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NY Jets’ offensive line is second-biggest culprit in losing streak

Nate Herbig, Connor McGovern, Laken Tomlinson, Duane Brown, New York Jets
Nate Herbig, Connor McGovern, Laken Tomlinson, Duane Brown, New York Jets, Getty Images

The line has gone from suspect to putrid in the last month

Hold all the playoff hysteria.

Cool your Jets.

Despite incredible help from the rest of the NFL slate this weekend, the fact remains that Gang Green has lost four games in a row, including two consecutive tilts to sub-.500 teams.

Now, the Jets themselves are below .500, a team that opponents look at as a brush-by on the way to the postseason.

It’s easy to point at the quarterback position as the sole culprit. After all, the floodgates of fury unleashed on Zach Wilson from the MetLife faithful certainly indicated where the fan base has directed its ire.

However, the reality is that the weight of the Jets’ world has been placed on the quarterback’s shoulders due to a different failure, one that has killed far better signal-callers in the past: the offensive line.

It’s easy to blame injuries, but at this point, the only starting offensive lineman for this team that was not starting in Week 1 is Nate Herbig. Only Duane Brown is an injury replacement from before the season.

The Jets’ offensive line is relatively healthy, and it’s expensive. In fact, the Jets have four starters whose average annual contract value is $9 million or more. It’s staggering that this kind of line has gone from shaky to a bottom unit in the NFL.

It’s further befuddling that the line was less suspect with guys like fourth-round rookie Max Mitchell and former first-round bust Cedric Ogbuehi starting at right tackle. The much-awaited return of George Fant seemed like it would pay dividends after Fant’s stellar performance against Minnesota, but it’s been all downhill since then.

Let’s dig into the numbers to explain how the offensive line may be the difference in the Jets’ offensive downfall.

Pass blocking

On the more easily visible side of blocking, it’s clear on TV that the Jets’ quarterbacks have been constantly under duress over the last four games. The numbers do not even fully indicate how bad the blocking has been since there are so many unblocked rushers.

In the last two weeks, Zach Wilson has been pressured on 49.2% of his dropbacks. Yes, we know it’s Wilson who holds the ball too long, but that number is still astronomically higher than his season average. In his first 10 games started, Wilson was pressured on 37.2% of dropbacks, still significantly above the league average of 32.3% but not to the degree of the last two weeks.

To add insult to injury, the Jets faced two less-than-stellar pass-rushing units. Prior to their showdowns with Gang Green, Detroit and Jacksonville had ranked 27th and 28th, respectively, in sack rate. They were both also bottom-10 in pressure rate. Furthermore, the Jaguars were missing Foley Fatukasi and Travon Walker.

Even Mike White caved under the pressure in the prior week against the Bills. Besides the rib-crushing hit he absorbed from Matt Milano, White was constantly under duress throughout the game. Although the boxscore shows just a 23.4% pressure rate on 47 dropbacks, the third-lowest of any QB in Week 14, that belies the number of free rushers White battled throughout the contest. Furthermore, White’s three sacks are indicative of how quickly the pressure came: his pressure-to-sack ratio was 27.3%, far above his norms in the other games he’s played. His pressure-to-sack ratio was 12.5% over his first two games.

Again, some of the counting statistics of individual offensive linemen belie how terribly they’ve played over the course of the four-game losing streak. However, it’s undeniable that the Jets’ interior offensive line has pass blocked with the worst of them.

The stat that best encapsulates how bad the Jets’ pass-blocking has been is the sack-plus-hit rate allowed. While not all pressure allowed is created equal, allowing the quarterback to be hit or sacked is almost always a negative for the offensive lineman.

Over the last four weeks, Laken Tomlinson has allowed a sack-plus-hit rate of 2.05%, which is in the 17th percentile among guards (66 qualifiers, min. 50 pass-block snaps). Nate Herbig‘s rate is 1.54%, which is the 27th percentile. The average for guards during that time is 1.13%. Both Jets guards have allowed their quarterback to be hit more often than essentially 3 out of every 4 guards in the league. Herbig’s overall pressure rate of 5.13% is in the 29th percentile during that time, as well.

Connor McGovern has been similarly ineffective in pass protection during the losing streak. His 5.64% pressure rate is the fourth-highest among 33 centers, and his 2.05% sack-plus-hit rate is the fifth-highest. Ironically, McGovern’s pressure rate on true pass sets (which isolates passing plays in which a lineman’s blocks matter the most, excluding plays such as screens, play-action passes, and other non-line-dependent plays) is about average (17th out of 33). This means that he’s getting beaten most frequently on plays that are designed to have less offensive line impact.

