As the NFL moves more and more towards passing, the Jets look to impose their will by pounding the rock
You don’t take a running back that high!
However, the Jets knew what they were signaling to the rest of the NFL: we’re going to run the ball down your throats.
For a team that passed 64% of the time last season, that’s certainly quite the turnaround.
Today’s NFL has moved in the opposite direction. All the numbers say that chunk passing is the way to go. Passing records fall left and right as guys like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers, and Kyler Murray receive larger and larger pieces of the pie financially.
The question is, can the old-fashioned running game work to win?
Attempts vs. EPA
Of the top 10 teams in the NFL in rush attempts last season, eight made the playoffs. Only Baltimore and New Orleans did not.
However, to say that rush attempts alone were correlated with winning is a stretch, since many of these teams were not particularly successful in running the ball: three of them were in the top 10 in rush EPA (Expected Points Added), but three were also in the bottom 10, including the 30th-ranked LA Rams.
Furthermore, the graph below compares pass and rush EPA of each team in the NFL last season.
The dashed lines represent league average pass and run EPA per play. Of the teams below the league average in pass EPA, only the Pittsburgh Steelers made the playoffs. Of the teams below average in rush EPA, the Rams, Cowboys, 49ers, Bengals, and Raiders made the playoffs. That is a decent benchmark to show that passing is more correlated with winning than rushing the ball is.
Teams that run the ball a lot
In today’s NFL, most teams that utilize a run-first strategy do so because they have lesser quarterbacks, at least when it comes to traditional passing. The Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, and San Francisco 49ers have been run-oriented teams in recent seasons because they did not trust their quarterbacks.
Perhaps it can be said that teams in those situations will do better with a run-first strategy. Throwing the ball with the corpse of Ben Roethlisberger or the unpredictable Carson Wentz was quite the dicey prospect.
Let’s look at the DVOA chart, though, to see how efficient these teams were in running vs. passing the ball.
Surprisingly, the Titans were only marginally above NFL average in rush efficiency. They were not too far below average in passing DVOA. Meanwhile, the Browns and Colts, two of the best rushing teams in the league, were also a bit below average in passing.
Theoretically, the Jets might have done better to run the ball a bit more, since they were above average in rushing efficiency. However, since they were so far behind in games, they often had to abandon the run altogether.
Notice that rushing efficiency numbers only go a bit over 10%, whereas passing efficiency numbers go up above 30%. That means that a team can be much more efficient passing the ball vs. running the ball. DVOA is calculated to tie yardage gains to winning. Therefore, the fact that passing efficiency has a higher ceiling means that better passing leads to more winning.
Points per drive
The top five teams in the NFL in points per drive last season were the Chiefs, Chargers, Packers, Rams, and Buccaneers. These are all teams with prolific passing games.
However, looking further down the list, teams like the Patriots, Cowboys, and Colts are in the top 10 in this category. Those teams tended to run the football a lot. Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Tennessee were also in the top half of the league.
Overall, the teams that tend to score the most points are the ones that pass the ball well, but it’s still possible to score at an effective rate while loading up on the run side – if you do it right and you still have average quarterback play.
Taking pressure off a young QB
Although Mac Jones had a strong season for the Patriots, the reality is that they were a run-first team. New England had the ninth-most rushing attempts in the league with 493, while they were 23rd in the league with 604 pass attempts.
Obviously, the strength of New England’s ground game drove this strategy. They beat the Bills while passing the ball three times the entire game as a response to the foul weather.
Still, another key reason for the run-first game plan was to take the pressure off the rookie quarterback’s shoulders. The ability to grind clock and play ball-control works very well for a quarterback who thrives on beating zone coverage and making accurate reads.
The other teams starting rookie QBs were not as lucky. Although the Jets actually ranked at or above league average in many rushing categories, including rush DVOA, they were unable to capitalize on that due to poor defense, turnovers, and inability to score. They trailed so often that they had no choice but to throw the ball. This put Zach Wilson under pressure all the time, leading to his 45 sacks, third-most in the NFL despite missing four games.
The Bears, meanwhile, were middle-of-the-pack in rushing attempts, but they were near the bottom of the league in rushing efficiency. This meant that they could not take the pressure off of Justin Fields. He was bruised and battered behind a porous offensive line with an utter dearth of weapons.
Trevor Lawrence lost his starting running back, fellow first-round pick Travis Etienne, before the season even started. Due to the tumult of the 2021 Jaguars, they were unable to properly utilize the talents of James Robinson. Like the Jets, the Jaguars were not terrible in rushing efficiency, but they were forced to throw the ball because they were constantly behind.
Perhaps running the ball is a viable strategy in this instance: to take the heat off of your young quarterback. This allows him to gain comfort in the system and read defenses with less pressure.
This is the Jets’ goal for 2022. With a two-headed monster in Breece Hall and Michael Carter, the team plans to wear down opposing defenses and allow Zach Wilson to settle in.
Types of rushing
Not all rushing is created equal. Lamar Jackson’s brand of designed QB runs is different than Derrick Henry going right up the middle. Josh Allen’s dual-threat angle is different than defending against Jonathan Taylor.
The San Francisco 49ers set up their running game better than almost any other team in the league. They complement their outside-zone scheme with a counterplay power game that causes the defense to overpursue. That’s the scheme Jets fans thought they’d see in 2021, but the team ran surprisingly few counterplays.
With speedsters such as Braxton Berrios, Elijah Moore, and Garrett Wilson in tow, the jet sweep and end-around game should also be very much in play. We saw a bit of it later in the season with Berrios, but not consistently throughout the season. With the triple threat in play, the Jets running game should be a viable weapon indeed.
As I detailed in an article last week, it’s not just about running the ball, but when you run. Running on both first and second down too much, especially without a counter or jet sweep, allows the defense to key the run. The misdirection will keep the defense on their toes.
The bottom line
If a team has a top quarterback, obviously a high-flying passing attack is the way to go. If a team is looking to compete for a championship, they need to consider whether they can take the top off a defense. That’s why the 49ers drafted Trey Lance to replace Jimmy Garoppolo, and why they chose Lance over Mac Jones. That’s why the Miami Dolphins sought to replace Tua Tagovailoa.
But it’s a little premature for the Jets to look at their team from that perspective. Right now, the goal is to be competitive and vie for a playoff spot. The numbers indicate that it is more than possible to do so with a run-first offense.
As with most writing about the Jets offense, it’s going to come down to Zach Wilson. His ability to complement that running game, keep drives going, and hit on the occasional deep shot when warranted will drive the team’s offensive fate.