Is it on the play-caller, quarterback, supporting cast, or all three?
Zach Wilson‘s time to step up to the plate is officially here.
Despite the trade for James Robinson, Wilson can no longer hide behind the explosiveness of Breece Hall en route to victories. Now, it’s on his shoulders to do more than just avoid the catastrophic mistake.
The argument throughout the season has been that New York Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur is not putting Wilson in the best position to succeed. As fans watch other teams dink-and-dunk their way into solid drives, they blame LaFleur for not putting Wilson in a position to do the same. “Where are the slants, the quick game, the screen passes?” they ask with chagrin.
The question is if that criticism is accurate. Has LaFleur not dialed up such plays, or has Wilson just missed the reads? Is it receivers running the wrong routes, clever defensive scheming to throw off the quick opportunities, or offensive line woes causing batted balls and a QB running for his life?
First, let’s take a look at some of the numbers to explain what’s going on with the Jets’ offense. Then we’ll see what the film has to say.
Jets’ play-calling breakdown
Earlier in the season, the Jets’ play-calling was heavily skewed toward the pass. During Joe Flacco’s starts, the Jets passed a whopping 75% of the time, per nflfastR play-by-play data. A large part of that was certainly due to the fact that the Jets trailed for most of his snaps, but even when the score was relatively close (within 10 points in the first three quarters of the game), they passed the ball two-thirds of the time.
Since Zach Wilson’s return, that split has been much more even. In total, the Jets have passed 49.5% of the time and run 50.5% of the time. That’s about as even as it gets. If we remove the last two drives of the Steelers game, that number switches to 53.5% run and 46.5% pass.
Some have speculated that the Jets have used such a run-pass split because they don’t trust Wilson. However, the more probable reason is that it has worked. Which offensive coordinator wouldn’t continue to run the ball with Breece Hall if he’s averaging over five yards per carry? This is magnified even more when you consider that the Jets have just come off games against two of the league’s best pass defenses in Green Bay and Denver.
Additionally, as Michael Nania explained, the Jets have been leading or tied almost the entire time for the last three games. The Jets never trailed in two of Wilson’s four games (MIA and GB), and in a third (DEN), they only trailed for 3:37.
That being said, there is room to wonder why LaFleur passed so often against the Broncos. The Jets called 23 run plays and 29 pass plays, which was certainly not what anyone expected against the league’s best pass defense.
Digging deeper into the numbers may indicate why the Jets were so pass-heavy.
On second down this season, the Jets have passed 67% of the time overall. Against Denver, they passed on second down 76% of the time. The reason for that is simple: the Jets were not successful on first downs that did not result in another first down. On those first down plays (excluding the last drive inside two minutes to go), the Jets averaged just 3.38 yards per play, including 3.83 yards per pass (six attempts) and 3.1 yards per rush (10 attempts).
When you’re averaging 6.7 yards to go on second down, it’s not attractive to keep running the ball. The Jets did try to establish the run game, but other than two big plays (Hall’s touchdown and a 25-yard jet sweep by Braxton Berrios), it largely didn’t work. Would Jets fans have been happier if LaFleur ran the ball again on second down in those scenarios?
On third down, the Jets averaged seven yards to go, which meant that they were passing almost exclusively. This explains why the Jets passed more than they ran the ball: the run game was getting stuffed, for the most part, and they were trying to find a spark.
It can be argued that the Jets’ 3.83 yards per pass on first down indicates that LaFleur did not call easy plays on first down. Let’s dig into the film to see if that’s the case, among other things.
Jets @ Broncos
(15:00 – 1st) 1st & 10 at NYJ 25: Z.Wilson pass incomplete deep right to T.Conklin.
On the Jets’ first offensive snap of the game, everyone and their mother would have expected a run play. After all, the Broncos’ pass defense is one of the best in the league, and their mediocre run defense seemingly played right into the Jets’ strengths.
Recognizing that, Mike LaFleur came out in shotgun with a 3×1 set. The Broncos show a quarters coverage look before the snap but rotate into Cover 3 after. LaFleur dialed up the dagger concept, which is a known Cover 3 beater: C.J. Uzomah on the hitch underneath, Tyler Conklin on the deeper seam, and Corey Davis on the dig route underneath.
The concept works to perfection, and Davis is as wide open as you can be. This should have been one of those nice drive-opening completions that we’ve seen periodically when Wilson is right.
If Wilson had completed this pass, fans would have been praising LaFleur for doing the opposite of the defense’s expectation. It was a perfect call to get the offense in a rhythm. Who’s at fault here?
