Checking in on our goals for Mike LaFleur
Entering their Week 6 bye, the New York Jets‘ offense ranked last in the NFL with only 13.4 points per game. Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur was the opposite of a popular man in the New York City area.
Since returning from their bye in Week 7, the Jets’ offense has been substantially better, ranking 17th in scoring (21.4 points per game) and seventh in total yards per game (369.9).
During the bye week, I laid out a list of 10 adjustments I wanted LaFleur to make. Let’s revisit some of those goals and see how’s he done.
1. More screen passes
Over his first five games, Zach Wilson threw 17 screen passes (3.4 per game). That made up 8.8% of his total dropbacks, ranking 22nd out of 34 qualified quarterbacks. I wanted to see the Jets call more screens to take some weight off Wilson’s shoulders.
However, the increase has been much more significant for Wilson in particular. Wilson has thrown a screen on 15.2% of his dropbacks since the bye, nearly doubling his pre-bye rate.
The jump in screen usage has been accompanied by a jump in screen efficiency.
New York is averaging 5.5 yards per screen play since the bye compared to their ghastly 2.2 yards per screen play before the bye. Eight of their 36 post-bye screens have resulted in first downs (22.2%), an enormous leap from their pre-bye woes when only one of 17 screens resulted in a first down (5.9%).
2. Less 12 personnel, more 11 personnel
I wrote about this particular subject in-depth a few weeks ago. LaFleur has done a tremendous job of revamping the Jets’ personnel usage to match their talent.
The Jets began the season giving too many snaps to their lackluster tight ends and not enough snaps to their versatile wide receivers. LaFleur was staying true to his Shanahan background and it cost the Jets dearly. They played too many reps with the lesser-talented tight ends stealing snaps from the more-talented receivers.
Prior to the bye, the Jets ranked third in the NFL in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) usage as they utilized the package on 36% of their offensive plays. They ranked 20th in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 RD) usage at 59%.
LaFleur recognized the issue and adjusted, refraining from stubbornness.
Since the bye, the Jets have leaped to 15th in 11 personnel usage at 63% while dropping to 27th in 12 personnel usage at 14%.
Most of the snaps vacated by the decrease in 12 personnel have been allocated not to 11 personnel packages, but 10 personnel packages (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR). The Jets lead the NFL in 10 personnel usage since Week 7 at 14%. LaFleur has made the four-receiver set a featured part of his scheme after using it on just one play prior to the bye.
3. More Denzel Mims snaps
Wide receiver Denzel Mims played 21 snaps over the team’s first five weeks. He was a healthy scratch in two games and played under 20% of the offensive snaps in each of the three games he did play.
Mims has seen his playing time go up after the bye. Most notably, he started in place of Corey Davis during Davis’ two-game absence from Weeks 8-9.
But even when Davis was healthy, Mims played more than he was at the start of the year. In each of the two games he has played since the bye with Davis also active (Mims missed three games due to COVID-19), Mims played slightly over 30% of the snaps. It’s worth noting that Davis left early in the latter of those two games (last week vs. Philadelphia), but Mims has certainly been getting more playing time nonetheless.
With Davis out for the season, Mims will likely step into his starting role once again, giving the second-year wideout plenty of reps to prove himself over the final five games.
Early in the season, calls for Mims were loud since the Jets’ offense was exceedingly stagnant and fans felt like there was nothing to lose for giving Mims a shot. However, due to the emergence of Elijah Moore and an overall step forward for every facet of the offense, it has not felt like the Jets have needed Mims as much as they did earlier in the year. This is especially true considering that when Mims did get his chance, he only caught three passes in two starts.
LaFleur has certainly shown more confidence in Mims post-bye than he did pre-bye, so he has accomplished this goal in a vacuum, but improvements in other areas and from other players have made it less important for Mims to be emphasized.
Verdict: Accomplished, but not much of an impact
4. More intermediate targets for Elijah Moore
Rookie wideout Elijah Moore ranked 60th among wide receivers with only five intermediate targets (10-19 yards downfield) through Week 5, an average of 1.3 per game over his four appearances. He was consistently separating in that range but was rarely rewarded.
I wanted LaFleur to find ways to ensure that Moore’s prowess as an intermediate route-runner was capitalized upon – and the rookie OC has gotten it done.
Quarterbacks failing to reward Moore is no longer an issue. He has become the go-to guy in LaFleur’s offense.
Overall, Moore has risen from 5.0 targets per game pre-bye to 8.1 targets per game post-bye. A hefty rise in intermediate targets is a big part of that.
Over seven post-bye games, Moore has seen 18 intermediate targets, an average of 2.6 per game that doubles his pre-bye average. He caught 11 of those for 207 yards, three touchdowns, and seven first downs.
