Standout CB Sauce Gardner Also Excelled Defending Against the RunJack Bell
Breece Hall said that he dipped his toes tentatively into NFL waters at the start of his professional career as a running back for the Jets.
"I started out, it's kind of bumpy, you know, I wasn't as comfortable," he said recently. "And then, I don't know, something just clicked, it was kind of the same with me in college [at Iowa State], too. Just started out, just not as comfortable, then out of nowhere, it's just everything started to just get easier. The game started to slow down."
The rookie in the 2022 NFL season who head coach Robert Saleh called a "home-run hitter" took a while to perfect his "swing." Through three games, he gained 112 yards on 21 carries without a touchdown. Then the light came on: 17 carries, 66 yards, 1 TD at Pittsburgh; a breakout performance the next week against Miami, going for 97 yards on 18 carries with 2 pass receptions for 100 yards; followed by a 20-carry, 116-yard gem in the Jets' win at Green Bay.
The next week, at Denver, Hall seemed to pick up where he left off at Lambeau Field, shredding the Broncos for 72 yards on only 4 carries in a mere 12 plays. And then, Hall's promising rookie season was over. He felt a pop in a knee, which was determined to be a torn ACL.
"For a while I was sitting there asking myself why me?" he said "I didn't want to get out of bed. And I was just kind of sad. But it got to the point where I was like, being sad, ain't gonna do anything for you. So you just got to suck it up and deal with it."
Not only did the Jets lose Hall for the season up in Denver's rarefied air, but the versatile offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker also sustained a season-ending injury, a torn triceps. The absence of two of the Jets' young stars had a profound impact on the rest of the season.
"I mean Breece, AVT, they're two of our best players," Saleh said. "You look around the league, when you lose players of that caliber, there's going to be a hiccup, or whatever you want to call it. They're explosive. I think we've done a good job. Could we have done better? For sure, but yeah when your superstars ... it's a superstar league. When you lose superstars like that, it's going to hurt a little bit."
In this case, more than a little bit.
At the 2022 NFL Draft, Jets GM Joe Douglas sensed he had an opportunity to acquire a potentially breakout offensive player when he traded up to No. 35 and made Hall the first running back selected. Hall's early flashes confirmed Douglas' view, and as Hall continues to rehab from the serious knee injury after playing in only seven games, his 463 yards were still tops among the team's running backs.
"I've never had it be out of football for this long," Hall said. "Being able to watch it from a fan's point of view it was, it was cool. And I got to really admire guys like Sauce [Gardner], D.J. Reed, seeing guys like Bam Knight get his shot. And then seeing Garrett Wilson ball. It was fun to watch all that.
Hall was part of perhaps the Jets' best rookie class of the past decade, a group that joins a young core that augurs a promising future for the Green & White.
"We were what New York needed," Hall said. "I know Sauce has that mentality when he's out in the field, he thinks he's the best player. When I'm out there, I think I'm the best player. And when Garrett is out there, he thinks he's the best player. And when Jermaine [Johnson] is out there, he also thinks he's the best player. So, I feel like we did a good job of kind of just bringing that swagger to the team. And then the older guys, the vets, they knew that we had that swag and the confidence to do it and they just showed us the right way. And so, we took off from there."
Asked about the impact of the injury, Hall said: "It humbled me. I used to think I was kind of superman because I never got hurt. It made me really appreciate the small things. Those little things go a long way."
As the accolades continue to roll in -- Ahmad Sauce Gardner was this week named NFL Rookie of the Year by the Pro Football Writers Association (PFWA) in addition to being selected to the Pro Bowl and as an Associated Press First Team All-Pro (with more awards likely to come) -- among Gardner's outstanding statistics, the one metric that gets less attention was his fearless tackling.
To backtrack, Gardner led the league with 20 pass defenses, his 90.2 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus was rated as the best single-season mark PFF has given to a full-time outside CB in the past 17 years and the best by a rookie that played at least 550 coverage snaps.
And according to research by the Jets' Nick Filis, since 2000, there have been 22 cornerbacks selected in the top 10 picks including two in 2022, Derek Stingley (Houston) and Gardner. Among those 22, Gardner is No. 3 with 75 tackles (after Dunta Robinson of Houston, 88 in 2004; and Terence Newman of Dallas, 76 in 2003) and first with 20 passes defensed in his rookie season. He is also top 5 in tackles for loss (since 2008) with 3 and top 10 in interceptions with two. He joins Jalen Ramsey (fifth overall in 2016) as the only top-10 corners with multiple interceptions and tackles for loss as a rookie.
In franchise history (since 2000), Gardner had the ninth-most tackles by a rookie and second-most by a rookie cornerback, according to TruMedia. He also made 28 tackles against the run, the most by a Jets rookie CB.
Extra Points Added
Pro Football Focus defines Extra Points Added (EPA) as "a measure of success that defines the value of each play by the effect it has on the offense's likelihood to score. For every play, EPA is attributed equally to both teams, and the metric is fairly reliable in identifying the best teams in football."
On defense the Jets had a positive total defensive EPA in 13 games (6-7) , tied for the most in the league. NFL teams went 195-96-3 (.668) when they had a positive defensive EPA for the game. The Jets were tied with San Francisco and Washington, followed by eight teams each with an EPA of 11. Five of 11 teams advanced to the postseason.
In terms of positive offensive and defensive EPA, the Jets were tied for the fifth-fewest in the league: two games. Those came in the 40-17 win over Miami in Week 5 and the 31-10 victory over Chicago in Week 12. NFL teams went 107-8-1 (.927) in those games. According to TruMedia, the top six teams in this metric -- Kansas City, San Francisco, Buffalo, Dallas, Minnesota and Philadelphia -- were playoff teams.