In a way, the Jets sort of need to make the AFC Championship Game again — or better — simply to justify their fun-house mirror of a season. Many fans already consider it a disappointment. To figure out this wacky team, we talked to Football Outsiders' Bill Barnwell about the Jets' regular season, whether or not their defense has been a disappointment, Mark Sanchez, and what fans should look for in Saturday's game against the Colts.
Coming into this season, the major reason many thought the Jets could reach the Super Bowl was their defense, but there's a perception that it has been a disappointment. Has it been? Was it fine until Jim Leonhard's injury?
The Jets defense is, by our measures at Football Outsiders, very good. In our core stat, DVOA, the Jets rank as the sixth-best defense in football. They're seventh against the pass and have the league's second-best run D.
(DVOA is our core stat, which measures performance versus the league average after adjusting for the down, distance, the quality of the opposition, and the game situation. If that sounds obtuse, just consider two three-yard gains. One is on third-and-23 in the third quarter of a blowout against the Bills. Not very useful. The other is a carry-on fourth-and-2 in the fourth quarter of a tie game against the Steelers. Obviously, it's far more difficult and far more valuable. At the end of the year, the NFL considers those three-yard runs to be equally valuable. DVOA considers the run against the Bills to be an unsuccessful play and the one against the Steelers to be a very successful one.)
Is that a disappointment? It really depends on what your expectations were heading into the season. In talking about the Jets before the season and writing about them in our annual book, the Football Outsiders Almanac, I was in the really unfortunate position of both reporting on how great Darrelle Revis had played in the previous season and arguing that such an incredible performance was unlikely to happen again.
By our metrics, not only did the Jets have the best defense and pass defense in football in 2009, but Revis played at a level so far above other cornerbacks that it was statistically akin to a quarterback setting the all-time single-season passing record or a running back running for 2,000 yards. Guys don't set the passing record every year. We've calculated DVOA through the 1993 season; there's only been one team that finished first in the pass defense rankings in consecutive seasons, the 2005–06 Bears. The 2001 Bucs had a superior pass defense to last year's Jets; even they couldn't stay in the top spot, falling to third in 2002.
So I really don't think that there's anything to be disappointed about. This is still a very good defense, with some of the decline from the pass defense counteracted by improvements against the run. I've found that the absence of an effective safety tends to affect the run defense more than the passing game, and that's where I might be concerned about Leonhard's absence. While Leonhard was in the lineup, the Jets allowed 3.52 yards per carry; since he went down before Week 13, they've allowed 4.15 yards per carry.
Is there a reason, or a matchup, or something that explains why Peyton Manning has traditionally been so good against Rex Ryan defenses?
I'd love to have some incredibly complicated metric that reveals all here, but the reality is just that Peyton Manning is really good. Rex Ryan's defense is built around confusing quarterbacks and preventing them from making the throws they're expecting to. Peyton does a better job of reading schemes pre-snap than anybody else in football, and once the ball's in his hands, he has the quickest release of any quarterback.
That makes it impossible to get consistent pressure on Peyton, and Rex Ryan hasn't been able to do that — even with the Ravens. Since Ryan took over as the Ravens' defensive coordinator in 2005, he's gone up against the Colts six times and had to endure 180 Manning dropbacks. His defenses have sacked Manning just five times over that time frame, and while Ryan's tried to blitz Manning more and more with each game, there hasn't been much of an improvement. The Jets sacked Manning twice on his first five plays in the playoff game last year, but they didn't get to him the rest of the game. I can't imagine that the Jets have a new wrinkle that should change things.
Is there one player in particular who is most important for the Jets' defense?
I have to figure it's Antonio Cromartie. Darrelle Revis shackled Reggie Wayne in last year's game, but Manning simply looked away from Wayne and was able to throw to Pierre Garcon (eleven catches, 151 yards) and Austin Collie (seven catches, 123 yards) at will, with Lito Sheppard particularly at fault. The Jets brought in Cromartie to upgrade that spot across from Revis.
Cromartie's a tricky player to talk about. He gets a lot of recognition because of his interception totals and his ability as a return guy — he's really good at the things you actually see a cornerback do on TV. The problem is the things that you don't normally see. He can be beaten off the line and get stuck playing catch-up from the very first step. He's not great at reading routes, and when he gets fooled, he's not skilled enough in the dark arts of cornerbackery to get away with the penalties he's called for. If he plays well, the Jets' chances of winning increase dramatically.
You guys are noted skeptics about Mark Sanchez. Is he better than last year? Worse? Better in the second half, or worse? Should they be worried about him long term?
He's slightly better than last year. His interceptions have gone down, although a lot of that is a five-game stretch to start the season in which he miraculously avoided throwing interceptions. Consider that our game-charting project tracks the number of times a quarterback throws a would-be interception that the other team drops; our data isn't updated through the end of the season, but through Week 14, Sanchez led the league in dropped picks.
The difficulty with projecting Sanchez long-term is that it's really difficult to find comparable players; the best quarterbacks tend to be the guys who show up as college freshmen, start four years, and then leave as seniors with 40-plus games under their belt. Sanchez played one year in college and left, and he immediately became the starter on a playoff-caliber team. That's an incredible set of circumstances. That background shows in how Sanchez plays: He seems to alternate great games and awful ones, even great passes with mind-bogglingly dumb decisions within the same drive. That's not a quarterback who lacks the skills to be an NFL quarterback, it's one that's underdeveloped and beyond raw.
He's 27th in our DVOA statistic, and that's with a very good running game, above-average receivers, and a very good offensive line. The Jets could certainly do better as far as quarterbacks go right now (although no one better is currently on the roster).
Would the Jets have been better off against the Chiefs than the Colts?
Absolutely, the Chiefs would have been a better opponent than the Colts. I think that we were the only people on the Chiefs' bandwagon before the season, as we predicted them to win the AFC West in our book because their schedule was so easy. That doesn't make them a great team, though. They rank seventeenth in DVOA, which is slightly worse than the Colts (fifteenth), but the Jets are a uniquely bad matchup for the Chiefs because of how they play. The one thing the Chiefs do very well is run the ball, and as I mentioned, the Jets have a great run defense.
So, are the Jets gonna win?
It's certainly possible that they could win. Maybe they win four out of every ten times they play this game. But the Colts are the deserved favorites, and I think that they end up winning this weekend.