Moore is now one of the most dangerous intermediate weapons in football. Since Week 7, he ranks sixth among wide receivers in targets, receptions, and total conversions in the intermediate range while placing seventh in yards and tying for first in touchdowns.
Justin Jefferson is the only other wide receiver in football with 10+ conversions and 200+ receiving yards in the intermediate range since Week 7.
Credit is due to LaFleur here, but a lot of this just has to do with better quarterback play. Wilson struggled to both locate Moore and throw accurately to him at the start of the year. His veteran backups had a strong rapport with the second-round rookie, and now, Wilson is improving his chemistry with No. 8, too.
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5. Less of Ty Johnson on third downs/in passing situations
I wanted to see less of running back Ty Johnson on third downs and in passing situations due to his struggles with drops and pass protection.
The results here are mixed. Johnson has been used less as a pass blocker, but he has gotten even more targets.
Johnson rose from 2.6 targets per game pre-bye to 4.3 targets per game post-bye. However, he has been much better as a receiver to validate the increase in volume. Johnson averaged a highly inefficient 3.9 yards per target pre-bye, which is I thought his workload should decrease. Since the bye, he is averaging a very solid 7.8 yards per target.
So, credit to LaFleur for not listening to me there.
LaFleur also deserves credit for minimizing Johnson’s blocking role. Johnson pass-blocked on 6.0 snaps per game prior to the bye and has seen that number drop to 2.1 after the bye.
Verdict: 50-50, although the failed portion actually led to good results
6. More targets for Tevin Coleman, fewer targets for Ty Johnson
I wanted to see some of Johnson’s targets go to Tevin Coleman, who unlike Johnson came into 2021 known for his pass-catching talents.
As we already discussed, Johnson’s targets have gone up, but LaFleur has also found more targets for Coleman.
Coleman was targeted only three times in four games pre-bye (0.8 per game). Since the bye, he has gotten 11 targets in four games (2.8 per game).
Those targets have not resulted in much of anything – Coleman caught eight of them for 28 yards (2.6 yards per target) – but at least LaFleur is getting a few more touches for a playmaker who deserved more of them.
Part of Coleman’s workload increase is due to Michael Carter’s absence, but Coleman did get three targets in a Week 10 game against Buffalo even with Carter healthy, so it does seem like there has been some increased emphasis to get Coleman involved regardless of Carter’s status.
7. More scrambles for Zach Wilson
This one was a Zach Wilson goal rather than a Mike LaFleur goal.
I wanted to see just a little bit more scrambling from Wilson after he averaged only 1.0 scrambling rush attempt per game over his first five starts. There were a handful of plays I saw from him on film in which scrambling was the best option but he elected not to.
Wilson’s post-bye knee injury threw a wrench into this goal. As he works his way back to full confidence in his knee, it isn’t fair to expect him to get more aggressive as a rusher.
We have not seen a single scramble from Wilson since the bye. However, watching the film, I don’t recall any moments where he passed up on a scramble where it was clearly the best available decision, so this is not a problem at all right now.
Verdict: Not accomplished, but not problematic whatsoever
8. Less play-action passing
Wilson averaged 2.1 fewer yards per attempt on play-action passes than non-play-action passes prior to the bye week, the second-largest discrepancy in football. Because of this, I wanted to see fewer play-action passes.
Pre-bye, Wilson ranked 14th out of 30 quarterbacks with a play-action rate of 27.3%. Since the bye, LaFleur has lowered that rate to 20.3% for Wilson, placing him 34th out of 49 qualified quarterbacks.
LaFleur sliced the play-action rate even thinner for the other quarterbacks:
- Joe Flacco: 17.4% (43rd / 49)
- Mike White: 15.3% (47th / 49)
- Josh Johnson: 12.0% (48th / 49)
Just like with his personnel changes, LaFleur deserves a ton of credit for going away from his schematic background here.
Getting the quarterback on the move using rollouts, bootlegs, and sprint-outs is the basis of the scheme that LaFleur intended to install for the mobile Wilson, but those things weren’t working, so he is minimizing the frequency of those concepts and emphasizing the concepts that are working better for the players at his disposal.
9. More quick passes
Wilson began the season throwing with far better accuracy on quick-release throws than longer-developing throws. His adjusted completion percentage of 89.5% on throws that were released under 2.5 seconds after the snap ranked fourth-best. His 60.2% mark on throws that took over 2.5 seconds ranked 30th out of 35 qualifiers.
Prior to the bye, Wilson released 32.0% of his passes in under 2.5 seconds, which was the lowest rate among qualified quarterbacks.
Since the bye, LaFleur has helped Wilson push that rate all the way up to 48.7%, which ranks 21st out of 49 qualifiers.