An NFL quarterback must be able to make this play. No excuses.
2nd & 10 at NYJ 25 (14:55 – 1st) Z.Wilson pass incomplete short right. Penalty on NYJ-N.Herbig, Ineligible Downfield Pass, declined.
This was supposed to be a screen pass. You can see Nate Herbig and Connor McGovern leak out on the play. However, Laken Tomlinson double-teams D.J. Jones, allowing DeShawn Williams a free ride to Zach Wilson. At the very least, a chip needed to be in place there to set up the screen.
As you can see, it was a well-set-up play, and Breece Hall was in a position to gain a nice chunk of yardage. Instead, Wilson was running for his life from the outset and had no chance.
That’s actually a really nice play call by LaFleur following the first-down miss. It gave the Jets another opportunity to get in a rhythm. Tomlinson just blew it, which has been a common theme for the Jets this season, unfortunately.
2nd & 6 at NYJ 31 (7:59 – 1st) Z.Wilson pass short right to B.Berrios pushed ob at NYJ 38 for 7 yards (P.Surtain).
On the Jets’ third drive of the game, Zach Wilson rolled out and scrambled for four yards on the first play. On the second down play, LaFleur could’ve called either a run or pass, technically. (A run play is considered a success if it gains at least 60% of the needed yards on second down; 60% of six is 3.6, which is not too much to ask.)
However, LaFleur instead called a play designed to move the chains. The quick play-action fake and throw to Braxton Berrios was well-designed, well-blocked, and well-executed all around, particularly considering the two-high looks that the Broncos showed all day.
You can see before the snap that this play will likely work. The Broncos do shift after the snap into quarter-quarter-half (it appears) instead of the apparent quarters before the snap, but either way, the left cornerback has depth and isn’t close enough to come down and blow up the play. That means there are only two defenders in the vicinity of the Jets’ three pass-catchers on that side following Berrios’s motion. By the time the linebacker and corner read the play, Berrios is already outside Davis and Uzomah’s blocks.
The next play? Breece Hall’s 62-yard touchdown run (which is now painful in its reminder of what the Jets have lost).
2nd & 6 at NYJ 29 (0:54 – 1st) Z.Wilson sacked at NYJ 19 for -10 yards (D.Jones). Denver challenged the runner was down by contact ruling, and the play was Upheld. The ruling on the field stands. (Timeout #1.)
After a four-yard gain on first down, LaFleur once again could’ve gone run or pass. Perhaps you could get on him here for calling a pass play, but again, moving the chains on second down is a valuable thing.
The question could be why the Jets didn’t try a quick slant. However, Corey Davis’s route is definitely cleared out very effectively by the deeper routes on the left side, and Wilson still could have hit him wide open after he spun out of the initial pressure. As Vitor explained, Zach’s eyes should have been to the left immediately once he spun out of the pressure, since, after all, the play was a boot to the left, which is where all the routes were going. If he gets his eyes there quickly, he can hit Davis easily.
Once he doesn’t see Davis, though, Wilson needs to get rid of this ball. His desire to play backyard hero ball almost led to disaster, and many would argue that the play should have been called a fumble. Since Wilson’s game against Pittsburgh, in which he got rid of the ball well, he’s had several plays where he tried to do too much instead of living to play another down.
I don’t necessarily like the bootlegs to the left that LaFleur has been calling, since Wilson is a right-handed thrower, and those passes are that much harder to complete. Still, there is room for Zach to succeed here. If the initial tackler had gotten him, then there’s nothing he really could have done; but once Wilson evades the first tackler, he needs to know where his checkdowns are and then either get the ball to them or throw it away.
3rd & 16 at NYJ 19 (0:41 – 1st) Z.Wilson sacked at NYJ 14 for -5 yards (D.Jones).
Vitor reviewed this play, as well. The presnap look screams quarter-quarter-half, which, indeed, is the coverage. Mike LaFleur has a perfect play called, as the route combination of Michael Carter and Garrett Wilson puts high-low conflict on the curl-flat defender. Wilson gets flustered and instead of stepping up and keeping his eyes downfield to throw to the other Wilson, he’s ready to bail the pocket, leading to a sack.
Even in dangerous territory on third and 16 from deep in his own territory, LaFleur had a good call. The Jets’ offensive line wasn’t perfect (Connor McGovern got caught too far inside when picking up a stunt), but they gave Wilson enough time to make his read and get the ball out to the open guy. Zach just couldn’t execute.
