Sam Darnold, Adam Gase
Jet X Graphic, Getty Images

Between the coach, quarterbacks, offensive line and wide receivers, everybody played a hand in the New York Jets’ 2020 passing struggles.

It goes without saying that the New York Jets fielded a very ineffective offense in 2020. They failed to establish an identity and really struggled in the passing game.

The Jets ranked 31st in passing yards at 174 yards per game and 31st with 6.4 yards per pass attempt. Their team passer rating between Sam Darnold and Joe Flacco (75.9) was 30th in the league.

The Jets’ inefficiency was due to several factors. Let’s take a look and see where the passing game went wrong.

Winning matchups on the outside

The No. 1 issue was the Jets’ inability to win one-on-one matchups on the outside. They were ranked 30th in the league in completion percentage against man-to-man defense (57.4%).

Too many times against man coverage, there was no place to go with the football. With the exception of Jamison Crowder—who often won matchups in the slot (thus keeping him around was a priority)—man coverage gave the Jets issues on the outside all season. The quarterbacks were often either hurried/sacked against man coverage as the Jets WR on the outside failed to get open downfield.

Here’s an example against the Bills that featured nothing for the quarterback. No one gets separation and Darnold has no place to go with the football.

Here is a two-play sequence on the goal line vs the Cardinals:

Look at the separation by the Jets’ wide receivers. It doesn’t seem like Flacco has too many options on where to go with the football.

The first play sees Flacco try to hit a covered Jeff Smith, and on second he tries to get it to Crowder on the wheel. Nobody is open in both situations and they have to settle for a field goal. Denzel Mims, with his size, should be a factor but there weren’t too many sightings of him in the red zone a year ago.

Darnold’s decision-making

The No. 2 issue in the passing game was Sam Darnold’s decision-making.

Far too often, Sam either would miss reads by bailing too early rather than remaining in the pocket and sliding only to get the ball released. This was evident on numerous occasions.

There are plenty of examples.

The Jets go play-action and they get man coverage on the outside. They get the matchup they want in the slot and the in-breaking route at 10 is probably an easier throw and easy completion vs. man coverage.

He tries to go 1×1 on the fade with Breshad Perriman, but if he reads the man coverage, the easier throw may be to Crowder on the crossing route, which is wide open. It’s bear coverage (3-3-5 with a safety in the box) with man-free as the cornerback runs with the wideout.

The higher percentage throw is definitely to Crowder.

Next up is a third and 3 situation vs. the Miami Dolphins, The Jets put Crowder in the backfield and they get man coverage. Crowder runs a wheel and is wide open and Sam takes off for no reason.

If he stays in the pocket and delivers the ball, it’s a 40-yard gain and probably a touchdown. Again, these small plays within the game can be costly. Sam should have been reading the wide receiver in route, which was double covered to the running back in man coverage. He misses the read and eventually the drive fails.

At this point, it’s a 13-3 game and he gets the first down, but the point has to be NFL-level quarterbacking. Darnold has to make this play.

Too many times, Sam didn’t keep plays alive and was very skittish in the pocket, and missed key opportunities. That to me is his biggest flaw—his inability to manipulate the pocket.

In the home game versus the Buffalo Bills, a situation arises where Sam just has to slide to his left keep the play alive and he has a 10-yard completion to Crowder. Instead, he takes off running and throws a bad interception.

Again, Sam could have slid a little left and made an easy throw to a wide-open Crowder. This was much too often as Sam didn’t slide well enough and manipulate the pocket in key situations.

Limited running backs

The third problem with the Jets running back situation in the passing game was limited. Their longest reception was a blistering 16 yards from both Frank Gore and Ty Johnson. There were too many times when these guys had to make plays in the open field and were tackled easily and not able to get the first down.

They also didn’t garner too much attention when they were split out which didn’t open the middle of the field in empty situations. Adding Tevin Coleman and Michael Carter to the mix will definitely improve the passing game in that area. Putting Crowder in one slot and Coleman in another will create a number of issues for defenses.

Here’s an example that features a running back needing to make a play. It’s a critical third down vs. the Dolphins. The Jets are driving and it’s a third and 4 situation. Flacco reads pressure and he dumps the ball off for a one-on-one situation with the linebacker.

