BGA Special: Replacing Jim Leonhard

The news that Jim Leonhard’s collision with Patrick Turner caused a broken leg that will sideline him for the rest of the season has no doubt thrown Rex Ryan’s plans for the upcoming game against New England into chaos. It also raises questions about how the Jets will perform at the safety position and who is going to step up to fill the void.

I’ve been breaking down Jets footage all season long and although we cannot say for certain how the Jets will perform without him – mainly because he’s only missed six snaps all year (all in goalline situations) – there are certainly a few things that can give us some idea.

Join me after the jump for some in-depth analysis.

Eric Smith

Although Smith had started the previous game, he was the one named as Leonhard’s replacement by the team this week. (Clearly Brodney Pool is going to return to the starting lineup.) The team had already lauded Smith’s communication skills and the Jets immediately reaped the benefits of those on Thursday night with a much more organized display than they had produced over the previous few weeks, especially in zone coverage. Smith will definitely be the one to take over Leonhard’s crucially important role of organizing the secondary.

In terms of role, it’s not like Smith (or Pool) will be thrown into a situation they haven’t already faced this year. Although both have primarily been deep safeties, they have each spent plenty of time in the box. The one major adjustment is that when they played together it was always in a three-safety alignment, with Leonhard there too.

Smith is a better tackler than Leonhard, but is less reliable in coverage. However, he is much bigger than Leonhard, so at least he does not have as much of a size mismatch against tight ends. While Smith’s skillset would seem to suit the strong safety role, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him deep, so that he is in a better position to read the offense.

One thing that I’ve often thought about Smith is that when he is pressed into full time action, he often performs well, whereas in a role-playing situation, he struggles. It’s as if he benefits from being aware of his role from the start and is able to prepare fully and get into the rhythm of the game faster. I had absolutely nothing to back this up, but when you think back to when he has started in the past – At the start of 2008, before he was concussed in the collision with Boldin, when Kerry Rhodes was benched last year, at the start of this year when Pool was out and last week, after Pool was benched – he always seems to perform well.

So, I did a little sleuthing and the results are quite striking. Smith has played more than 50 snaps a game five times and in those five games he has performed at a very high level compared to when he plays less than that:

Run defense

* More than 50 snaps – 32 solo tackles (6.4 per game), no missed tackles, PFF rating +6.9
* Less than 50 snaps – 40 solo tackles (1.2 per game), nine missed tackles, PFF rating -2.5

Pass coverage

* More than 50 snaps – 9-for-15, 84 yards, no touchdowns. QB rating 75.4, PFF rating +0.3, no 20 yard plays given up
* Less than 50 snaps – 23-for-40, 314 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions. QB rating 86.9, PFF rating -13.5, four 20 yard plays given up

Pass rush

* More than 50 snaps – Three pressures in 15 pass rush attempts, PFF rating +0.3
* Less than 50 snaps – 15 pressures in 150 pass rush attempts, PFF rating -9.4

Overall

PFF rating in games where he played more than 50 snaps is +7.5 and when he plays less than 50 snaps is -28.7

Maybe it’s a small sample size right now but, so far, the numbers suggest that Smith is a very poor backup safety, but a very good starter. Maybe this indicates he is capable of stepping up.

Searching for flaws in the model

What happens if he starts, but then ends up with fewer than 50 snaps because he doesn’t perform well enough to stay out there? The only recent example of that was in the first New England game this year. Smith was seemingly benched after 36 snaps, just before halftime, because he should have been deep when Randy Moss beat Revis for a score. However, that particular game still stands up to scrutiny, again suggesting he performed better than normal due to the fact he started. He had two tackles, no missed tackles, a pressure and gave up no receptions for a PFF rating of +0.2 (which would have been higher had he not been docked 0.9 points for his “helmet” to “helmet” penalty on Wes Welker.)

Also, why make 50 snaps the cut off point? I decided to look at whether there was any correlation between number of snaps and performance. If you look at the five games where he played between 40 and 50 snaps, his performance is not as good as when he plays more than 50, but it is still better than normal (and arguably better than Jim Leonhard has been this year). In those five games, his PFF rating was -3.5, so not quite as bad as the -25.2 total rating for the 24 games with less than 40 snaps, especially when you factor in the additional snaps. He had 14 tackles in those five games, with two missed tackles, and opposing QB’s went 5-10-59 against him, with one TD and one interception (a 62.1 rating).

