New York Jets’ Mike LaFleur vs. Miami Dolphins’ Mike McDaniel: A wide-zone takeover in the AFC East
New York Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, affectionately known to Jets fans as MLF, is a disciple of the Kyle Shanahan coaching tree. That means that his scheme is predicated on zone running and play-action passing.
In this copycat league, coordinators and coaches who come from that coaching mold (which traces back to Kyle’s father Mike) are getting head coaching opportunities all over the NFL. So it’s no surprise that after the Miami Dolphins controversially fired Brian Flores, they replaced him with 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel.
The question is, with two teams in the same division running versions of the same offense, which one will be more successful? LaFleur’s Jets or McDaniel’s Dolphins?
First of all, it’s important to note that this is not the first time this has happened. In fact, Sean McVay of the Rams comes from the same coaching tree as Kyle Shanahan, and he runs much of the same offensive philosophy. The 49ers and Rams have had some epic duels during the overlapping years between the two coaches, with Shanahan often getting the best of the matchup. However, McVay is currently basking in the glow of having overcome his division rival en route to a Super Bowl victory.
How will these two Shanahan disciples fare in the AFC East?
Offensive line play
One of the staples of the Shanahan offense is the wide zone blocking scheme. In this scheme, each blocking member takes a step in the same direction to get a horizontal push. Since both offenses will play this run-blocking scheme, it is important to note how the linemen on each team perform in zone-blocking.
Here are the Pro Football Focus grades in zone blocking for each team’s presumed starting five linemen (going across the formation from left tackle to right tackle):
- George Fant – 63.2
- Laken Tomlinson – 82.0
- Connor McGovern – 87.1
- Alijah Vera-Tucker – 70.0
- Mekhi Becton (2020) – 74.5
- Terron Armstead – 70.5
- Liam Eichenberg – 64.8
- Michael Deiter – 60.8
- Connor Williams – 76.1
- Robert Hunt – 62.2
It appears that the Jets have a significant advantage in zone blocking, particularly at left guard and center. This may simply be because the Jets have had an additional offseason to fill out their roster with players who fit their scheme, but the fact remains that the Jets’ run-blocking in this scheme is superior on paper.
Additionally, the Dolphins’ offensive line from last season was the third-worst in the NFL in Adjusted Line Yards (ALY), a Football Outsiders stat that assigns run yardage based on down, distance, and offensive line play vs. running back play.
Although the additions of Armstead and Williams should help that number, the baseline stats are pretty awful. While the Jets’ line ranked 22nd in ALY, the addition of Laken Tomlinson and the return of Mekhi Becton will be a tremendous boost to their line in that area.
Perhaps this should be listed first, since in today’s NFL the game is largely defined by quarterback play. Still, since the 49ers have had extended success in Shanahan’s scheme with average play from Jimmy Garoppolo, this scheme may not rely as heavily on elite QBs as most others do.
However, that does not mitigate the importance of the quarterback. The 49ers drafted Trey Lance because they feel that Garoppolo limits their potential, even given the success of their scheme.
Speaking about the Shanahan system, former NFL quarterback Chris Simms singled out two traits that are important for a quarterback in that offense: “A guy who’s been able to read and recognize and pull the trigger as well as throwing the ball at an instance.” Simms also mentions athleticism as a key factor in this passing system.
Zach Wilson was largely rumored to be Shanahan and the 49ers’ top QB target in the 2021 draft due to his combination of athleticism and quick trigger. 49ers legend Steve Young said less than a month before the draft, “There’s no question in my mind, if [the 49ers] can figure out how to get Zach, that’s their No. 1 first choice.”
Still, in Wilson’s first year in the Mike LaFleur version of the offense, he often struggled.
Play action is one of the staples of the Shanahan passing game. Last season, Wilson had a 42.5 PFF grade on play action, with three touchdowns, five picks, one big-time throw, and five turnover-worthy plays.
Despite Wilson’s rookie struggles, there is hope for Wilson in 2022. According to Alex Rollins and Jet X’s Michael Nania, Wilson’s second-half improvement shows up on film in ways that bode well for his continued growth in LaFleur’s offense. Rollins details how Wilson demonstrated his ability to attack the middle of the field with anticipation, one of the key components of LaFleur’s system.
If Wilson can continue that in 2022, especially with the improved weapons the Jets have given him, the quarterback-system fit has the potential to be explosive.
Meanwhile, Tua Tagovailoa is heading into his critical third season as the Miami quarterback. Tua has been inconsistent over his time in the NFL, leading the Dolphins to check up on Deshaun Watson.
However, unlike Wilson, Tua has actually been pretty strong on play action, ranking 14th among qualified QBs with an 80.3 PFF grade, eight touchdowns vs. just two picks, and five big-time throws. He did have six turnover-worthy plays on play-action, but his 3.1% turnover-worthy play rate was 12th-best across quarterbacks (min. 400 attempts).
Additionally, Tua is known for his accuracy in the short passing game, something Wilson struggled with. Tua ranked 8th out of 33 quarterbacks with a 78.4 PFF grade on throws from 0-9 yards (min. 100 attempts). Wilson ranked 20th with a 69.3 grade. (Interestingly, Wilson’s detractors have noted how poorly he threw in short range. While not good, the 20th ranking is one of his better statistical rankings across all passing categories in 2021.)
On these short throws, Tua zipped the ball out of his hands in 2.18 seconds, the third-fastest mark, while Wilson took the longest to throw at 2.70 seconds.