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2nd & 6 at 50 (10:41 – 2nd) Z.Wilson pass short left to B.Berrios to 50 for no gain (J.Cooper).
Once again, the Jets gain four yards on a first-down run, leading to a second and six. I think that this play might be somewhat due to Wilson panicking from pressure. The Jets have a three-on-three matchup on the right side, and the play appears to be set up for a screen to Breece Hall, which would have gained some nice yardage. When the Broncos back off and send a blitz at the snap, it makes the play call even more advantageous, as it’s now three-on-three with no safety up top, since the safety took the blitzer’s place.
Whenever there is a free rusher, it is ideal to throw into the blitz, because that means there’s a defender missing on that side. With the way this was blocked up, it could have been a house call or a large gain had the screen gone to Hall.
1st & 25 at NYJ 30 (2:00 – 2nd) Z.Wilson pass short left to Mi.Carter pushed ob at DEN 33 for 37 yards (J.Simmons).
As Vitor broke down, this was a great play by Wilson in manipulating the defender with his eyes by looking at Denzel Mims. If not for that look, Carter gets tackled for a small gain.
It’s important to point out that this is also a good play call with the back and receiver crossing to clear out defenders. Good play call, great execution.
(It’s not worth wondering what would have happened on that play if Breece Hall was the receiver instead of Carter.)
1st & 10 at DEN 33 (1:51 – 2nd) Z.Wilson pass short right to D.Mims to DEN 29 for 4 yards (K.Williams).
Notice how many screen calls LaFleur used in this game. Calling a screen a “pass” is generous, as it often functions as a run play. That’s another reason that the Jets passed more than they ran.
The Jets sore missed Corey Davis’s blocking on this play, as Garrett Wilson doesn’t get enough leverage to let Mims fight for additional yardage.
2nd & 6 at DEN 29 (1:12 – 2nd) Z.Wilson pass short left to G.Wilson to DEN 23 for 6 yards (K.Williams).
This is a stick-moving play-call. It does move the sticks, but not without another bad throw from Wilson due to poor mechanics. As Vitor noted, Wilson’s foot is turned inside rather than towards the sideline, forcing Garrett Wilson to contort his body to catch the ball rather than making an easy reception.
If you want the short passing game, you got a lot of it in this game. Maybe they weren’t slants, but there were plenty of easy opportunities for Zach Wilson.
3rd & 3 at NYJ 45 (10:31 – 3rd) Z.Wilson pass incomplete short middle to T.Conklin [J.Griffith].
This is a bad play by the offensive line. Duane Brown is beaten by his man off the snap, and Zach Wilson never really had a chance.
My gripe here is with LaFleur. It’s third and short. The Broncos have blitzed from all over the place all game, you’re down your best offensive lineman in Alijah Vera-Tucker, and the whole line has been scuffling. Why not keep in an extra pass protector or have a contingency plan for the blitz? It did not appear that he had any answers at all for the blitz, let alone good ones.
3rd & 7 at NYJ 35 (6:46 – 3rd) Z.Wilson pass incomplete short left to G.Wilson.
Could Zach Wilson have dumped the ball off to Michael Carter had he been looking that way? Yes. Did Mike LaFleur have any answers for the blitz? No. The Jets were overmatched at the line. Duane Brown whiffed once again. Why is there no extra protection? LaFleur didn’t even leave in a running back to chip despite having a backup-backup-backup right tackle in the game.
1st & 10 at NYJ 14 (4:31 – 3rd) Z.Wilson pass short right to Mi.Carter pushed ob at NYJ 22 for 8 yards (D.Mathis).
Another easy first down play call. Uzomah’s route holds the curl-flat defender just enough to get Michael Carter a nice eight-yard checkdown. Those who say that LaFleur isn’t dialing up easy plays for Wilson are discounting the Broncos game.
Duane Brown’s false start on the second-down play really killed the potential for this drive.
2nd & 7 at NYJ 17 (3:43 – 3rd) Z.Wilson sacked at NYJ 16 for -1 yards (sack split by N.Bonitto and M.Purcell).
This was supposed to be another receiver screen. You can see Berrios go out for it. It looks like Wilson got flustered by the pressure immediately instead of keeping cool and getting the throw off, resulting in a scramble and a one-yard sack. Although Denzel Mims didn’t get the greatest leverage on his block, it would have been fine if Wilson got the ball to Berrios in the rhythm of the play.