Brodney Pool

Leonhard’s injury thrusts Brodney Pool back into the limelight, after the team suggested he was struggling to get to grips with where he needed to be and was the source of some of their defensive breakdowns in recent weeks. In the first game against the Patriots, Pool replaced Smith at halftime and his superior cover skills proved useful, helping the Jets to shut out New England in the second half. After his benching for last week’s game, he still saw plenty of action in three-safety alignments and – much like the other two safeties – performed well. The coaching staff suggested that taking certain things “off his plate” seemed to have helped him out.

Early in the season, Pool was used almost exclusively as a deep free safety. He has good range and ball instincts, so performed reasonably well in that role. However, when Jim Leonhard started to get picked on in man-to-man situations, they experimented with using Pool in the box. Again, he did reasonably well at this, but since then the Jets have increasingly been using their safeties in zone coverages and this seemed to be where he was struggling. This perhaps suggests that if the Jets are going to play zone, Pool should be in the box and if they are going to play man, he should be deep. It is possible for the safeties to be interchangeable, but they would need to be careful about making this too obvious, because even if you switch them at the last moment, this can still tip your hand, which Tom Brady will be capable of exploiting.

If you read the comments from an anonymous GM earlier in the year, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that Brodney Pool is a hard-hitting playmaker. As a result, he has been viewed by many as a bit of a disappointment. However, as I noted at the time, that report was nonsensical, because Pool is a rangey, athletic safety with good size, but has never been known for his tackling. In fact, some of you may recall Jets 2005 draft pick Andre Maddox declaring that he was better than Pool, because “He can’t tackle”. What the Jets need Pool to be is a disciplined centerfielder with range and instincts, that will keep mistakes to a minimum. In other words, a poor man’s version of what Kerry Rhodes would have been, if he listened to his coaches.

Kerry Rhodes

While we’re on the subject of Kerry Rhodes, I was going to do an “Expendables” update this week, but WordPress “ate” three hours worth of work and I ran out of time. However, my research into Rhodes revealed some interesting factors.

Last year, I repeatedly stated (and was often berated for doing so) that, despite his obvious flaws, Rhodes had performed well all season. This was because he hadn’t made many mistakes or given up many big plays, so – even when you factored in his apparent lack of impact plays – his performance put him among the better safeties in the league (albeit in a down year for safety play league-wide).

We all know how Rhodes wanted to be placed in a role where he could showcase his playmaking ability more and how he wasn’t keen to perform the thankless task of roaming centerfield, despite the fact he was the only Jet equipped to do so with such efficiency and that it was the most productive use of his abilities. Rhodes made the mistake of listening to “twiticisms” about his lack of impact plays, perhaps fuelled by his talk during the off-season. As a result, he started gambling and making mistakes, for example missing tackles by going for a big hit rather than wrapping his man up or gambling underneath and vacating deep centerfield on Ted Ginn’s touchdown catch. This landed him on the bench, after which he returned to the team, played more disciplined football and was able to let some impact plays come to him rather than trying to make something happen and risking a costly error.

So, now he’s with the Cardinals and is still being mostly employed in centerfield. Moreso, in fact, than when he was with the Jets. Early in the season, Rhodes did make some huge plays – a game clinching interception, fumble returns for touchdowns in consecutive weeks – and everyone in Arizona seemed more than happy with his impact. However, to go along with those big plays, he was also giving up big plays too.

Last year, Rhodes missed only five tackles (in 19 games), so even though he was often seen to be shying away from contact, he was at least keeping the ball carrier in front of him. This year, he’s already missed eleven tackles, including a few particularly costly ones. Overall in coverage, he’s been okay, but not quite as good as last year. He got beaten for a touchdown (something which didn’t happen last year) and gave up a 53 yard pass play a few weeks ago (again not something that happened last year). QB’s have a 69.8 rating when throwing his way, compared with 59.7 last year.

He has been a more productive tackler (61 tackles already, after just 71 in 19 games last year), but a lot of that is down to the fact that Arizona’s run defense is nowhere near as good as the Jets, so runners are getting to the second level more. He’s also had some strange moments – getting ejected for touching an official and fumbling the ball at the goalline for a touchback. Now it seems the impact plays have dried up too. Rhodes has two interceptions and no sacks. A few weeks ago, I was saying that Rhodes was going to get his first Pro Bowl appearance in the worst season of his career, but now, I’m not sure that he will make it.

