Mike LaFleur’s scheme is helping Zach Wilson succeed
Wilson completed 9 of 11 passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns, while not throwing an interception or getting sacked once. His quarterback rating was 154.7, a near-perfect score.
For the second week in a row, Wilson looked like a veteran in the pocket, staying poised in addition to being able to take on half-field and full-field reads.
Not only is Zach learning and growing as a quarterback before our eyes, but LaFleur is also making his life easier than the previous regime ever made Sam Darnold’s.
LaFleur’s offense featured it all in Green Bay: Shanahan concepts and terminology, a favorite BYU concept, and the ability to build the pass off previous runs.
Let’s explore how the Jets integrated all of these things using All-22 film.
Kyle Shanahan pass concepts
Here’s how this pass concept would look in a San Francisco 49ers offensive install:
This variant of the common Shanahan drop-back play-action “drift” concept is a full-field read for the QB where the “drift” route on the backside is paired with a “stalk-rail” route by the slot receiver and a “drift-takeoff” route by the outside Z receiver.
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It works to attack the zone covered by the linebackers triggering towards the direction of the run-action. This is because the QB’s No. 1 WR is almost always working towards the backside of the play-action. If the LBs commit to the run, the “drift” route by the X receiver can have a pretty sizable throwing window.
The “stalk” part of this concept is a shot play – where the No. 2 and No. 3 reads offer large gains downfield.
Here’s how the play unfolded with the Jets – notice the slight changes to the original play design.
The Jets are running “drift stalk” from 12 personnel with the attached tight end in motion across the formation. With the rest of the pass protection sliding right, the TE and play-action RB work to double and contain the free backside edge rusher.
The “drift” route here is actually run by the inline TE (Chris Herndon) instead of a WR/TE off the formation. Over the course of LaFleur’s tenure with the Jets, we’ll see numerous changes to the concepts Shanahan made so successful.
Corey Davis is running the “stalk rail” while Jeff Smith ran the “drift takeoff”.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Packers run basic quarters out of a nickel two-high shell. The lack of execution on Cover 4, though, is what allows Davis to be so open along the sideline.
Off the snap, Wilson fakes the outside zone hand-off to Ty Johnson, forcing the backside LB to collapse into his run fit. From there, Herndon should be open on the drift, but both backside quarter safeties read the play-action and cover Herndon hip-to-hip. Wilson has to now scan his second and third reads.
On the front side of the play, the perimeter quarters safety seems to have his eyes on the QB, allowing himself to drift out of position with the drift “takeoff” route that he’s supposed to pass off to the other safety. Because of this, Davis is wide open along the sideline and turns his head around to let Zach know.
Once progressing to the front side, Wilson sees the coverage bust right away and drives the ball outside and away into Corey’s chest; making sure to maximize the distance gained on the play.
Here’s how this pass concept would look like in a 49ers’ offensive install:
The play starts with the QB motioning the RB into a 3×2 empty formation. From there, the QB has to read man or zone from the defensive look along with the motion and decide if he wants to hit the “Y Lookie” hot (in case of a blitz). If not, either hit his first read in rhythm or scan the other side of the field for his second and third reads.
The second read consists of a basic stick nod route, where the route runner fakes the stick and turns upfield; with the angle at which he turns upfield depending on MOFO (middle of the field open, two-high) or MOFC (middle of the field closed, one-high). In Shanahan terminology, this is known as “X Squirrel”.
The third read is a stick route that whips around, a common man or zone beater; especially if there’s a LB on a WR/RB here. In the Shanahan world, this is called “China”, similar to the “C.O. China” route ran by the RB that opened up the first Wilson-Davis connection of the day.
Let’s take a look at the Jets running Lookie Squirrel that resulted in a touchdown.
Right off the bat, Wilson kicks Johnson into motion to form the 3×2 empty formation from before. No one directly follows Johnson, so even though Zach sees a lot of confusion from the defense on their alignment, he knows they’re playing some type of zone.
Starting from the bottom of the screen, Johnson is running the outside release go and Smith (from the field-side slot) is running the “Y Lookie” that is also Wilson’s hot receiver and first read.
From the top of the screen, Davis is also running an outside release go, Jamison Crowder (from boundary slot) is running the “China” route, and Tyler Kroft is running the stick nod or “X Squirrel” from inline with the formation.
The Packers are running Cover 3 Buzz from a nickel one-high shell, with the strong safety replacing the field-side CB to play the zone underneath. It’s hard to tell because of how he plays the Y Lookie, but it’s just good instincts nonetheless.
Off the snap, Wilson checks his first read off his three-step dropback, realizing it’s covered by two zone defenders. He immediately realigns his base and shoulders to scan the X Squirrel on the other side of the field.
Kroft does a nice job of quickly swimming over the underneath zone defender to avoid as much contact as possible, so he’s not wasting time getting to his spot. I’m not sure if Kroft saw the one-high safety or not, because ideally, he’s supposed to work upfield away from the FS, not work to the middle of the field in MOFC. This is only a minor criticism although, as he still finds a soft spot in the zone coverage.
The best part about this play is the throw. Wilson puts the perfect amount of touch on his throw to not only get it over the head of the underneath LB, but to put it in Kroft’s hands before the safety could get within reach. In addition, Wilson leads the ball to the opposite side of the safety, allowing Kroft to avoid a big head-on hit from the incoming defender.
