It’s easy for a team riding a winning streak to underachieve against a flailing opponent
Who would have thought that we would be having a conversation about a trap game for the New York Jets?
Usually, the Jets are the trap game for superior opponents. Exhibits A and B: the Titans and Bengals in 2021, and the Rams and Browns in 2020. It was that easy to overlook the bottom dwellers in the AFC, and occasionally, the Jets made those overlookers pay.
How the tables have tabled. Vegas still has the Broncos as one-point favorites, but that means that the Jets would be favored at a neutral site. NFL.com analysts are on the hype train, at least for Week 7. (Thanks, Daniel Jeremiah, Joe Douglas’s old pal, for making sure karma hasn’t totally sealed the Jets’ fate.)
— J. Gray (@JGrayJets) October 19, 2022
As the Jets ride high at 4-2 and on a three-game winning streak, the question is if this matchup can become a trap game for them. After all, the Broncos were a popular playoff pick before the season, they have a dominant defense, and Russell Wilson can never totally be discounted.
Mile High mileage?
Playing in Denver has always provided more of a home-field advantage than other fields. In the Super Bowl era, the Broncos rank fifth in the NFL with a .658 win percentage at home. The natural assumption is that the thin air and high altitude in Denver cause other teams to struggle, and indeed, we have seen players gasp for air and cramp up due to the change in altitude.
However, home-field advantage is down across the NFL. In 2021, home teams won just 51% of games, the lowest mark (minus the 2020 season in which fans were not present) in at least two decades. The reasons for this decline range from sports science to the secondary ticket market.
Additionally, the Broncos themselves were 4-5 at home last year, and although they’re 2-1 at Mile High this season while remaining winless on the road, their victories came in 16-9 and 11-10 fashion against the Texans and 49ers, respectively. Their most recent home tilt was an ugly 12-9 defeat to the Colts in perhaps one of the worst games in NFL primetime history.
The Jets are 3-0 on the road this season, and there’s no reason for them to fear going into Mile High. Their much-maligned defensive line rotation might actually come in handy in Denver to keep players from running out of gas.
When will the Broncos get going offensively?
After trading for Russell Wilson, the Broncos thought that they were going to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders from the get-go. After all, they had a star second-year running back in Javonte Williams and an enticing receiving corps in Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, and K.J. Hamler.
Unfortunately, things have not gone as planned for Denver, starting with the injury bug. Patrick tore his ACL before the season started. Williams followed suit a few weeks into the season, as did left tackle Garrett Bolles.
With these injuries, Russell Wilson & Co. have not been able to pick up the slack. The Broncos are averaging just 15.2 points per game, dead last in the NFL. Their seven offensive touchdowns are the fewest in the league. With this putrid output, they are 27th in Offensive DVOA, though their yardage output per game is slightly higher at 22nd.
Russell Wilson has a QBR under 50.0 in 11 of his last 15 starts dating back to last year.
He's never had a season under 57.0
— Ian Kenyon (@IanKenyonNFL) October 20, 2022
Sans Javonte Williams, the Broncos do not field a serious run threat. Melvin Gordon will start again this week after an unceremonious benching vs. the Chargers, but he’s averaging just 3.7 yards per carry and has fumbled four times this season. His 2.76 yards after contact per attempt ranks 27th among RBs.
Meanwhile, the Jets defense ranks 12th in the NFL in rush DVOA and fourth with just 3.9 yards-per-carry allowed. They’re coming off a game in which they limited Aaron Jones, who had 6.4 yards per carry coming into the game, to just 2.1 YPC. The Broncos run the same zone-blocking scheme employed by the Packers but with a much less talented backfield group.
The one thing the Jets do need to look out for is passes to the running back out of the backfield. Gordon has caught 11 of 13 balls for 98 yards, and he ranks seventh among all backs with 1.48 yards per route run. He has taken two screen passes for 35 yards, a 17.5 yards-per-reception average that the Jets would do well to keep an eye on.
