Vikings vs. Jets: Week 7 defensive grades

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 21: Darryl Roberts #27 of the New York Jets breaks up a pass intended for Stefon Diggs #14 of the Minnesota Vikings during the first quarter at MetLife Stadium on October 21, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 21: Darryl Roberts #27 of the New York Jets breaks up a pass intended for Stefon Diggs #14 of the Minnesota Vikings during the first quarter at MetLife Stadium on October 21, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images) /

The New York Jets defense failed to come away with the big plays in the team’s 37-17 loss to the Vikings on Sunday. How does the unit grade out following the loss?

For much of the 2018 season, the New York Jets defense have been a group of ultimate opportunists ready to strike at the first sign of weakness from their foes. They have been likened to wolves and to vultures due to their hunger for turnovers but on Sunday, the defense went home hungry.

The usually opportunistic defense came away with zero turnovers in a matchup that had the team licking their chops going into the week. Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins led the league in fumbles with six in the team’s past four games heading into the week.

While the former Michigan State signal-caller had thrown just three interceptions on the year, the matchup still had plenty of promise for a Jets defense that was second in the league in takeaways heading into the game. However, the typically greedy Jets defense failed to force a single turnover and the final score is a solid indicator of the impact of such.

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The defense has been a bright spot for the Jets this year, not necessarily due to their sheer dominance in the prevention of yardage. Rather the team has bent but not broken on many occasions and come away with takeaways at key points. On Sunday, the takeaways just weren’t there.

To steal a quote from head coach Todd Bowles, the Jets defense didn’t play their brand of football.

Much of that could be, in part, due to the injuries the Jets had in the secondary. Three of the team’s starting five defensive backs were inactive nursing injuries heading into the game forcing reserve players such as Darryl Roberts, Parry Nickerson, and Doug Middleton into starting roles. Matters were made worse when Middleton went down with a pectoral injury forcing Terrence Brooks into the game.

For those keeping track, that’s four of the team’s top six defensive backs all on the shelf.

While Nickerson and Brooks struggled in their respective roles, Roberts stepped up big time and played perhaps the best football game of his NFL career. The third-year veteran totaled a career-high 11 tackles, not always a positive statistic for a cornerback but one that is understandable given that he was targeted a whopping 16 times in the game.

Following a rough first possession, Roberts allowed just 62 yards in the air while deflecting two pass deflections in place of starter Trumaine Johnson. Roberts also made a couple of really nice tackles in open space, most notably on a screen to wide receiver Stefon Diggs where the former New England Patriots seventh-round pick burst past Adam Thielen to get behind the line of scrimmage and tackle Diggs for a loss.

It was an encouraging start altogether, one that’s even more encouraging if Johnson is forced to miss any more time. The Jets prized free agent acquisition has been nursing a pesky quad injury and Roberts will likely continue to see playing time as long as Johnson is out. After this performance, it’s hard to say he hasn’t earned it.

Fellow cornerback Morris Claiborne once again put together another very solid game in coverage as the former Dallas Cowboy continued his strong season. Claiborne is quietly having a career year and it couldn’t have come at a better time with both Johnson and Buster Skrine dealing with injuries.

One thing that is worth monitoring going forwards is the health status of starting safety Marcus Maye. Maye missed Sunday’s game with a broken thumb leaving the aforementioned Middleton as the team’s starter. While Middleton has played adequately this season, his pectoral injury will keep him out the remainder of the season leaving Terrence Brooks as the de facto starting safety opposite Jamal Adams.

Brooks wasn’t tested much in coverage on Sunday but he struggled mightily with his tackling. The former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back consistently took poor angles and was the reason for multiple long Vikings gains throughout the game.

If Maye isn’t able to suit up this upcoming week expect Brooks to get the call as the starter. The Jets will likely be looking for a better game from him if that is the case.

One player that stood out early with some flashy plays is outside linebacker Brandon Copeland. Copeland made back-to-back huge defensive stops on the Vikings second possession for two of the biggest splash plays from the Jets defense all afternoon.

The first came on an end around to Diggs where Copeland read the play and forced his way into the backfield to cause a six-yard loss. After a delay of game penalty, the former Arena Football League player chased Cousins back to his one-yard line for a 13-yard sack.

While Copeland did little to nothing for the remainder of the game, his two plays alone was more production than the team got all game from the remainder of the edge rushers. In a barren edge rushing unit, Copeland has a golden opportunity to stand out and earn increased playing time. If he can start to string more splash plays together, he’ll likely do just that.

Rookie Nathan Shepherd also deserves some praise for a solid game that didn’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. The third-round pick has had a pretty quiet rookie campaign after showing plenty of promise in training camp and the preseason. Shepherd has almost exclusively played in the team’s base 3-4 defense and has lost a significant portion of his snaps to Henry Anderson in the nickel defense.

Sunday’s game was a different story, however, as the Fort Hays State product broke up a first-down run by Latavius Murray for a tackle for loss and was credited with his first career quarterback hit later in the game.

Shepherd is still adjusting to the NFL game coming out of a Division II university so his progress has expectedly been slow to this point. The Jets will look to see more games like this from their 2018 third-round pick going forward.

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Overall, the defense failed to come up with big plays when necessary despite some all-around solid play from much of the team. The surprise play of Roberts saves this grade from being any lower, but it’s hard to justify anything higher than a C-minus.

Final Grade: C-