The New York Jets’ 2021 offense will feature a Mike LaFleur-run offense with Shanahan-influenced principles that still work in today’s NFL.
It’s no secret that Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers run one of the most dangerous, electric offenses in football. Even though Kyle’s father, Mike Shanahan, was a first-time offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos in 1985, when he brought the “Shanahan system” (as the scheme is commonly called around the league) to the NFL, today’s version of the “Shanahan system” feels even more dominant than It used to be with the old man at the helm.
How can we be sure about that? Just look around the league. There are about a dozen teams that, right now, are trying to deploy what Shanahan does in San Francisco, with the New York Jets representing the latest organization to get in on the fun.
The first question we are going to attack in this piece is: Why is the Shanahan system more successful now than it ever was?
The answer is simple: Philosophically, what the system is trying to attack is the strength of the NFL today, making the scheme perfectly built to today’s game.
After suffering through two long years of the Adam Gase show, Jets fans are about to experience offensive legitimacy.
1. It’s an edge-attacking scheme
Today’s edge defenders are just unblockable. We all know that. You just can’t block these guys on every play if they know what you are trying to do (run vs. pass, i.e. Super Bowl 50).
As the brain trusts the offense, coordinators need to contain these athletic freaks with a lot of eye candy, misdirection, speed and aggressiveness directly aimed at them.
Who does that on nearly every down? Kyle Shanahan.
His offense features the perfect blend of outside zone runs (the first play implemented by Shanahan every year, one that we will break down below), jet sweeps, play-action and screens—all of which is boosted by motions pre-snap.
2. It’s a scheme that relies on speed
Edge defenders aren’t the only ones who have physically evolved with time; every single NFL athlete has. When analyzing position groups over time, one could say that every player got faster while maintaining the same strength their predecessor had.
On the offensive side of the ball, we now have offensive linemen that are still physical bullies but do that while being incredibly fast. Running backs and receivers are basically track guys with a football on their hands, and the quarterback position is evolving to a point where mobility will be an indispensable trait.
No offensive coach relies more on speed than Kyle Shanahan. When he first arrived in Atlanta in 2015 as the offensive coordinator, he cut every lineman who didn’t fit his prototype—all but two. He made running back Raheem Mostert, a career gunner who got cut every year, look like a star.
Damn, I guess even Valentine Holmes, the former rugby player, could thrive in his system.
3. Game-planner, third-down importance
Besides the great and perfectly fit system we just described, the cherry on top of everything for the 49ers’ success is Shanahan himself, the play-caller. The guy is an aggressive, always-to-steps-ahead football mind—and his players also label him as a great game-planner (two different things, with the second being slightly more important).
On a simple line, the Jets had a coach, Adam Gase, who called plays to get to third-and-manageable. Shanahan, on the other hand, plans to avoid third down at all costs. He knows that’s the down where the physical freaks edge defenders thrive, and he wants no part of that.
So, on one hand, we cannot predict what Mike LaFleur will be as a play-caller and game planner in the NFL. We can only hope he learned a lot under Kyle. Meanwhile, we can make educated guesses about the schemes he will deploy in New York and how he pretends to attack defenses.
Based on that, I picked three plays, listed below, that I believe LaFleur will bring In from San Francisco to start to draw the look of the Jets 2021 offense: an outside zone, a play-action pass and a dropback passing concept.
3 common LaFleur-Shanahan playbook staples
1. Outside Zone
The outside zone is a tricky scheme and sometimes hard to comprehend. Theoretically, offensive linemen are not blocking individual players on an outside zone, nor are they trying to open up a pre-determined gap. They are doing what the scheme name says: zoning, and it’s a must that the running back is also “zoning” with them” (for more on that, check Jets OL coach John Benton’s wide zone clinic.
“Zoning” basically means that the defenders the linemen are going to block will vary depending on the defensive look, and the gap that the back is going to attack depends on how his blocks develop on a particular play. That is why athleticism, speed and adaptability are super important on an offense that relies on the outside zone.
In the clip below, we will see how Kyle Shanahan attacked the Jets Cover 2 zone look by bringing in extra lead blockers to the play-side, allowing the 49ers offense to have four players reaching the second level of the Jets defense.
Yes, Mike LaFleur was only the pass-game coordinator with the 49ers, but by bringing Benton with him, I can surely affirm that the wide zone will be the most important play of the Jets offense in 2021, and possibly in many years to come.
2. PA Leak: Scheming open receivers
Even though I am not as critical of Adam Gase as most Jets fans, I have to acknowledge his inability to put players in favorable spots-easier positions for success. Gase constantly relied on isolated matchups to gain yards. He rarely designed plays for a specific opponent (besides what I called “the Berrios package”) and mostly just tried to line up and play.
That is not the case with Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers passing attack.
In the following video, Shanahan designed a play to score a touchdown. He knew he was facing an aggressive defense and that the front-seven would be undisciplined enough to blindly attack the boot action. He also knew that the Bengals would play man (Cover 1) against the Niners’ tight look. He knew the crossers would scare the hell out of the single high safety because that’s what the 49ers usually do out of play fakes, and he knew that Marquise Goodwin would leak wide open on the wheel.
This play is a prime example of how to attack aggressive, man coverage defenses—wide-zone play-action, crossing routes and some misdirection.
3. Texas route: Exploiting speed mismatches
It’s been a long time since the Jets employed a dominating pass-catching back—Leon Washington in 2008. Since then, we had some good LaDainian Tomlinson moments and Bilal Powell could surely do his job, but the Jets running backs haven’t been great at catching the football in a long time.
I bet that will change under LaFleur. Maybe it won’t be one dominant guy, but rather a room full of guys who can get it done catching the football out of the backfield. Anyway, the point is this: Jets running backs will be involved in the 2021 passing game.
The 49ers love to use 21 personnel (two backs and a tight end), and I fully expect LaFleur to bring in that tendency to Florham Park, NJ because 21 personnel is a great way to create mismatches. When you take a receiver off the field by deploying an extra back, the defense tends to go heavier, bringing in three linebackers to the game. And that’s where the fun starts, making those usually slow defenders defend the backers’ speed in space.
I picked two plays to show you how the Jets will score on the Texas route in 2021. On the first play, the 49ers do not run 21 personnel but the truth remains: They take advantage of the speed mismatch that the back vs. backer represents and score a game-winning touchdown to beat a divisional opponent with 34 seconds left on the clock.
On the second play, Garoppolo kills the run and checks to a pass play in a man-to-man look after the defense adjusts to the motion by George Kittle. Jimmy G. knows that Mostert will have a slow linebacker manned up to him, and that’s where the ball is going.
What to expect from LaFleur: Be a lot like Kyle
I know, Mike LaFleur’s brother is Matt LaFleur, a successful NFL head coach, and Mike could just look up to him and what he does and be successful. But, honestly, I believe Mike will want to look like Kyle, who’s been grooming him since 2014 when Mike LaFleur got a job as a Cleveland Browns offensive assistant.
With that said, I believe that the staples of the Jets offense will be:
- Outside zone runs
- Play-action boot action off of the outside zone
- Exploiting speed mismatches
Everything will start from that and schemes are important, but none of it matters if Mike doesn’t excel with in-game adjustments, game-planning skills and having a keen gut feeling as a play-caller.
We will only know for sure how good Mike LaFleur is (or, could be) once the 2021 season concludes. Right now, the New York Jets can only hope his offensive coordinating success mirrors his old boss’s more so than the play-caller he is replacing.
Great write-up, Vitor!