While this may also have happened because Zach thought Kroft would run upfield from the stick more away from the middle of the field, it was a perfect throw regardless and his first touchdown pass in Gang Green colors.
Related Article: Examining New York Jets QB Zach Wilson’s mechanics (Film)
BYU’s favorite pass concept
Looking back to the 2020 BYU football season, what was the most popular pass concept that Wilson consistently ran efficiently?
If you love "Mesh" you'll love this BYU offense.
Here are just four variations of the Cougars' favorite pass concept. pic.twitter.com/klQI7o9bDs
— Alex Kirby (@AlexJKirby) May 6, 2021
BYU ran countless mesh variations in 2020, almost all of which Wilson executed perfectly in terms of the throw and the pre-snap/post-snap thinking process.
A lot of the mesh concepts Wilson ran at BYU consisted of two shallow crossers (mesh routes), a deep overhang or O.T.B. (over the ball to beat zone), a speed out from furthest WR from the formation (to beat inside leverage with man coverage), and a rail/bullet route from the RB (his first read/hot route).
Wilson became great at this concept based on his quick decision-making, velocity on his throws, and his ability to look off/fool zone defenders. Plus, in theory, the mesh concept has an answer against any defensive coverage.
It was a no-brainer for LaFleur to bring this very common concept over to the Jets and put his own flavor on it. Let’s take a look at how the concept worked against the Packers.
The Jets run Mesh with a dig instead of a deep overhang in a 3×1 stack, 11 personnel set out of Gun. The dig works to create a drive concept (same side dig and shallow) along with the mesh (opposite-running shallows).
Tevin Coleman runs the rail/bullet route out of the backfield while the lone WR to the boundary runs a shallow crosser opposite of Davis. The inline TE gets involved in pass protection while Crowder runs the 10-yard dig route instead of the more common deep overhang/OTB.
The Packers defense runs man coverage across the board out of nickel with a one-high shell. The two second-level LBs work to funnel the RB to take away any leverage opportunities by putting him in motion. The term “funnel” means that whichever side the RB is on in relation to the QB when the play is snapped, the LB on that same side has to cover the back man-to-man.
The other LB, initially working to get in the passing lane of the dig route, is part of a “cut call”, where he’s supposed to cover anything shallow just in case the CB covering Davis gets caught in traffic. The CB would then replace the original LB’s job of helping on the other shallow.
What goes wrong for the Packers here is that the LB who is supposed to take the shallow does not, and Davis is left wide open because of it.
Before the snap, Wilson puts Coleman in motion to his left, allowing the two LBs to expose their communication on the funnel call. Off the snap, Wilson’s first read is the rail route, where he sees the LB do a nice job of pursuing Coleman out of the backfield. The next landmark Wilson progresses to is the dig route, where he sees a LB lurking to get in any possible throwing window.
As pressure caves in on Wilson’s left, Davis works past the “mesh point” of the two shallow crossers, displaying to Wilson that he’s wide open. Zach does a terrific job of giving ground to the pressure, buying himself just enough time to locate the open Davis and throws a good enough ball to give Corey an opportunity to run with the ball.
This is a perfect example of a rookie QB playing like a veteran based on his familiarity and knowledge of the pass concept.
Build the pass off the run
Last but not least, LaFleur made Wilson’s second touchdown pass of the day an easy one because of how his play-calling kept the defense guessing.
Inside the Packers’ 25-yard line, let’s take a look at the run play that was called right before the second Wilson-to-Kroft TD pass.
Pretty simple stuff, right?
The Jets, operating out of single-back 12 personnel, run split zone through the strong-side A-gap with the addition of a fake hand-off jet motion from the backside.
The Packers are once again in an even-front nickel one-high look, but that’s irrelevant here.
What’s relevant is that the Packers now associate this look with a run play, whether that be through jet motion or an inside zone run.
Now let’s explore how LaFleur uses this against the defense on the very next play.
On this play, the Jets are in an awfully similar personnel grouping and formation.
In fact, it’s the same exact 12 personnel, single-back formation with an inline TE and another one attached. The two WRs on the backside are once again in a stack as well.
The Packers are in the same even front nickel package with a one-high shell, probably expecting the same or similar run play to happen.
Off the snap, Wilson fakes the same jet-motion run, and looks to hand it off inside to the RB. Instead, he fakes that hand-off as well, and boots to the backside. As soon as Wilson puts his eyes downfield, he and everyone can tell the defense is already massively out-leveraged from committing to their run fits.
Kroft, who was the split flow in the previous run play, now runs out to catch a pass in the flat, known as running a split bluff. Herndon, working from the strong side, runs a crosser to the field-side to act as the second-level receiver. Keelan Cole, who was the lone WR still on the backside, runs a rounded-out corner route to the endzone, acting as the third-level WR to form a flood concept.
While it looks like man coverage, it’s hard to tell based on how out of position the defense was as a result of the boot action. With both Herndon and Cole covered, Wilson finds Kroft wide open in the flat who manages to reach the endzone off an effective block from Herndon.
Instead of having Wilson find the endzone the hard way – like his first one – LaFleur set up Zach and the offense for easy success through simple, yet effective play-calling.
The Jets finally have an offense built for the 21st century.