The Detroit Lions bet correctly that the New York Jets could not beat them through the air
As we discussed earlier today, the New York Jets’ offensive line struggled mightily to create holes in the running game against the Detroit Lions. New York’s running backs rushed for only 38 yards and all 38 of them came after contact. The playmakers were given no room to make things happen.
While the offensive line was certainly poor, there was another pressing issue that deterred the Jets’ run game just as much: the lack of a numbers advantage.
The quality of the blocking is not the only factor involved in determining how much running room is produced on a play. It also greatly depends on the numbers game. Blocking against a seven-man box with six blockers is a daunting task while blocking against a six-man box with seven blockers is advantageous for the offense.
On Sunday, the Lions’ defense won the numbers game on the ground. How did they do this? By showing zero respect for the Jets’ passing game. They focused entirely on stopping the run and dared the Jets to beat them through the air.
It’s a strategy that worked out great. Detroit created a numbers advantage in the trenches for its defensive line that put them in an extremely favorable position to shut down the Jets’ run game. While the Jets occasionally hit a deep shot to make the Lions pay for their aggressive ways, New York did not do nearly enough damage through the air to make the Lions regret their strategy.
Across the Jets’ 22 rushing attempts, the Lions had an average of 7.18 defenders in the box, per NFL Next Gen Stats. That was the fifth-highest mark of any defense in Week 15. The league average this season is 6.79.
Here’s a simpler way to communicate the Lions’ commitment to stopping the run: Detroit had at least 7 defenders in the box on 81.8% of the Jets’ rushing attempts (18 of 22), which was the third-highest mark of any defense in Week 15. That is significantly higher than the 2022 league average of 59.0%.
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The bottom line is that the Jets rarely faced a favorable front to run against. Yes, the offensive line still should have performed much better, but Detroit’s play-calling made it very tough for the Jets to run the ball.
The Lions should have been forced to pay a price for that strategy, though. There is no perfect strategy for an NFL defense. Every plan involves a trade-off: We are going to take away “X” while accepting the risk that it might allow “Y”.
In this case, when you have a defense that is selling out to stop the run, it means they are leaving themselves highly susceptible in the passing game. The Lions were perfectly content with consistently playing single-high looks with man coverage so they could put an extra defender in the box to muddy up the run game. This is a high-risk plan that should be exploited by a good offense.
Detroit played man coverage on 59.0% of the Jets’ passing plays. That was the NFL’s highest mark in Week 15 and is the 17th-highest mark called by any defense in a game this season. Additionally, the Lions played single-high coverage on 66.7% of the Jets’ passing plays, which ranked fifth-highest among all defenses in Week 15.
The Lions are typically one of the most man-heavy and single-high-heavy defenses in the NFL, but they turned up the heat even further in this game. Their man coverage rate for the season is 44.1% (second-highest) and their single-high rate is 59.2% (11th). The increased aggressiveness was a clear sign that they did not fear the Jets beating them through the air.
The Jets needed to make the Lions pay for their uber-aggressive mindset by obliterating them through the air, specifically deep and to the outside. That’s what the Lions were giving to them.
While the Jets occasionally made big plays in the passing game, they ultimately did not come close to taking full advantage of the opportunity Detroit presented to them.
Zach Wilson hit a handful of deep shots that helped him rack up some decent numbers in the box score; 18-of-35 for 317 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception (89.8 passer rating / 9.1 yards per attempt); but there wasn’t enough down-to-down consistency from Wilson and the Jets’ passing game to truly make the Lions pay for their aggressive style. Even with the bombs, the Jets only mustered up 17 points over 11 offensive drives, and that was largely due to the passing attack’s inconsistency.
Wilson had a success rate (percentage of dropbacks yielding a positive EPA) of 41.0%. That’s a bottom-tier number. For perspective, it is a few notches below the league average of 44.4% and would rank 29th out of 40 qualifiers this season (equal to Kyler Murray’s mark). The erratic nature of the passing attack is the main reason the Jets had twice as many punts (6) as scoring drives (3).
*EPA: Expected Points Added
Coming into the game, it was clear Wilson would need to air it out against this Detroit defense. He did just that, setting a career-high in aDOT (average depth of target) as his average pass traveled 15.0 yards downfield. Credit is due to Wilson for playing with the correct mindset. And, yes, he did connect on some of those shots, which he also deserves plenty of credit for.
But with the Lions going all-out to eliminate the Jets’ run game, they left the door wide open for Wilson to have an utterly dominant performance through the air – one that featured explosive peaks and overall consistency from down to down. Instead, he could only achieve a performance that can be considered no better than middling. He checked just one of the two aforementioned boxes: the explosive peaks were there, but Wilson suffered from a glaring lack of overall consistency.
Combining high highs with general inconsistency on a play-to-play basis, Wilson ended up recording a perfectly average mark of 0.00 EPA per dropback against the Lions (14th of 30 QBs in Week 15) – although that number would have been much worse if Michael Carter did not bail him out with an incredible grab on a should-be interception.
Altogether, this is probably best classified as a “meh” performance, which is not something Wilson should necessarily be crucified for. However, against a defense playing the way the Lions did, it’s definitely quite underwhelming. Detroit handed the Jets a potent passing performance on a silver platter. If you throw the ball at an average level when the opposing defense is constantly loading up the box and playing man coverage, it isn’t “average” at all – it’s well below expectations considering the circumstances.
The modest passing production is certainly not all on Wilson. The quarterback’s production is a reflection of the team as much as it is a reflection of the quarterback’s individual performance. Regardless of who you want to blame, the fact of the matter is the Lions set the table for the Jets’ passing attack to go wild, and New York was merely pedestrian.
It’s on everybody. Wilson, the offensive line, the receivers, and Mike LaFleur can all share some blame for failing to fully exploit this Lions defense that is not only bad (they are allowing more yards per pass attempt than any other team this season), but played an ultra-aggressive style that eagerly invited the Jets to scorch them through the air even more harshly than they usually get scorched.
Detroit’s gameplan was simple: Let’s focus all of our resources on eliminating the Jets’ run game and live with whatever the Jets do to us through the air, because we don’t believe this passing attack can do enough to overcome a non-existent run game – no matter how easy we make things for them.
The Jets proved Detroit right.