What’s really keying Jets’ historic defensive turnaround

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A frequent question before this Jets season was usually met with an easy punch line.

Would the Jets defense be better in 2022 than it was in 2021? “Well, it can’t be worse,” was the low-hanging wisecrack.

The Jets finished Robert Saleh’s first season as head coach with the worst-rated defense in points and yards allowed, a brutal exacta. But this season the defense has undergone a turnaround rarely seen in the NFL, and it is a big reason the Jets are fighting for a playoff spot.

The Jets enter this week’s game with the Lions ranked third overall in total defense and sixth in scoring defense. They have gone from allowing 397.6 yards per game in 2021 to 301.2 this season, a change of 96.4 yards per game. Only the 2013 Saints, who decreased their yardage by 135.4 yards per game, have undergone a bigger reversal. The Jets have decreased their points allowed per game from 29.6 to 18.7, a 10.9-point decrease. Only the 2001 Rams (12.3 points) have had a bigger decrease from one season to the next.

So, how have the Jets gone from a unit that gave up 175 points over a four-game span last year to one that has allowed just one 30-point game this year?

The simple explanation is they got better players, and that indeed is a big reason why. The additions of Sauce Gardner, D.J. Reed, Jordan Whitehead along with the return from injuries of Carl Lawson and Lamarcus Joyner have been huge.

But it’s not just that.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) is tackled by New York Jets defensive tackle Quinnen Williams (95) and linebacker C.J. Mosley (
CJ Mosley and Quinnen Williams have combined to help the Jets go from a league-worst defense to one of the NFL’s best.
USA TODAY Sports

The Jets have benefitted from a second year in the scheme of Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. Players say they are now comfortable with their jobs and the jobs of those around them.

“We’ve been able to find that balance with regards to being complex for an offense, but simple for us, so we can be fast,” Saleh said.

They also have seen the emergence of a superstar on the defensive line, with Quinnen Williams wreaking havoc in the middle of the Jets’ defense. Williams has 11 sacks and has looked unblockable this year. The Williams-led pass rush has flummoxed opposing quarterbacks.

There was a stretch of games where the Jets faced backup quarterbacks, and it felt like some of what the defense was doing was a product of inferior quarterbacks. But they have beaten up whoever has been in front of them. Last week, they held Bills quarterback Josh Allen to a season-low 147 passing yards. The Jets have yet to give up 300 passing yards to any quarterback this season.

The secondary, led by Gardner and Reed, has shut down receivers. Stefon Diggs had a season-low 37 yards last week and was held without a touchdown for the first time in four games. The week before, Justin Jefferson had 45 yards for the Vikings.

“It’s a combination of a couple of different things,” defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. “Obviously, you continue to upgrade talent and add pieces, but then it’s just about each and every time we step out there it’s a personal challenge. We take that challenge to heart. It means something for us to be able to stop teams. It means something for us to be able to make those plays to help this team achieve everything we want to achieve. Then, lastly, everybody is always on the same page. The times that you do see plays that we give up, there’s not a lot of finger pointing. There’s not a lot of heads down.

“You add all that in with the talent, with the mentality that we take the field and you get a recipe for success.”

The final piece of this defense’s emergence has been a little luck. The Jets have been incredibly healthy on defense. Quincy Williams and Rankins are the only starters who have missed games this season and they each only missed two. That could change this week if Quinnen Williams, who is dealing with a calf injury, can’t play.

The Jets have faced five of the current top-10 offenses this season and played well against all of them except the Browns. They get another one this week with the Lions, who are fourth in total offense, coming to MetLife Stadium.

If the Jets do end up making the playoffs, the defense will be what gets them there. After the Lions, the Jaguars (11th in total offense), Seahawks (13th) and Dolphins (7th) are on the schedule.

With Mike White just six starts into his NFL career, a patchwork offensive line and rookies as their leading running back and wide receiver, the Jets’ offense likely won’t be the unit carrying the team into the postseason.

It’s on the defense, just like it has been all season. They would not want it any other way.

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