Run-pass options have become a hallmark of NFL offenses across the league. Although they are sometimes denigrated as college-style plays that do not show a quarterback’s true ability, the fact that Patrick Mahomes ran more RPOs than any other quarterback in the NFL tells you something about their potential effectiveness.
Per Sports Info Solutions (SIS), Tua had the third most RPO dropbacks in the league last season, and Wilson ranked 19th despite missing four games. Among 30 quarterbacks with a minimum of 10 passing attempts on RPOs, Tua and Wilson were both in the bottom 10 in the NFL in completion percentage, catchable percentage (Wilson was last in the league), and on-target percentage.
However, Tua was 5th-best across QBs with a 7.8 yards-per-attempt average on RPOs, while Wilson was 6th-worst with 4.4 Y/A. Wilson had the 4th-worst QB rating in these situations, whereas Tua was middle-of-the-pack at 15th.
One last go-to in the LaFleur/McDaniel offense is presnap motion. The Jets were 4th in the NFL with 368 dropbacks on plays that included presnap motion, while the 49ers, McDaniel’s team, were 2nd with 402. The Dolphins were just behind the Jets with 357 dropbacks off presnap motion, so Tua is already used to that kind of offensive setup. Since each quarterback utilized presnap motion so heavily, their statistics in this category barely differ from their overall numbers, making the comparison moot.
Statistically, Tua has an advantage in this area, but Wilson has the physical tools and weapons to catch up and surpass him.
According to an article on Weekly Spiral, “Outside zone forces defenses to run horizontally and puts more responsibility on the running back to make the blocking scheme of the offensive line effective.” Although the prevailing narrative is that the wide zone scheme can use running backs interchangeably, there are specific skills that make backs successful in this role.
After he was drafted by the Jets, this is what Carter had to say about the wide zone scheme: “I think my change of direction and my stop-start ability, I think it compliments this system well. I’ve been running pretty much wide zone since I was born. So it’s something that really comes naturally to me.”
Carter backed that up by putting up 3.37 yards after contact per attempt, good for 8th-best in the league (out of 50 backs with min. 100 attempts) and a 77.3 PFF rushing grade (18th).
The most important stat when it comes to Carter, though, was his 0.30 missed tackles forced (MTF) per touch, the best mark in the NFL. This demonstrates the exact stop-start ability he referred to, which is critical for the creativity that a wide zone scheme requires from running backs.
Hall comes out of college with the potential to be just as elusive as Carter, having put up 0.31 missed tackles per touch in college. Hall is also well accustomed to the wide zone, having played 73.8% of his snaps in college with that scheme. His 74 runs of 15+ yards over the last two seasons add a burst at the next level, showing that he can explode through a hole, make defenders miss, and rip off big gains.
The Dolphins have three capable running backs on the roster, several of whom have noted success in the wide-zone scheme.
Chase Edmonds’s 73.5 PFF rushing grade last season ranked 24th across 50 backs with at least 100 attempts, and his 5.1 yards per attempt ranked 7th behind an offensive line that ranked 26th in ALY. He averaged only 0.13 MTF per attempt, though.
Sony Michel had the same PFF rushing grade as Edmonds running behind a wide-zone scheme with the Rams, and his 39 MTF ranked 12th.
In 2020, Raheem Mostert ranked 18th among backs with a 77.0 PFF rushing grade on 5.0 yards per attempt. Still, he had only 0.12 MTF per attempt.
Overall, the Jets’ running backs have more explosive potential in wide-zone due to their elusiveness, but the Dolphins’ three backs have a more proven track record of stability and relative success.
One of the goals of wide-zone blocking is to clear the middle of the field in the passing game. As mentioned earlier, Wilson’s film showed a lot of improvement in that area of the field down the stretch last season.
Wilson averaged 4.87 yards per route run out of the slot last season in college and has the yards-after-catch ability to take slant routes for extra yardage. Berrios averaged 5.6 yards-after-catch per reception in 2021, which ranked 16th out of 101 qualified wide receivers and came largely inside. Conklin saw 40 of his 61 receptions on passes over the middle, tied for the 10th most receptions over the middle among tight ends, per SIS.
Meanwhile, for the Dolphins, Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle were 4th and 7th, respectively, in wide receiver receptions over the middle. Mike Gesicki was third among tight ends with 49 catches over the middle. The Dolphins have the personnel to eat teams alive with RPOs and quick hitters over the vacated middle.
The receiving corps battle should be interesting. These are two strong groups with a lot of upside. Miami has the more proven of the two right now, but that could even up quickly with Garrett Wilson.
The question: How will coach and personnel mesh?
The Jets have had more time to bring in their guys. They drafted Zach Wilson, Michael Carter, Breece Hall, Elijah Moore, and Garrett Wilson for their scheme. They brought in two versatile tight ends and drafted a third. They signed Laken Tomlinson to complete their offensive line.
Miami, meanwhile, has only had this offseason, and while they’ve brought in a lot of high-end talent, they need to mesh it with their vision for the team. The wide-zone blocking scheme is notoriously difficult to teach, which means the line may be in for a bit of a learning curve for those who are not accustomed to it.
However, the Dolphins have a more proven track record of success. They are coming off of a winning season in which their quarterback played decently. The Jets have many more questions about their ability to pull things together.
The wrinkles that each coach brings to the table, as well as their proficiency in teaching and refining the scheme, will have a large impact on the teams’ offensive performance this season. The battle of the Shanahan tree has just begun in the AFC East.