The Patriots have been utilizing a particular concept that tends to haunt the New York Jets defense
The book on the New York Jets‘ defense may just finally be out. It’s up to Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich to throw a counterpunch.
And they’d better do so in a hurry if they want to beat the Patriots.
Since Saleh and Ulbrich joined the Jets in 2021, it’s been pretty obvious that the Rodgers heel of the defense is any play that punishes overpursuit. Their one-gapping, quick-penetrating approach allows teams to let the wave of aggressiveness pass and then gain a tremendous numbers advantage for the actual play. Draws, counterplays, and screens do exactly that.
In Week 2, 17.1% of Dak Prescott’s dropbacks (seven total) qualified as screens. He had six attempts, completing five of them for 35 yards and three first downs. While that might not seem like a lot, consider that the typical screen pass in 2022 yielded 5.3 yards and a first down just 22.2% of the time. In that sense, the Cowboys were quite successful, gaining 5.8 yards per attempt and first downs on 50% of attempts.
Looking at when offenses use screens against the Jets further demonstrates the advantage they lend an opponent. Here are some examples from the Dallas game.
The Cowboys face a 3rd and 2 at their own 45 on the first drive of the game. They see no one covering CeeDee Lamb in the slot and take direct advantage of it, opening up space for an easy first down. C.J. Mosley has no chance of getting over in time.
On a first down play, a seven-yard gain is considered quite successful. This is another one of Lamb’s 11 catches. Bryce Huff needs to recognize and account for the possibility of a screen here with Lamb initially blocking him. Instead, he pursues Prescott, and the screen sets up beautifully.
The Jets play zone coverage on early downs, and it shows here. With no one directly responsible for Deuce Vaughn, he is able to easily leak out of the backfield. Quincy Williams’ blitz plays right into the Cowboys’ hands, giving them even more of a numbers advantage. None of the Jets’ defensive linemen recognize that there are offensive linemen leaking out, and an 11-yard pickup for a first down results.
This one is simply not played well by Quincy Williams. It’s his job to keep leverage on the blocker in front of the screen and allow players like Mosley to rally. Instead, he allows himself to be easily blocked out of the play, giving up a 17-yard gain.
This is the last example from when the game was still relevant, but the samples illustrate what teams can do against the Jets with screen passes. It’s almost like a “Get Out of Jail Free” Monopoly card. Unfortunately for the Jets, this is exactly what New England has been doing thus far this season, as well.
New England screen game
Through two weeks, Mac Jones leads the NFL with 19 screen dropbacks, and his 18.1% screen rate ranks third. He has not necessarily been overly successful with them, gaining just 3.6 yards per attempt (23rd out of 33 quarterbacks) and even managing to throw a turnover-worthy pass on one. He’s also gained just two first downs (10.5%) on them.
Still, the fact that Jones hasn’t had success with screens thus far does not mitigate the advantage it provides for New England. If screens are a Jets defensive weakness, the Patriots could be in a position to reverse their early-season difficulties on screens, especially if it’s already embedded in their regular offensive gameplan.
The kicker is that Jones and the Patriots have already taken advantage of the Jets in the past with screens. In four career matchups with the Jets, Jones is 27-for-28 on screens, gaining 196 yards, 7.0 yards per attempt, seven first downs (25%), and one touchdown. A large chunk of that yardage came on two big screen passes in their Week 7 matchup in 2021, but nonetheless, those are productive plays.
Could change the game
The Jets’ goal is to put pressure on the quarterback. Screen passes directly disrupt that goal and simultaneously strain the weaknesses of the Jets’ defense, namely discipline and tackling angles. Ergo, they are the perfect way for an offense to gain a serious advantage.
Rhamondre Stevenson is a particular player to watch in this area, as the Jets don’t seem to be able to tackle him no matter where he is on the field. He had five missed tackles forced in the passing game in the last Jets-Patriots matchup.
The only way for the Jets to stop screen passes from coming is likely to force third-and-very-long situations. The problem is that if the Patriots run those screens on earlier downs, there won’t be third-and-very-long. Therefore, that leaves the Jets with one choice: learn some discipline.
The Jets’ defense will be under tremendous pressure this season just as it was in 2022. There is zero margin for error with no proper quarterback or front five on the other side of the ball. If teams consistently run plays that the defense can’t stop, the season-ending six-game losing streak can easily repeat itself.
It’s on the coaching staff to prevent that from happening.
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