Having Mekhi Becton and Alijah Vera-Tucker on the same side of the offensive line will help the Jets build a strong play-action game.
Play action continues to become an increasingly important part of the NFL game. In 2020, teams utilized play action on 25.8% of all passing plays. That stands as an all-time high and marks the fourth straight year in which play action usage increased, up from 24.7% in 2019, 24.0% in 2018, 21.2% in 2017, and 19.3% in 2016 (via PFF).
With former San Francisco 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur captaining their offense, the New York Jets are poised to be one of the most play-action-reliant teams in the league. From 2018 to 2020, LaFleur and the Niners had starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo use play action on 32.1% of his dropbacks, the third-highest rate among qualified quarterbacks, behind only Jared Goff (34.2%) and Lamar Jackson (36.6%).
It goes without saying that a strong run game is enormously helpful in improving the quality of a team’s play-action game. In 2020, the starting quarterbacks of the league’s top-five teams in rushing yards (Baltimore, Tennessee, Cleveland, New England, Minnesota) were each among Pro Football Focus’s top-15 highest-graded passers on play-action throws (out of 42 qualifiers).
One of the best ways to build a rushing attack that is conducive to play-action success is to have two dominant run-blocking offensive linemen on the same side of the line. When an offense has two star-blockers on the same side, it can establish a massive level of intimidation with its rushing success to that particular side, which in turn forces the defense to have an increased amount of respect for the threat of rushes to that side. Play-callers are prompted to overload that side, while defenders will begin to play more aggressively and react more impulsively when the quarterback motions to hand the ball off to that side.
All of those factors are imperative for setting up high-quality play-action opportunities. If your opponent is afraid of runs to a particular side, it becomes easy to call fakes in that direction and run concepts to the opposite side, where the quarterback will have plenty of space to work with thanks to the respect demanded by the threat of a run to the star-studded side of the offensive line.
Becton is coming off of a rookie season in which he ranked top-10 among left tackles in both PFF’s zone-blocking grade and PFF’s gap blocking grade, doing that at just 21 years old. His overall run-blocking grade of 73.9 ranked at the 75th percentile among all tackles.
Vera-Tucker was the highest-graded run blocker among Pac-12 guards in 2019 and is ready to slide right into the Jets’ wide-zone scheme after running a zone blocking concept on over 75% of his run blocking snaps at left guard. He is a proven hole-carver, as in 2019, USC averaged 8.3 yards per carry and picked up a first down or a touchdown 63.0% of the time when rushing to the left-side B-gap (Vera-Tucker’s outside shoulder).
Here’s the exciting part for Jets fans: Mike LaFleur is no stranger to having this type of duo at his disposal. He has already had a hand in multiple offenses that worked off of an elite offensive line pairing to construct an elite play-action game. In 2020, 2018, and 2017 with the 49ers and in 2016 with the Falcons, LaFleur’s team had a pair of starting offensive linemen on the same side of the line who each ranked in the top-30% at their position in PFF’s run-blocking grade, and those teams all had outstanding success at throwing off of play action.
In 2016, the Falcons had a beastly right side that starred Ryan Schraeder (98th percentile run-blocking grade among tackles) and Chris Chester (75th percentile run-blocking grade among guards). Atlanta ran to the Super Bowl on the strength of Matt Ryan’s league-leading 1,650 passing yards off of play action, 458 more yards than any other player. Ryan also led the league with 11.3 yards per attempt off of play action.
Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan became the head coach in San Francisco the following year, and LaFleur followed him over. Just like in Atlanta, the 49ers enjoyed an excellent right side of the line, this time with Trent Brown (80th percentile run-blocking grade among tackles) and Brandon Fusco (78th percentile run-blocking grade among guards). Once Jimmy Garoppolo took over for the final five games, he was a play-action monster, ranking sixth in the NFL with 9.3 yards per attempt off of play action.