La’Mical Perine should be able to beat him and get the first down. Instead, Perrine gets tackled and the Jets have to punt. This is a matchup a running back must win.

Here’s the same exact play in Week 12. It’s third and 4 and the Jets are down 13-3. They run this little swing route and the Dolphins go 2-man. They complete it for one yard as Ty Johnson is tackled.

A running back has to win this matchup against a linebacker in the NFL.

Third-down woes

The last problem with the passing game is that the Jets finished dead last in the league in third-down efficiency. They just didn’t make plays on third.

Several factors contributed to the lack of success. I often thought teams baited the Jets into quick throws. This caused the Jets to throw the ball either hot or relied on screens and passes behind the line of scrimmage and hoped their wideout could beat people in space.

It didn’t work out too often as the simulated pressure from double-mug looks and other pressure looks often forced quick throws. You can’t make a living throwing hot or balls behind the line of scrimmage on third down.

Here are four more clips (49ers). For whatever reason, the Jets either ran the ball or threw the ball way behind the sticks and hoped the wideout would make a play.

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Clip No. 1 is a third and 3, and the Jets go 12 personnel in order to run zone to the right. The problem is the 49ers go Bear front and play man-free with an eight-man box. The Jets only have seven blockers. If they gave Darnold the option to check the play, maybe he throws a slant on the outside.

Clip No. 2 is also a third-and-3 situation. The wide receiver runs a 1-yard route and is tackled vs. man coverage.

Clip No. 3 features the Jets in a third and 9, and they run a 1-yard out to the No. 3 wideout, Josh Malone. Even if they complete it, nine yards is a long way to go with the defense rallying to the football.

Clip No. 4 is a third and 10. They throw a simple bubble to Braxton Berrios and hope he can get 10 yards. Remember, it’s third and 10. That’s tough to ask of any wideout.

Here’s another example, third and 4. The protection is good but the route concepts for a third-and-4 play are all downfield. They bracket Crowder, who I think wanted to run a short in-route but was ultimately denied.

The Fins play inside leverage and he’s forced to go around the defensive back. I’m not sure if Crowder had the option to run a quick out, but that may have been the best option here.

Also, keep in mind that in this game, the Jets were getting constant pressure and went max protection, which only allowed three receivers to get into the pattern. The Jets go with two tight ends in the backfield.

Miami does a nice job with the bracket coverage, but the Jets should have had a shorter route in this situation that could have gotten them the first down.

Protection

The last reason for the inefficiency in the passing game was that the protection wasn’t good at times. Sacks aren’t always the offensive line’s fault, but there were some breakdowns during the year.

The Jets were sacked 43 times in 2020 and that ranked 24th in the league. As many people like to blame the offensive line, many of the sacks can be attributed to other factors. Of the 43 sacks, here is the breakdown as to who was at fault on each one:

  • 17 sacks were situations where an offensive lineman was beat 1×1 by an opponent.
  • 6 sacks were situations where a running back was beat 1×1 by an opponent and missed his block.
  • 14 sacks were on the quarterback for either holding the ball too long or not maneuvering the pocket well enough, or by simply missing a hot read in the passing game.

The following is an example that showcases when a ball should be out. Sam should be reading that it’s man-free with no middle-of-the-field option. He can’t throw the seam and should hit the dig on time.

It’s open. If he throws it, it’s a completion and a five-yard gain. Instead, it’s a sack and a poor decision. The offensive line takes the blame, but it’s all on the quarterback. At least get rid of the ball and it’s second and 10, but instead, it becomes second and 15.

I can’t attest to the read the progression on the front side, but if he read the backside, he also had the comeback route. He’s looking at Chris Herndon, which is the last person he should be looking to throw the football to in this situation.

This is a bad football decision by the quarterback and is 100 percent on him.

This is just my opinion—as I don’t know the schemes and exactly nor what the protection was or who they were throwing hot off of. So, roughly a little more than half was the fault of the offensive line. I think too much blame was cast on them at times as there were several other reasons for the failures in the passing game.

All in all, the New York Jets passing game had some serious deficiencies in 2020. They did an excellent job adding some key pieces and should see a major improvement in 2021.

About the Author: Coach Jeff Kou is a college football coach at Nassau CC on Long Island. He also has his own blog at coachkoufootball.blogspot.com.

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