Only the Jets’ tackles are a mixed bag. Among 70 qualified tackles over the last four weeks, the average pressure rate is 5.28%, and the average sack-plus-hit rate is 1.76%. George Fant’s numbers are at 5.71% and 2.29%, respectively. Meanwhile, Duane Brown is actually putting up solid numbers, allowing a 4.10% pressure rate and a 1.54% sack-plus-hit rate.

Like McGovern, Fant’s true pass set pressure rate is far better than his overall pressure rate, suggesting that he has been ruining plays most frequently when they’re not on obvious passing downs. This discrepancy can partially explain why the Jets cannot gain any rhythm offensively: their play-action passes are being interfered with by pressure.

On play-action passes over the last four weeks, Zach Wilson and Mike White have faced the fourth- and seventh-highest pressure rates, respectively, among 35 qualified QBs (min. 50 dropbacks). The fact that there is so little discrepancy means that this is truly an offensive line issue on play-action passes. By contrast, on non-play action dropbacks, Wilson has been pressured 50% of the time, while White has faced pressure only 16% of the time.

Play-action is normally a time for a quarterback to feast. The action will hopefully suck up the linebackers and allow open opportunities in the middle of the field. However, if there is pressure in the quarterback’s face before he can release the ball, that advantage disappears.

To add to the dismal blocking scene, Tyler Conklin and C.J. Uzomah have not done their job in pass protection. The two have been charged with a combined 5 pressures and 2 sacks on 36 snaps over the past four weeks. While they are often put in a poor position to succeed since they are asked to block defensive ends one-on-one, those numbers are killing Jets drives routinely.

Run blocking

It is more difficult to isolate the impact of a specific offensive lineman in the run game without watching each snap on film. However, as Michael Nania has done in recent weeks, we can extrapolate some information about the holes available from a running back’s yards gained before and after contact.

Over the last four weeks, Jets running backs have 69 rushing attempts. Those have produced a grand total of 228 yards, or 3.3 yards per carry. Their 34.2% success rate (defined as a play with positive Expected Points Added [EPA]) would be the worst rate in the NFL over the course of the season.

Even more alarming is the fact that of the 228 yards that Jets backs have gained over the last four weeks, 178 of them have come after contact. That means that the offensive line is allowing the backs just 0.72 yards before contact per attempt, meaning that, on average, a defender gets a hand on the runner when he has barely crossed the line of scrimmage. The numbers are even worse if you exclude Bam Knight‘s 48-yard run against the Vikings.

Ironically, Knight is actually tied for the lead among all NFL backs with 19 missed tackles forced from Weeks 13-16. While his vision is not always perfect, he makes tacklers miss. The line has simply rarely created anything resembling space for him to work with.

Once again, the tight ends are part of this equation. Although it is difficult to find statistics on tight-end run-blocking, the Jets use Uzomah and Conklin as run-blockers a large chunk of the time. Here are some clips demonstrating what Jets backs have been trying to run through over the past four games, with the tight ends as culprits.

It might be time for the Jets to consider activating Jeremy Ruckert for run support. Though Ruckert did not necessarily show anything great in his limited opportunities this season, with the struggles of the other tight ends, it’s a chance to see what the rookie can bring to the table.

Play-calling limitations

Obviously, the Jets’ play-calling has been limited by the lack of talent under center in Weeks 15 and 16. However, I would argue that it’s been even further hampered by the offensive line’s performance. You can’t get creative with play-calling if it’s going to get your quarterback killed, as it did in Week 14 for Mike White.

We haven’t seen much of the jet-sweep action or trick-play attempts in recent weeks, really ever since the Vikings game. Against Buffalo, that was likely weather-dependent, but against Detroit and Jacksonville, there should have been some opportunities to try to get that going. Besides a loss of trust in Braxton Berrios, Mike LaFleur cannot bank on his line giving a runner any holes. Therefore, a jet sweep is more likely to result in a loss of yardage than a gain. This takes away a significant element of the threat that the Jets can pose to a defense.

This is not to minimize the impact of the poor quarterback play, which was the single biggest issue over the past two weeks. However, when you include the two games that Mike White started, as well, you get a picture of a blocking unit that is performing as a bottom feeder, not one poised to make a playoff run.

Something will need to change over the last two weeks, or the Jets will once again be watching from their couches in mid-January.

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1 year ago

Excellent analysis as usual. Mr. Nania wrote about how defenses were stacking the box and daring Wilson to beat them in the air, which obviously created more challenges to the OL in both the running and passing games, but I don’t remember reading that that was the case when White was in. At any rate, they have to figure out how to back defenses off because they’re not good enough to block 7 or 8 defenders.