San Francisco helped Nick Mullens rank third in the league with 10.5 yards per attempt off of play action in 2018, this time with an entirely new top-notch duo on the right side that featured Mike McGlinchey (98th percentile run-blocking grade among tackles) and Mike Person (75th percentile run-blocking grade among guards).
Although they did not grade as well in 2019 as they did in 2018, McGlinchey and Person maintained their starting jobs on the right side throughout the 2019 season and helped Jimmy Garoppolo rank sixth in yards per attempt off of play action (10.8) and second in total yards off of play action (1,667).
Last season, the 49ers had a new dynamic duo emerge, this time on the left side with tackle Trent Williams (best run-blocking grade among LTs) and guard Laken Tomlinson (93rd percentile run-blocking grade among guards). San Francisco remained strong at running play action as Mullens ranked sixth with 9.6 yards per attempt off of play action and Garoppolo ranked 12th with an average of 9.0.
You get the picture – LaFleur has spent the last half-decade working with teams that carved opponents with play action and were able to do so thanks largely to the benefits of having two great run blockers on the same side of the line. Now as the head honcho for the first time in his NFL career, he will try to do the same with Mekhi Becton and Alijah Vera-Tucker.
What does it look like when your duo of star linemen demands enough respect in the run game to create easy throws for the quarterback? I think this play from the 49ers in 2020 is a good example of how Becton and AVT can open things up for Zach Wilson to get on the move.
This is the opening drive of the game. The previous week, San Francisco ranked third in the NFL with 8.1 yards per rush attempt to the left side while Williams ranked as PFF’s second-best left tackle of the week and Tomlinson ranked as PFF’s sixth-best left guard of the week. On this play, you can clearly see the respect that the defense has for the duo and the threat of San Francisco’s left-side run game.
Look how much movement the 49ers are able to draw from the Rams defense to the left side – specifically from the WILL linebacker (#59) – even though it’s the weak side (no TE) and there is a motioning receiver heading in the opposite direction. San Francisco successfully gets the defense to bite on a left-side handoff, creating an easy tight end screen to the right side for George Kittle.
This is a great example of the type of respect that a tremendous offensive line duo can demand when it showcases dominance on tape. Defenders play to the stronger side more aggressively since they feel the offense is more likely to run in that direction, and they also feel that they need to get downhill quicker to beat the tougher competition. This impulsiveness – created by the sheer intimidation factor of a strong O-line pairing – leads to easy plays like the one above.
Becton is already a very good run blocker, and if he progresses as you would hope a 22-year-old 11th overall pick with his physical gifts would, he has the potential to be the best run-blocking tackle in the league. That’s an extremely lofty goal and it would likely take him time to achieve it, but there is no doubt that he has enough talent to get there down the road. In the meantime, it is reasonable to expect that he grows into a top-10 run blocker among all tackles, regardless of side. He ranked 23rd among all tackles in run blocking grade last year (out of 63 tackles to play 500+ snaps), so a top-10 ranking in 2021 seems within reach.
As for Vera-Tucker, he unquestionably has top-tier guard potential – that’s why the Jets traded up to grab him at No. 14 – but rookies are always complete wild cards, regardless of position or draft status. We have no idea what to expect from him off the bat since first-year players can fall anywhere on the spectrum. However, Vera-Tucker’s game is certainly built for him to have a high likelihood of making an instant impact, as his fundamentals, football IQ, and technique are all top-notch while he fits the scheme like a glove. He is less of a projection prospect and more of a high-floor prospect who offers NFL readiness.
A second-year leap to superstardom from Becton would be a major boon for the ceiling of the Jets offense as a whole, but as it pertains to the formation of a left-side duo that can power an efficient play-action game in 2021, Vera-Tucker is the most important component. If Vera-Tucker can come in and instantly become a good starter as a rookie just like Becton did last year, the young duo will form one of the most fearsome left-side pairings in football, paving the way for Mike LaFleur to convert the fear they generate into a play-action attack that makes Zach Wilson’s life easy.