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What Happened to the Jets 3rd Down Defense?

Football Outsiders is doing a feature over at ESPN highlighting a problem that each team is facing as we head into the offseason. For the Jets, they looked at the Jets poor defensive performance on third downs. The good news, he expects to be much better in 2011. You know if there even is a 2011. Read the full analysis here:

It was only fitting that the Jets’ season ended because their vaunted defense was unable to get the Pittsburgh Steelers off the field on a third-down play. Allowing Ben Roethlisberger’s pitch-and-catch to Emmanuel Sanders to seal a victory in the AFC Championship Game was par for the course for a defense that was stout on first and second downs but positively inept when it came to closing the deal. New York’s defensive DVOA splits by down will come as a surprise to those who think of Rex Ryan as a mad genius who blitzes quarterbacks into oblivion in passing situations. The Jets were a top-five defense on first and second down, but their 32.1 percent DVOA on third downs was the worst performance of any defense in the league. Moreover, the Jets’ defense got worse on third down the further the offense had to go: In short-yardage situations, their DVOA was a relatively respectable 5.5 percent, but it jumped to a whopping 92.3 percent in third-and-long situations. (A higher DVOA is worse on defense because it means more yardage.) In 2009, the Jets were the best defense in the league on third downs, so what exactly happened?

The answer is twofold. First, the Jets had a very difficult time covering No. 2 receivers. Early in the season, Antonio Cromartie matched up against the opponent’s best receiver, while Darrelle Revis tried to play his way through a nagging hamstring injury. Teams made hay while they could, going after Revis repeatedly until he demonstrated he was healthy. Once Revis returned to form, quarterbacks shifted their attention to Cromartie, who was excellent at downfield coverage but struggled to mirror quicker receivers in and out of their breaks. Additionally, the league caught up to some of the more exotic blitzes that worked so well in 2009. The Jets’ sack totals actually jumped from 32 to 40, but the purpose of blitzing isn’t simply to get to the quarterback. Instead, it is supposed to disrupt the offense’s timing and generate rushed throws that turn into incompletions or turnovers, and that did not happen with enough regularity.

The good news is that the defense almost certainly will improve next season, and it’s not just because Revis Island will be open to start the season. Defenses that are strong on first and second down but underperform on third down tend to get a bump the following season as the third-down performance regresses back toward the mean. Even a moderate improvement could be enough to make this the best defense in football again.

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