Anyway, where I am going with all this, to bring it back to the original topic, is that the Jets might not necessarily be much better off had they retained Kerry Rhodes. Ignoring the impact his contract would have on their efforts to retain all their free agents this offseason, I was concerned that Rhodes’ coverage skills were going to be hard to replace (and I was right). However, my bigger concern would be that they retained him and he played with poor discipline as he did at times last season. If that was going to be the case – and the Jets are the only people who could make a sensible judgement on the basis of his attitude – then they would be better off without the distraction. We will never know whether he would have fallen into line, but if his performance in Arizona suggests that he would have been gambling to try and make impact plays and giving up big plays as a result, then – even with Leonhard’s injury – they might be better off for having traded him. Especially if Pool, who they wouldn’t otherwise have signed, can fill in adequately.

One final thought: Does anyone agree with me that – even before this injury happened – Darren Sharper probably would have been a pretty good offseason pickup for this team?

The third safety

Pool and Smith have each had plenty of reps at both safety positions. However, the effect of late-season injuries is often felt further down the depth chart. Last season, when Lito Sheppard, Bart Scott and Donald Strickland got hurt against the Colts, it meant that Drew Coleman, Dwight Lowery and James Ihedigbo were all forced to play almost the whole game. All three have been up and down, but on the whole are solid role-playing backups for this team and will hopefully continue to be so. However, when forced to start, they can be exposed. A similar situation arose earlier this year with Darrelle Revis and Kyle Wilson/Drew Coleman, which the Jets were fortunate enough to overcome.

With any luck, the Jets will not lose too much from having Smith and Pool as their starting safeties. If they can iron out any communication issues and keep the breakdowns to a minimum, whether that requires a scheme simplification or not, hopefully the Jets defense will still be able to play at an elite level. The next question, however, is what they will do when they go to their three safety alignments.

Although he’s coming off a concussion, many people are hoping Dwight Lowery will be able to step into that role. Although a lot of people are suggesting the Jets could “convert him to safety”, this is a change that has already taken place. Third safety is exactly the role Lowery had when Pool was out earlier in the season. Against Baltimore, he was in on 23 snaps, all of them at safety. All but three of his season high 37 snaps against the Pats in week two were as a safety. While Revis was hurt, he filled in at cornerback, but then returned to his role as the third safety against Minnesota and since then has filled in at both safety and slot corner as and when required. He got plenty of playing time against the Packers, because they went to a spread formation, for example.

So – if he’s declared fully healthy – Lowery is equipped to fill in as the third safety and his ball skills should serve him well. If Lowery can’t go, or if there’s another injury to a safety, what other options do they have?

One option is to go corner-heavy. For the Pats game, if the first three Rex v Belichick matchups are anything to go by, the Jets will have at least five DB’s on the field at all times and sometimes as many as seven. Even though Randy Moss is gone, the Patriots do still have a pass-first offense, so I don’t expect that to change. Maybe they could go with four corners and two safeties, which would mean extra playing time for Drew Coleman and either Kyle Wilson or Marquice Cole.

The other option – if we ignore the possibility of signing somebody off the street like Hank Poteat – is to use James Ihedigbo more. Ihedigbo has carved out a nice role for himself as a special teamer, pass rusher and run blitzer, but when pressed into service as a replacement for the injured Bart Scott in the AFC Title game last year, he looked a little lost, particularly in coverage. Largely based on this game, the feeling is that Ihedigbo will struggle if used as a conventional safety.

However, that’s the only extended action we have to go on. Who can say whether he has made improvements since last year? He has certainly been playing more and although he is usually employed in those same run blitzing and pass rushing situations, that is not always the case and his comfort level has undoubtedly grown.

Again, it’s a ridiculously small sample size, but Ihedigbo has been employed in coverage 27 times this year and only given up one catch. He is being used in coverage more than last year, where he didn’t drop into coverage more than once in a game until week 13. So, they can still use him coming off the edge and drop him into coverage from time to time, seemingly without other teams being able to exploit him, at least so far.

Conclusions

Jim Leonhard was not having a particularly good season so, on the face of it, this shouldn’t be an insurmountable loss. Unfortunately, the timing couldn’t have been much worse because Leonhard had been playing solid football over the last month, the zone defense which was presumably going to be an important weapon against Brady and the Patriots had just started to look solid and they were just in the process of finalizing their preparations for the biggest game of the year so far, many of which involved Leonhard’s input significantly. Toss in the fact that Brodney Pool’s form had not been good and it’s no wonder Rex Ryan looked a little shaken on Friday afternoon.

However, this is a team that has won games without Jenkins, Ellis, Pace, Revis, Sanchez, Cotchery and Holmes under the current regime. Add Leonhard to that group and maybe it would be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Unfortunately for the Patriots, other than Jenkins, the others will all be there on Monday night, along with the rest of the Jets roster, which will be hungry to make Leonhard’s absence seem like an afterthought. Beyond Monday, who knows? Right now, who cares?