Two ways the New York Jets can start fast in New England
The New York Jets have trailed at halftime in each of their five games this season, including by multiple scores in four. They have yet to score in the first quarter.
It is obvious that the Jets must get off to better starts if they are going to be competitive over their final 12 games of the season.
Beyond simply executing better, what philosophical changes should the Jets make in an attempt to start games more respectably?
These three changes to their game-plan should help them start off fast against the New England Patriots in Week 7.
1. Give Zach Wilson early play-action attempts out of shotgun
Zach Wilson has yet to throw a completion for a first down in the first quarter this season. He has completed 5-of-18 passes in the first quarter for 34 yards.
How can Mike LaFleur the Jets fix this?
Well, while the low-hanging fruit proposal of “give him more quick-and-easy throws to start the game” does actually apply in this case, what is most important to get Wilson off to a faster start is altering exactly how he is asked to make those easy throws.
Wilson has struggled mightily with play-action passing. He has seen a league-worst drop-off of 2.1 yards per attempt when throwing off of a play fake versus when throwing without one.
The bulk of Wilson’s play-action issues have come on plays in which he lined up under center. When asked to turn his back to the defense to execute a play fake, Wilson misses out on time that can be spent reading the field, which can be detrimental for a young quarterback. It is in these situations where he has sputtered.
Wilson has a passer rating of 70.7 when operating out of shotgun. Comparatively, he has a passer rating of 39.2 when he takes the snap from under center.
The BYU product is more than twice as likely to throw an interception when lined up under center. He has five picks over 129 attempts out of the shotgun, a 3.9% rate. When lined up under center, he has four picks over 42 attempts, an absolutely terrible rate of 9.5%.
Wilson is being asked to throw too many under-center passes. He has tossed 8.4 of them per game, making up nearly a quarter of his total attempts (24.5%).
Many successful young quarterbacks use under-center passes far less frequently than that. Here are a few of the league’s brightest young passers and the percentage of their 2021 pass attempts that have come from under center:
- Joe Burrow: 17.2%
- Josh Allen: 13.0%
- Patrick Mahomes: 12.4%
- Kyler Murray: 7.2%
Wilson would benefit greatly from getting the opportunity to execute a substantially larger portion of his play-action passes from a shotgun alignment. This approach would allow him to read the field while executing the fake, making it much easier for him to get the ball out quickly.
With more first-quarter play-action attempts out of shotgun, Wilson will have a better chance to rack up easy completions that help him establish a rhythm early in the game.
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2. Send creative zone blitzes at Mac Jones early and often
The Jets’ defensive game-plan against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 5 was different than what they showed over the first four weeks.
Typically a vanilla defensive team that relies on its four-man rush and zone coverage in the back-end – going with all-out man blitzes in certain situations – the Jets got much more creative against the Falcons, and they paid for it.
New York executed more zone blitzes than usual. These plays featured rushers being sent from unique locations with defensive linemen dropping into zone coverage to replace them.
Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan exploited these blitzes. On a consistent basis, he quickly identified the soft spot in the Jets’ zone coverage and got the ball there in a hurry. Edge rushers Bryce Huff and John Franklin-Myers were beaten for touchdowns in coverage.
The Jets’ defensive linemen combined for a season-high 5 snaps in coverage against Atlanta. That was a fairly large increase compared to the previous four games, in which the Jets asked their defensive linemen to play only 1.5 coverage snaps per game.
That was a curious plan against a veteran quarterback like Ryan, who is not likely to be fooled by complex defenses at this stage of his career. New York probably would have had a better shot if they played the Falcons straight-up and allowed their individual mismatches to manifest themselves rather than trying to win a chess match.
However, against a rookie quarterback like New England’s Mac Jones, those creative blitzes have a greater chance of being successful.
The Jets should look to build upon the concepts they established last week and get creative in their pursuit of Jones early in the game. While Jones has been an impressively stable and smart game manager for a first-year quarterback, it is worth testing the waters in the first quarter to see if he can handle complex pressure packages.
This approach comes with risk, of course, but it will also increase the odds of creating an early takeaway. For as poised as he looks, Jones becomes a turnover machine when pressured.
Jones has three interceptions and three fumbles over 74 pressured dropbacks, a very high turnover-worthy play rate of 8.1% that ranks second-highest in the NFL behind Ben Roethlisberger.
Without Mosley, the Jets are far less likely to hold up if they play the Patriots in a vanilla fashion as they did in Week 2. That week, the Jets were successful against the Patriots’ offense as they held them to 260 yards, but that was largely thanks to a bevy of tremendous individual plays by Mosley – ones that Sherwood is not likely to make in his place.
So, I think it makes sense for the Jets to use Mosley’s absence as an opportunity to dial up the risk in exchange for an increased amount of potential reward.
The Jets’ odds of stopping the Patriots’ dink-and-dunk attack with their traditional defensive approach are significantly lower with Sherwood in Mosley’s place, so why not take a chance and see if you can fluster the rookie quarterback by constantly sending Sherwood and the entire farm into the backfield?
Jeff Ulbrich and Robert Saleh should simplify things for Sherwood by allowing him to get downhill and make plays as a blitzer on a frequent basis, limiting the number of snaps in which he must handle difficult coverage assignments or make key run fits.
Obviously, Sherwood will have to do those things frequently as an every-down MIKE linebacker no matter what, but the Jets can take a load off his shoulders by giving him a high individual blitz rate and deploying a high team-wide blitz rate to decrease the average duration of New England’s plays.
It has always been difficult to win in New England without taking gutsy chances, and while Tom Brady is no longer in town, that fact remains the same for the Jets this week. New York needs to bring the heat and early force Mac Jones to show them he can beat the blitz. If they sit back, he will likely carve them up with Mosley on the sideline.
Of course, the Jets can adjust if their early-game aggression does not work, but they would be wise to at least try an aggressive approach to begin the game. Jones’ monumental turnover-worthy play rate when pressured presents a tantalizing window for a quick takeaway that can spring a fast start for the offense.
Mapping out a Foxborough plan on the Cool Your Jets podcast
On the latest episode of the Cool Your Jets podcast, Ben Blessington and I break down Jets-Patriots with a look at the game’s most important matchups and a dive into the possible game-planning mindsets of the coaches on each side.
Audio Version available to members only. Learn more here.