How can Mike LaFleur alter his offense to aid Zach Wilson?
As the 1-4 New York Jets head into their early bye week, the coaching staff is afforded a chance to look back on a five-game body of work and figure out what changed could be made to turn things around going forward
Mike LaFleur‘s offense has shown signs of progress over the past two weeks, scoring 47 points against the Titans and Falcons, but his unit remains 32nd in scoring with 13.4 points per game.
Most importantly, LaFleur is overseeing the ghastly struggles of rookie quarterback Zach Wilson, whose 62.9 passer rating is the worst among qualified passers.
There are a few changes LaFleur can make to his core offensive philosophies that would set Wilson up to enjoy more success after the week off.
Less play-action passing
Wilson has struggled mightily with throwing off of play-action to begin his rookie season. He ranks second-worst out of 35 qualified quarterbacks with an average of 5.0 yards per attempt on play-action passes, beating out only fellow rookie Davis Mills.
On non-play-action passes, Wilson is averaging a much more respectable 7.1 yards per attempt, ranking 20th out of 35.
The minus-2.1 margin between Wilson’s yards-per-attempt average off of play-action and his yards-per-attempt average without play-action is the second-largest in the league (again beating only Mills).
It seems that Wilson is doing a better job when getting the chance to drop back and read the defense from the get-go rather than when he has to fake the handoff and miss out on valuable fractions of a second to see what the defense does post-snap. Slicing Wilson’s play-action usage could make sense.
Wilson currently ranks in the middle of the pack when it comes to play-action usage. He is placed 17th out of 35 passers with 27.3% of his dropbacks involving play-action.
The Jets should try to get that number down into the low-20s range, placing him somewhere from 26th to 30th. That may not be what LaFleur hoped for his offense to look like when he planned to bring over the core principles of Kyle Shanahan’s play-action-heavy San Francisco offense, but it’s a change that would suit the strengths and weaknesses of the quarterback under center.
None of Wilson’s first five games exemplified his play-action struggles more than his London disaster against the Falcons in Week 5.
Against Atlanta, Wilson went 7-for-13 with 51 yards (3.9 Y/A), zero touchdowns, and one interception (31.6 rating) off of play-action. He was 12-of-19 for 141 yards (7.4 Y/A), zero touchdowns, and zero interceptions (85.2 rating) without play-action.
This was the Jets’ most play-action-heavy game of the season, as Wilson led all quarterbacks with a 42.9% play-action rate.
Wilson threw for a better Y/A average without play-action than with it in four of his five games this season. The only exception is Week 3 against Denver, when he threw a season-low four passes (12.5% of dropbacks) off of play-action.
The play-action game should become more effective if the Jets utilize it less often.
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More quick passes
It has been well-documented that Wilson is struggling mightily with his short-to-intermediate passing this season. He has been quite good as a deep passer but is missing an alarming number of routine throws under 20 yards downfield.
Those issues can be mitigated if the Jets call for Wilson to get the ball out quicker. Wilson’s accuracy issues have primarily come on long-developing plays. He has actually been extremely accurate on quick throws.
Wilson has an adjusted completion percentage (which accounts for drops, batted passes, throwaways, etc.) of 89.5% on throws that were released under 2.5 seconds after the snap. That ranks fourth-best in the NFL.
Conversely, he has an awful adjusted completion percentage of 60.2% on throws that were released after 2.5 seconds, ranking 30th out of 35 qualifiers.
Wilson obviously needs to significantly improve his passing on those longer-developing plays, but the Jets can do a better job of playing to Wilson’s current strengths. When it comes to release speed, the Jets are minimizing Wilson’s strength and emphasizing his weakness.
The Jets are not dialing up enough quick passes for Wilson. He has tossed only 32.0% of his pass attempts in under 2.5 seconds, the second-lowest rate in the league ahead of only Lamar Jackson.
This topic correlates with the play-action topic. Play-action passes are long-developing. In 2021, the average play-action pass has been released in 3.04 seconds, while the average non-play-action pass has been released in 2.60 seconds.
Wilson has struggled with both play-action and long-developing throws while doing much better on non-play-action throws and quick throws. Two birds can be killed with one stone here.
When Wilson has been asked to make short throws off of a quick drop and without running a play fake, he has generally gotten the job done. The trouble has occurred when he has had to hold the ball for a long time. Wilson’s ugly misses tend to come off of play action, when he gets to one of the later reads in a concept, looks for his check-down option, or a combination of those three things.
Getting Wilson’s quick-throw rate up is a must. If the Jets do that, Wilson should have a much better time finding his rhythm on the routine throws.
I would like to see the Jets get Wilson up to throwing around 48% of his passes in under 2.5 seconds, which is right at the current 2021 league average of 47.8%. A mark of 48% would place Wilson 19th out of 35 qualifiers at the moment, nestling him between Matthew Stafford (48.6%) and Kyler Murray (47.6%).