In the passing game, Russell Wilson is 13th among QBs with 1,443 passing yards, but he has just five TD passes to three picks. He’s tied for sixth-most with 20 sacks taken, and his 27.8% pressure-to-sack ratio is third-worst. However, he’s performing fairly well on the deep ball: he’s completed 13-for-34 attempts at 15.0 yards per attempt, the fourth-highest mark in the NFL, with three TDs. He does have two picks and three total turnover-worthy plays on those throws, but his passer rating is still sixth-best at 90.9.
The Broncos still have a pair of good receivers in Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy. Sutton has 31 receptions for 431 yards and 1 TD, and his 1.92 yards per route run is in the 69th percentile among WRs. Jeudy has 17 receptions for 291 yards and 2 TDs, and he’s in the 56th percentile with 1.64 yards per route run. The most dangerous stat for both Sutton and Jeudy is their yards per route run against man coverage: the pair rank one and two among WRs at 7.24 and 4.60, respectively.
However, the Jets have the man corners to match up with these receivers. Sauce Gardner, in particular, has given up a 19.1 passer rating against in man coverage, per Next Gen Stats, the best mark among all corners. He’s allowing just 0.09 yards per cover snap in true man sets, a ridiculous number.
With all these numbers, it never pays to underestimate Russell Wilson. It appears that even now he is getting his deep shots in and has the receivers to turn a game around. Although the Jets are stingy in this area, they cannot rest on their laurels just because Wilson has underachieved until now.
Saleh on the struggling Russell Wilson & #Broncos offense: "Whether people want to hear it or not, they're freakin close to clicking." (Wouldn't imagine the people in Denver see it the same way.) #Jets
— Rich Cimini (@RichCimini) October 19, 2022
A defensive nightmare
If the Jets thought that the Packers’ pass rush and stingy coverage were a threat, here comes another stiff test. The Broncos rank second in the NFL in total defensive DVOA, including the No. 1-ranked pass DVOA. Their rush defense is more pedestrian at 18th. The Broncos allow the fifth-fewest pass yards per game at 184.5 and the 13th-fewest rush yards at 105.8 yards per game. However, over their last three, Denver has given up 130.3 rush yards per game, down to 19th.
Meanwhile, on the defensive line, the Broncos get after the QB. Denver is tied for fourth with 3.2 sacks per game. Baron Browning has 17 pressures for a 15.3% pressure rate that is well above the 11% average for edge rushers. Bradley Chubb and Dre’Mont Jones have 21 pressures each, and Chubb has 5.5 sacks.
The Broncos also have strong cover corners. Patrick Surtain II has permitted just a 47.9 quarterback rating in man coverage (82nd percentile). Surtain has allowed just four of 11 man targets for 41 yards despite a 15.0 average depth of target.
This should clearly be another run-heavy game for the Jets, who will face a rash of them in the upcoming weeks.
Pass Defense DVOA ranks of Jets' next three opponents:
– Broncos: 1st
– Patriots: 6th
– Bills: 5th
Zach and the passing game are about to be tested.
— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) October 19, 2022
Statistical research indicates that the idea of a “trap” game cannot be proven to exist on a broader level. However, in smaller samples, it appears that some coaches have more success in trap games than others. Whether that’s a function of preparation, psychological torture (ahem, Mr. Belichick), or random luck is unclear, but it’s most likely a case of the law of large numbers providing outliers in small sample sizes.
On that note, it’s hard to call this a “trap” game for the Jets. There are many long-held NFL beliefs that have been debunked by statistical data, including the myth that you need to run to set up the pass and an ultraconservative approach to fourth-down decision-making.
Explanation 4: Teams need to run to set up play-action
— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) February 15, 2018
The idea of a trap game will never go the way of the past-midfield fourth-and-short punt, largely because it’s unfalsifiable. We can’t truly prove that there is no psychological component that can cause a team to lose to a far inferior opponent.
The least we can say is that it’s too soon for the Jets to view anyone as a far inferior opponent. The Jets did not underestimate Aaron Rodgers despite his struggles, and I find it unlikely that they will do so against the struggling Russell Wilson.
Jets fans should be savoring the idea that this team can even conceive of having a trap game rather than presenting one to an opponent. With the young team’s confidence rising, they have a chance to take care of business in the first game that many truly expect them to win.