In his huge game against the Bengals, Mike White had a 63.8% rate that ranked fourth-best among all quarterbacks that week.
Contrary to some of the other changes we’ve seen, this change feels more like an adjustment towards LaFleur’s core philosophies rather than away from them.
The goal of this scheme is to produce easy completions and give playmakers chances to make plays. Early in the year, Wilson was playing too aggressively looking for deep shots, and LaFleur was playing into that tendency too much with his play-calling.
When Wilson’s exit paved the way for pocket-bound veterans, LaFleur was able to settle the offense down and establish the methodical rhythm that is his ultimate goal for the unit. Since returning, Wilson has continued the momentum that his elder peers helped establish, calming down his thought process and taking far more of the easy completions that LaFleur is dialing up for him.
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10. More first-quarter passes
The Jets ran the ball on an NFL-high 70.6% of their first-quarter first-down plays prior to the bye week. Their overreliance on establishing the run early in games in spite of poor rushing success led to predictable long-distance situations on second and third down for Wilson. He was highly unsuccessful in those scenarios and it led to weekly first-quarter shutouts.
I did not want the Jets to abandon the first-quarter run game, but I wanted them to be less predictable. Adjusting from a 30-70 pass-run split on first-down plays in the first quarter to a 40-60 or 50-50 split felt like a good way to help get the offense out to better starts. It would decrease predictability and give Wilson a shot to get into an early groove.
LaFleur took my advice and then some, going well beyond the 50-50 mark.
Since Week 7, the Jets have run the ball on only 39.6% of their first-down plays in the first quarter, passing on 60.4%. Only the Buccaneers and Bills have been more pass-heavy in those situations over that span.
The change has helped the Jets become much more effective at getting ahead of the chains early in games. After ranking 27th with 3.9 yards per play on first-down plays in the first quarter pre-bye, the Jets have risen to 13th with 5.4 yards per play in these situations since the bye.
Long-term, this number is probably not where the Jets want to be. At its core, this scheme is about establishing the run to build a lower-volume, higher-efficiency passing game off of the run threat. It is not built to be an all-out aerial attack like the Bucs or Bills.
But you need the right people to play that kind of football. The Jets do not have those people right now.
LaFleur will most likely balance out his early-game approach next season once the Jets acquire more talent at tight end, as the 12 personnel package is key to first-down rushing and the Jets cannot rely on the package right now due to a lack of talent. Improvements on the offensive line (healthy Mekhi Becton, progression for Alijah Vera-Tucker, a C and/or RG upgrade, more chemistry amongst the starters) will also help.
For now, though, LaFleur continues to adapt to the circumstances at hand. The Jets are not built to be a run-heavy team at the moment. Going pass-heavy is what’s working.
I do think that, with the Jets’ rushing improvements since Laurent Duvernay-Tardif joined the starting lineup (4.8 yards per carry from Weeks 11-13), they can probably afford to push their first-down/first-quarter pass-run split closer to 50-50 rather than 60-40 over the final five games of the season.
That’s nitpicking, though. LaFleur’s early-game pass-heaviness is working effectively right now.
Mike LaFleur is showing what good coaching is all about
Following a start to the season that was atrocious but only lasted five games, Mike LaFleur could have easily decided it was too early to make any significant changes to his approach. He would not be unique if he elected to merely stick it out and see if his players could adapt to his philosophies over time.
After all, that’s what his defensive peers are doing.
Instead, LaFleur looked in the mirror and seized the factors that were within the realm of his control. He analyzed the five-game body of work at his fingertips and used the knowledge gleaned from that sample to identify what changes he could make to maximize his players’ odds of success.
Nobody expects a coach to completely change his scheme entirely mid-season – that’s impossible. What a coach can do during the season is make subtle adjustments to his play-calling tendencies and personnel deployment to get the absolute most out of the people in the building.
And LaFleur is doing that about as well as you possibly could.
Ideas that were not working have been deemphasized and ideas that are working have been emphasized. Concepts Zach Wilson struggles with have been put on the backburner while concepts he is executing well have been brought to the forefront. Players who struggle are playing less and players who deserve more playing time are playing more.
Coaches must be able to throw their egos out the window and honestly self-evaluate. What can I do better to help my team right now?
Sure, patience is key for a young, rebuilding team like the Jets, but that does not mean a coach should sit back and do nothing, blindly trusting the process in hopes that something will eventually work if it is attempted dozens of times. In many ways, it feels like this is what the Jets’ defense is doing.
But that’s not what Mike LaFleur has done.
An offense that began the season as an absolute laughingstock has developed into one of the NFL’s more respectable units in a matter of a couple of months.
LaFleur did not wait for his players to adjust to his vision.
He adjusted his vision to them.