The addition of Aaron Rodgers has been discussed often this offseason as the “missing piece” for the Jets. Everyone from owner Woody Johnson to coaches to fans have talked about the veteran quarterback putting the team over the top as a contender.
That is based on how the Jets performed in 2022, particularly on defense. That unit made a huge leap last season from the worst in the NFL in 2021 to one of the best. The Jets finished fourth in the NFL in both points and yards allowed. The defense kept them in games, and the 7-10 record was largely due to the Jets’ poor play on offense, not because of the defense. The Jets lost five games in which they allowed 20 points or fewer, a number that shows how poor their offense was.
But is it a safe assumption that the defense will pick up right where it left off last season, or even improve?
Nearly every starter from the Jets’ unit last season will return, except for defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, linebacker Kwon Alexander and safety Lamarcus Joyner. Many of those who will return are entering a third season in head coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich’s system. The arrival of Rodgers should help with field position.
“Most definitely I think we can improve,” cornerback D.J. Reed said. “We’re a top-five defense. I feel like we could be No. 1. We can be, but we have to put the work in. I think it just comes down to being deliberate and just communicating and just having that swagger when we’re out there.”
Reed may be right, but there are also reasons to wonder if there is going to be a regression on defense this season.
The first reason is health. Football Outsiders has an adjusted games lost statistic, and the Jets had the league’s healthiest defense in 2022. The only top players who missed any time were Quinnen Williams (one game) and his brother, Quincy Williams (two). They lost none of their starters for any extended period of time, a remarkable piece of luck in the NFL.
It seems highly unlikely the Jets can expect that kind of good health again in 2023. Then, the question will be how much depth they have at positions that get hit by injuries. They have plenty at edge rusher, but not at other positions on defense.
Another piece of the success last season that can’t be overlooked is how often the Jets faced backup quarterbacks. During their 7-4 start, they played five games against quarterbacks who were starting because the top quarterback had been injured or suspended or was benched during the game. They went 5-0 against the backups for Cleveland (Jacoby Brissett), Pittsburgh (Kenny Pickett), Miami (Teddy Bridgewater, Sklyar Thompson), Denver (Brett Rypien) and Chicago (Trevor Siemian).
The only two true starters they beat during that 7-4 stretch were Rodgers in Green Bay and Josh Allen of the Bills. They lost to Lamar Jackson and Joe Burrow, and they lost to Mac Jones twice.
During their six-game losing streak to end the season, the Jets faced only one backup — Thompson in Miami in the season finale, and they lost that game. Starters Kirk Cousins, Allen, Jared Goff, Trevor Lawrence and Geno Smith all beat them.
When you tally it up, the Jets went 2-9 against teams that had their No. 1 quarterback and 5-1 against second- and third-stringers.
The Jets also got some career years out of players in 2022. Quinnen Williams, Reed, John Frankiln-Myers and Carl Lawson all had really productive seasons that might be tough to duplicate. Sauce Gardner also had an amazing rookie year. That could be a sign of the level he will play at regularly through his career, but he may take a step back this season.
As good as the defense was last year in many areas, one in which they struggled was takeaways. You could look at that and expect them to do better this year just because of the law of averages, or you could see it as a weakness of Saleh’s defense. They ranked 29th in takeaways last season after finishing 31st in 2021. The Jets forced just one turnover in the six-game losing streak to end the season.
Rodgers may end up proving correct everyone who is saying he is the missing piece, but there are no sure things in the NFL, and assuming the Jets’ defense will be as good as or better than it was last year may be a mistake.