With a win against the Patriots on Sunday, the Jets would be in first place in the AFC East this late in the season for the first time since 2010. Not a typo. If they are going to accomplish that and snap a 13-game losing streak against New England it'll be behind their best defense since the Rex Ryan days when they made back-to-back AFC Championship games.
Fewer interceptions from Zach Wilson would also help, but the identity of this team is clearly the defense. The unit's improvement is the main reason Gang Green has gone from one of the worst teams in the league to threatening to snap the longest active playoff drought in the NFL. They are already the only team this year to surpass their preseason over-under win total (5.5).
In their last game, their swarming, physical defense helped pull off their biggest win in years, while limiting MVP favorite Josh Allen to his worst game of the season.
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Their defense was the laughing stock of the league last year in Robert Saleh's first season as the Jets' head coach. They ranked last in scoring defense and total defense. Around this time in 2021, they allowed 175 points in a four-game span, the second-most by any team since 1970. Rock bottom looked like 54 points allowed to the Patriots, 31 to the Bengals, 45 to the Colts and another 45 to the Bills.
This season, they've allowed 176 points in nine games. They are the highest-graded defense in the NFL this year according to Pro Football Focus, after ranking 31st last year.
So just how significant is the turnaround? It's clearly one of the top 3-5 improvements by any team since 2000. Let's dive in:
The Jets have gone from last in scoring defense to 10th this season, allowing 10.1 fewer points per game. They can become the first team since the 2002 Colts to allow 10 fewer PPG from one season to the next. So far it's the third-largest turnaround since 2000.
|LARGEST TURNAROUND IN PPG ALLOWED SINCE 2000|
The Jets have gone from last in total defense to seventh this season, allowing 85.7 fewer yards per game, the third-largest turnaround since 2000, and biggest since the 2012-13 Saints.
|LARGEST TURNAROUND IN YPG ALLOWED SINCE 2000|
The Jets were also last in defensive EPA (expected points added) per game in 2021 but have jumped all the way up to fourth. Their defense was costing the team about seven points per game last year and now they are adding five expected points per game. The exact swing of +12.4 is the fifth-largest since 2000. You might recognize some other seasons on the list. 2011 was J.J. Watt's rookie year with the Texans and 2020 was Chase Young's rookie year with Washington.
|LARGEST TURNAROUND IN DEFENSIVE EPA PER GAME SINCE 2000|
What's behind the turnaround though?
Philosophy Change: Blitzing Less
Remember the exotic blitzes that defined Rex Ryan's defense a decade ago? Or more recently, Gregg Williams' all-out blitz at the end of the Raiders' game in 2020 that dropped the Jets to 0-12?
Well, that is NOT this Jets defense. Not even close. No team has dialed back their blitzing from last year more than the Jets, who are blitzing at the third-lowest rate (16%) in 2022 after blitzing at the ninth-highest rate (28%) in 2021.
The results have been stunning. Despite blitzing less, the Jets are getting pressure at the eighth-highest rate this year (35%) after ranking third-worst (29%) in 2021. Every team in the league would sign up for more pressure while blitzing less in a heartbeat because it means more defenders in coverage.
The pass rush has certainly aided an overhauled secondary, but they've seen a drastic shift in their own right. The Jets have allowed the second-lowest passer rating this year after allowing the second-highest in 2021. Their passer rating dropped 28.5 points, the third-largest improvement since 2000, and best since the 2010-11 Texans.
|BIGGEST OPPONENT PASSER RATING TURNAROUND SINCE 2000|
Personnel is the biggest reason for the shift. The Jets have three new starters in the secondary with rookie cornerback Sauce Gardner, cornerback D.J. Reed (free agent signing) and safety Jordan Whitehead (free agent signing). Gardner and Reed are both graded as top 10 cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus this year.
Sports are about star power and the Jets have two on defense: Sauce Gardner and Quinnen Williams. Williams was the third overall pick in 2019, and Sauce the fourth overall pick in 2022.
Both are living up to expectations this season, and then some. Gardner has been nothing short of a lockdown corner, bringing the type of coverage New York got used to with Darrelle Revis. He is the Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite at Caesars Sportsbook and has the third-best grade among cornerbacks according to Pro Football Focus. He's allowed the third-lowest completion percentage (41%) and passer rating (38.4).
His coverage skills pass the eye test too. He smothered Green Bay's receivers in an upset win at Lambeau Field. He knocked away a deep ball intended for Courtland Sutton to seal a win against Denver, and his interception of Josh Allen was the Jets' turning point in their win against the Bills. He also sealed that game by blanketing Gabe Davis on a deep ball on Buffalo's final play. He's everything Jets fans could have hoped for and more. Elite cornerback with plenty of sauce.
While Sauce has anchored the secondary, Williams has been a game-wrecker up front. He's the third-highest graded interior defender per PFF, just ahead of Aaron Donald in fourth. He has the highest pressure rate (14.2%) among any interior pass rusher this year and is garnering some attention in the Defensive Player of the Year race.
So while this week and the Jets' ceiling might be more about Zach Wilson, don't forget their floor is a playoff contender thanks to a historic turnaround on defense.