In terms of the pressure, Laken Tomlinson was beaten straight up by D.J. Jones. It was a miserable game for the pricey free-agent guard. The play call was good for a 2nd-and-7. Another replacement run call with the screen with the potential to work because of the depth of the Broncos’ coverage.
This pretty much summarizes what happened for the Jets’ offense in this game: lots of short passes and screen calls, some bad offensive line play, several poor throws by Zach Wilson, and at times a lack of adjustment to the blitz from LaFleur.
Is it on Mike LaFleur?
While I didn’t want to make this article stretch on forever by reviewing film from Wilson’s other three games, it’s clear that Mike LaFleur’s play-calling did not hold Wilson back against the Broncos. The biggest knock on him is that he didn’t do a great job adjusting to the blitz. While that is definitely a knock, it wasn’t the main reason for the pressure that Wilson faced. A far bigger one was simply poor offensive line play.
Fans have been calling for short passing and screens this whole season. LaFleur employed a steady stream of such passes against Denver. True, there weren’t a ton of slants over the middle, but there were other routes (hitches, checkdowns, quick outs, stops) that were open enough to get into a rhythm. It seemed that every time the Jets started to get something going, it would be negated by either a sack or penalty.
The game in which I thought LaFleur’s play-calling was the most suspect was Miami. Considering how poor Miami’s defense had been over the middle, I had expected more easy routes and throws in that direction, but many of the routes in this game were pretty far outside. It wasn’t the pass/run breakdown that was head-scratching so much as the route concepts, although it’s possible that Wilson elected to throw outside because it’s in his comfort zone (or that he did not see those routes due to his lack of height).
Against Green Bay, fans were dunking on LaFleur’s play-calling in the first half, but Robby Sabo pointed out that his strategy worked.
Notice, LaFleur has saved the RPO/middle-of-field game with Zach Wilson for the END OF THE GAME/fourth quarter.
That one pops for Conklin. Great strategy. #Jets
— Robby Sabo (@RobbySabo) October 16, 2022
Earlier in the game, Green Bay’s defense was prepared for everything the Jets were throwing at them. You can wonder why LaFleur didn’t scheme up easier throws for him, but the Packers had everything covered. Later in the game, the run game got going, and then some plays came open over the middle.
It’s easy to blame the play-caller for offensive struggles, but the reality is that LaFleur has mostly done a very good job with his play-calling. He’s been patient and is setting up teams properly. It’s not on the play-caller when he has good plays schemed with players open and the quarterback just misses the easy throw.
Elijah Moore conundrum
We all know what’s going on with Elijah Moore. Unhappy with his lack of targets, wants a trade, didn’t play last week. The Jets are going to need Moore to reprise his 2021 role as a focal point in this offense.
This is one area in which I would place some blame on Mike LaFleur. Moore has run go routes 33% of the time, which, as we’ve discussed several times, makes little sense for a 5’9″, 180-pound receiver. Furthermore, Joe Blewett has detailed that Moore does not stack defensive backs well, which does not allow him to get any separation or leverage to win on a deep ball.
Moore’s ideal usage is over the middle in space against a zone. The Jets could have really used him in that area against Denver. LaFleur has been stubborn about this so far. Hopefully, with everything that has gone down the last week-plus, the Jets will fin a way to get Moore going.
Offensive line + Wilson
The Jets’ pass protection did not hold up well against the Broncos, and that’s definitely to blame for some of Wilson’s struggles. However, even on the plays in which he had time, Wilson was consistently late and tentative with his decision-making, and his throws were off due to his mechanics.
With Alijah Vera-Tucker out for the season, the offensive line could become a crippling point for Wilson’s development. However, not all pressures are created equal; Wilson bears some responsibility for 16.7% of his pressures, per Pro Football Focus, the 13th-highest among QBs. Furthermore, as Michael Nania explained, Wilson’s passing numbers under pressure are the worst in the league by far, mitigating the excuse of a bad offensive line.
Jets fans need to stop making excuses for Zach Wilson. Yes, the circumstances aren’t ideal, but it’s not the play-calling. Sometimes it’s the offensive line, but there are way too many plays on which the quarterback does not execute.
This Jets team has been an underdog all year and faces the hated Patriots as underdogs at home on Sunday. A big game from their QB would go a long way to silence the doubters, but even just a game in which Wilson’s decision-making and mechanics are solid would help stop the scuffle.
It’s go time for Zach Wilson. Time to show Joe Douglas that his all-in mentality was worth it. Time to show Jets fans that he can be the guy.
Next Article: The most misleading stat about the 2022 NY Jets (so far)
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