC, Joe Mixon averaged 2.3 YPC, Josh Jacobs 3.4, Ezekiel Elliot 3.8, and Nick Chubb 3.4. There’s no reason that should change in 2020.

The defensive line was dominant. Steve McLendon was one of the best run-stuffing defensive tackles in the NFL, and he returns. Rookies Quinnen Williams and Kyle Phillips were dominant in the run game. Most importantly, All-Pro safety Jamal Adams was a dominant run stuffer.

The Jets already led the league in run stuff percentage without factoring in Adams. They stuffed 20% of runs for no gain or less in 2019. When Adams was in the box, that number jumped up to an insane 30%. When Adams was in the box, running backs only averaged 0.3 yards before contact. It was nearly impossible to run the ball against him.

The run defense was this dominant with putrid play from their linebackers. With Williamson and Mosley out for most of the season, the Jets had to rely on backups. It didn’t go well, but fans hardly noticed because of the dominant run defense.

With Williamson and Mosley returning in 2020, the run defense only stands to get better. That’s a good thing because the Jets are going to need it. They play some of the best rush offenses in the NFL in 2020 in the Bills, 49ers, Raiders, Seahawks, and Browns. Not to mention, teams like the Dolphins and Patriots will likely rely heavily on the running game with young quarterbacks leading their offenses.

A dominant run defense forcing teams to be one dimensional would be a huge help for the Jets. If they can force opponents to pass, then they can game plan around passing offenses. That’s part of the reason the Jets were able to rank 18th in pass defense DVOA despite having the worst cornerback group in the NFL in 2019.

Pass Rush

The Jets haven’t had a strong pass in a long time. Even their dominant defenses in 2009 and 2010 lacked a strong pass rush. That didn’t change in 2019 when the Jets ranked 23rd in sacks. Gang Green had just two players who had more than three sacks in 2019, Jordan Jenkins and Jamal Adams.

Jenkins is back again in 2019, and he’s hoping to continue his upward trend. Jenkins has increased his sack total every year of his career. His 8.0 sacks in 14 games in 2019 is a career-high. If he continues to improve, he could be the best edge rusher the Jets have had since Calvin Pace had 10 sacks in 2013.

Adams went on a tear as a pass rusher in the middle of the 2019 season. The All-Pro safety had all 6.5 sacks in a span of four weeks, including a three-sack game against the Washington Redskins.

Adams is an impressive pass rusher. His 12 career sacks are more than any other safety in the NFL has in the past decade. Adams has more sacks in just three seasons than any other safety had in the last 10 years combined. Troy Polamalu is often hailed as one of the best pass-rushing safeties the NFL has ever seen; he compiled only 12 sacks in his 12-year career.

The Jets didn’t do much this offseason to address their pass rush issue. The biggest move was selecting Florida edge rusher, Jabari Zuniga, with a third-round pick.

Zuniga will likely see plenty of playing time in 2019 as the team’s 4-2-5 defensive end. How much of an impact he has will be up for debate. Zuniga’s career-high in sacks at Florida was just 6.5.

The Jets are also expecting big breakout performances from a number of their young defensive linemen. Kyle Phillips was a dominant run defender, but he lacked punch as a pass rusher. Could that change in year two? Quinnen Williams was a dominant pass rusher at Alabama, but he struggled mightily in that aspect as a rookie. Will Quinnen live up the hype and grow as a pass rusher now that he’s fully healthy?

There’s a lot of ifs associated with the Jets pass rush. That’s not what a team is looking for when they have one of the worst cornerback situations in the NFL.

Gregg Williams is going to have to figure out how to bring pressure in 2020. The New York Jets’ pass defense won’t be able to survive without it.

Secondary

The pass defense form 2019 was a mirage created by Gregg Williams and a litany of struggling quarterbacks. The Jets faced Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, Mason Rudolph, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield, Gardner Minshew, Andy Dalton, and Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2019. It wasn’t exactly a murderer’s row of passers. That helped to create the illusion of an average pass defense despite the team’s poor corners. That won’t happen again in 2020.

The Jets are slated to face Jimmy Garoppolo, Philip Rivers, Kyler Murray, Pat Mahomes, and Russell Wilson in 2020. The level of competition is jumping up in a big way.

That’s going to make Williams’ job much more difficult. He was able to get the most out of his corners in 2019 by playing a lot of zone defense. Williams wasn’t asking his guys to follow receivers or cover a ton of ground. That’ll likely continue in 2020, but with the starting corners taking a bigger role.

Brian Poole was incredibly successful in 2019. He was the best slot corner in the NFL, and arguably one of the 10 best at the position in 2019. He returns in 2020 and should hold down the slot with little issue.

The problem is the outside corners. Pierre Desir is slated to be the team’s No. 1 corner. He was extremely successful in 2018 with the Colts. A change from a zone scheme to a man scheme and injuries caused a down year for Desir in 2019.

Will he be able to regain his form in 2020? The Jets hope so, but considering 2018 is the only year in Desir’s career he’s been even average, let alone above average, it’s not hard to imagine him failing to live up to expectations.

The Jets have a huge competition set for training camp to decide who will play across from Desir. Austin, Maulet, Quincy Wilson, and rookie fifth-rounder Bryce Hall are the leading candidates. That list doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Hall is likely the favorite for the spot. He was a first-round corner before a horrific injury ended his senior season. If he comes into camp fully healthy, which is the expectation, and he plays to that level again, he should grab the job without much difficulty.

If Hall has a setback or doesn’t play up to the level he was at before his injury, the Jets are in trouble. Maulet, Austin, and Wilson either haven’t played well or haven’t played well over a full season in any of their careers.

It’s a nightmare scenario for the Jets that’ll likely lead to a poor pass defense. Luckily for the Jets, they have one of the best safety tandems in the NFL.

Adams is one of the best coverage safeties in the NFL. He allowed just 55.3% completion percentage and 4.9 yards per completion. His man coverage skills are among the best at the position in the NFL. The Jets allowed just one tight end to gain more than 60 yards in 2019. They shut down Zach Ertz, Darren Waller, and Jason Witten with Adams in coverage.

Marcus Maye is no slouch either. He only allowed 45% completion percentage, which was second-best in the NFL. His 30% forced completion rate was fourth in the NFL.

Maye is the main reason why the Jets were able to limit opponent deep balls in 2019. They were rarely beaten over the top when Maye was playing deep.

The Jets’ secondary isn’t ideal, to say the least, but if anyone can figure out how to navigate it, it’ll be Gregg Williams. The last time Williams coached a defense that didn’t finish at least 16th in DVOA was 2011. There aren’t many coordinators who do more with less.

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