Now, the Jets do not want to get this number too high and turn him into a game manager. Wilson’s magic is built around his deep passing, his mobility, and his ability to create off-schedule plays. They should still feature those traits.
But to make the most of Wilson’s current skill-set and help him build confidence, they need to make the quick game a priority. Decrease the play-action usage, decrease the long-developing plays, and increase the quick passing.
More passing in the first quarter
The Jets have been notoriously bad in the first quarter this season. They have scored zero points and gained 79 yards of offense. Opponents are outscoring them 30-0 in the opening frame.
Wilson’s slow starts are a big part of those struggles. In the first quarter this season, Wilson has completed 5 of 18 passes for 34 yards, one first down, zero touchdowns, and two interceptions. That’s a passer rating of 0.0. He has also taken two sacks for a loss of 23 yards, giving the Jets a grand total of 11 first-quarter passing yards.
Yes, those are real numbers.
It has to be noted that Wilson’s first-quarter stats are hindered by big-time drops. Elijah Moore let a bomb for 50+ yards sail through his hands against the Panthers. Corey Davis had a potential first down fly between his mitts for an interception against New England. Davis dropped another chain-mover against the Titans.
However, even when accounting for those plays, Wilson has still been quite awful in the first quarter.
LaFleur can help Wilson get off to better starts by putting a greater emphasis on getting him into an early rhythm. The Jets have not been trusting Wilson early in games. They constantly allow themselves to get into a hole before asking him to carry the offense later in the game.
New York has been exceedingly reliant on its run game in the first quarter. The Jets have run the ball on 52.4% of their first-quarter plays, ranking fourth-highest in the league.
Even worse than that number is the method to how the Jets arrive at it. LaFleur has been incredibly predictable in the first quarter, operating with a heavy run-run-pass tendency.
The Jets have run the ball on 70.6% of their first-down plays in the first quarter, which leads the NFL.
Wilson has thrown a measly five passes on first down in the first quarter this season. Those yielded only 16 yards, but he was on-target on four of them (he had 11 and 9-yard completions, a screen for a loss of four yards, and a pass that went through Davis’ hands for an interception).
Continuing their predictability and lack of reliance on Wilson, New York also ranks eighth in run percentage on second-down plays in the first quarter at 50.0%.
On third downs in the first quarter, LaFleur goes pass-heavy, throwing 72.7% of the time.
That rate is actually fairly normal, ranking 22nd, but the problem is the difficulty of those situations. The Jets have faced an average of 9.3 yards to go on third-down passing plays in the first quarter, ranking fifth-highest in the NFL.
This is a recipe for disaster. Run on first down, run on second down, throw from third-and-long. With a plan like that, it is no surprise that Wilson has been so bad in the first quarter.
Unless you have an elite run game – which the Jets do not – it makes little sense to be so run-heavy in the first quarter, especially in such a predictable fashion on first and second down.
LaFleur needs to pump up the first-quarter passing attempts for Wilson. It will allow Wilson to establish confidence early in the game while decreasing the offense’s predictability.
The league-average pass-play rate on first-down plays in the first quarter this season is 55.1%. Let’s get Wilson up to that number and away from his current mark of 47.6%.
Get his second-down attempts up, too. The league average pass-play rate on second-down plays in the first quarter is at 56.6% this year. Wilson should be around there, not at 50-50 as he currently is.
The first quarter is the perfect time to toss in the quick passes we were discussing earlier. Have him throw some screens. Call some read-options. Run some three-step drops. Draw up some short curls and slants.
Watch the tape of the opponent and identify their greatest weaknesses through the air. Concoct passing plays that exploit those weaknesses and build the first-quarter game-plan around those, allowing Wilson to settle into the game smoothly with a plan that he is ready to execute.
Do not keep trying to force the run and then ask Wilson to establish his early-game rhythm by pulling the team out of difficult third-and-long situations.
The perfect recipe for making Zach Wilson’s life easier
It’s clear what the plan is for LaFleur to help Wilson out: get his play-action attempts down, get his quick-passing attempts up, and get his first-quarter attempts up.
All of these things can be accomplished in unison to help Wilson get enjoy confidence-boosting starts that set him on a path to thrive for four quarters. Come into the game with an opening script that emphasizes quick passing without play-action. Allow Wilson to rack up early completions to get into a groove.
Don’t limit that approach to the first quarter, either. So far, Wilson has shown a massive disparity in accuracy and productivity when it comes to play-action usage and release time. Play into that. Make it a point to call more dropback passes and fewer play-action passes. Increase the offense’s reliance on quick passing.
These are just a few simple changes that Mike LaFleur can make to build an offense that is better suited to the strengths and weaknesses that Zach Wilson has displayed early in his New York Jets career.