Zach Wilson needs better support to defeat the New England Patriots
The primary story emanating from Zach Wilson‘s New York Jets debut was the extreme lack of support he received. Wilson had a league-high 20% of his catchable pass attempts dropped. Moreover, the Carolina Panthers pressured him on 51% of his dropbacks, the second-highest rate among qualified quarterbacks in Week 1.
It goes without saying that Wilson will need a better performance from his supporting cast if he is to defeat Bill Belichick, who owns a 25-6 career record against rookie quarterbacks.
The Jets can put Wilson in a favorable position to succeed by accomplishing these three goals.
1. Establish the threat of motion handoffs and screen passes early
Mike LaFleur did not do a great job of keeping the Carolina Panthers’ defense honest in the season opener. The Jets threw only one screen pass (resulting in negative-3 yards) and did not give any rushing attempts to their wide receivers.
Carolina’s highly aggressive linebackers and safeties were able to key in on attacking the box all game – for a specific reason. They never felt threatened on the outside, and that allowed them to cause havoc in the run game and as blitzers.
Against a New England Patriots defense that is known to play an aggressive, blitz-heavy style, LaFleur must force New England’s box defenders to respect the possibility of multiple threats in order to lessen their aggressiveness and make them think more.
In order to do that, LaFleur needs to call screen passes, run jet sweeps, and run end-arounds early and often, in order to spread out the Patriots defense and give its attack-minded rushers a bevy of possibilities to consider on each play.
Plus, calling these plays early should help Wilson ease his way into the game and find his rhythm naturally (so long as the plays are blocked and executed effectively).
It goes without saying that the Jets’ pass protection needs to be better. I could put a section that just says “the offensive line needs to block better,” but that’s glaringly obvious.
What the coaching staff needs to do is play its part in helping the offensive line as much as possible, and against New England’s blitz-heavy attack, forcing defenders to spread out and overthink can greatly decrease their effectiveness as blitzers. This should buy more time and room for the offensive line to process blitzes and stunts.
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2. The wide receivers must win against one-on-one coverage
Bill Belichick likes to play more man coverage than anybody else in the league. In Week 1, New England’s starting cornerbacks, J.C. Jackson and Jalen Mills, ranked first and second, respectively, among all qualified NFL cornerbacks in man coverage frequency. Jackson played man-to-man on 63% of his snaps in coverage while Mills played it on 59% of his.
Corey Davis, Elijah Moore, Jamison Crowder, and Keelan Cole simply have to win their one-on-one battles against New England’s corners. If they can’t, it’s game over. Wilson is not going to have much time to make decisions even if his offensive front blocks up the Patriots’ blitzes effectively. That’s just how Belichick plays – he is willing to accept the increased risk of allowing big plays in exchange for forcing the quarterback to make quick decisions and prove he can complete tight-window throws against man coverage.
Belichick puts the game in the hands of the opposing quarterback. If the quarterback can identify good matchups pre-snap, make good decisions in a hurry post-snap, and throw accurately against one-on-one matchups, he will have plenty of opportunities to make big plays against Belichick’s defense.
If the quarterback cannot do those things, he will be embarrassed – the usual Belichick success against rookies and young quarterbacks. Early-career passers are still developing in the mental aspect of the game, so they usually struggle mightily when Belichick forces them to make quick decisions and throw into contested windows.
All of this comes back to the wide receiver position. Simply put, if the Jets’ receivers can dominate their matchups and create significant separation, Wilson’s post-snap decision-making process will become much easier. If New England’s corners lock down the Jets’ receivers, Wilson will become indecisive post-snap and likely force throws that he should not, leading to turnovers.
The Jets’ wide receivers have to win against a New England cornerback room that does not have its superstar in Stephon Gilmore. In five games without Gilmore last season, the Patriots defense was pedestrian, allowing 24.0 points and 246.2 passing yards per game (even though two of those games were against Adam Gase’s awful Jets offense). Those numbers would have ranked 17th and 21st among 32 teams, respectively, if maintained over the course of the entire 2020 regular season.
3. Forge a strong interior run game
New York’s rushing attack needs to be effective for Mike LaFleur’s offense to operate at its highest level. The unit’s average of 2.6 yards per carry against Carolina is not going to cut it.
The weak spot of New England’s defensive front in the run game is on the interior. In Week 1, the Dolphins rushed for 43 yards on nine carries (4.8) directed between the tackles. That total excludes two quarterback sneak attempts, both of which were converted.
Collectively, the Patriots’ interior defensive linemen combined for the seventh-worst Pro Football Focus run-defense grade among all 32 interior defensive lines in the NFL in Week 1.
The interior trio of Alijah Vera-Tucker, Connor McGovern, and Greg Van Roten has to exploit the Patriots’ interior defensive line and establish the threat of a consistently effective inside running game. That would force New England to load the box even further than they already do, opening up more room on the outside for the Jets to start working their screen game, jet motion game, and outside zone game.
Vera-Tucker run-blocked superbly in his debut (pass-protection a big problem for the rookie). It’s McGovern and Van Roten who most need to pick it up. The pair consistently botched assignments, leaving defenders unblocked, and were routinely manhandled at the point of attack. New York also needs a lot more from tight end Ryan Griffin, whose blocking was a major detriment in both the passing game and the running game.
On the outside, George Fant will man left tackle in place of Mekhi Becton while Morgan Moses takes Fant’s spot at right tackle. Moses created a lot of movement on the inside during his short stint in the opener. Fant had moments of brilliance using his lateral athleticism but was also beaten quite a few times.
Ultimately, the run game just has to be a more respected threat no matter what area of the defense the Jets decide to attack. But it does appear that New England’s interior defensive line is its weakest spot, so that places the spotlight on the interior trio (and fullback Trevon Wesco) to lead success in that direction.
Cool Your Jets podcast episode
On the latest episode of the Cool Your Jets podcast, Ben Blessington and Michael Nania map out the plan for Zach Wilson and the New York Jets to take down the Patriots at MetLife Stadium.