New York Jets need Zach Wilson to set up the run, not the other way around
With Zach Wilson‘s nemesis looming and a torrential downpour on its way to the Meadowlands, New York Jets fans have concocted the perfect formula for Sunday: just feed Breece Hall the rock all day long and ride him all the way to victory. Rely on your best player and don’t let Wilson throw the ball in bad weather against the team that always makes him look horrendous.
That sounds wonderful when you dream it up in your head. And, yes, the Jets should attempt to rely heavily on Hall and the run game against New England.
In reality, though, it’s foolish to think that Bill Belichick will allow the Jets to hide Wilson in this game. We’ve seen this man exploit the Jets’ young quarterbacks countless times before. He will always figure out how to take away what your team does best and force the quarterback into uncomfortable predicaments.
Before the Jets can count on the run game, they need Wilson to command respect from Belichick and the Patriots defense. Until Wilson does that, the Jets’ run game isn’t going to take them anywhere but back to the line of scrimmage.
Even before we account for the forecasted weather, this is a game where you’d fully expect Belichick to load the box, play man coverage, and dare Wilson to beat him. Once you throw in the weather (heavy rainfall and 10-20 mph winds), it only further incentivizes Belichick to go all-out toward stopping the run and practically beg Wilson to attempt throws downfield.
The best way for New York to force New England into backing off and lightening the box is to pass the ball on first down.
The Patriots will be fully expecting the Jets to utilize an old-school run-run-pass philosophy to keep the ball out of Wilson’s hands and try to create short third downs. Nathaniel Hackett cannot allow himself to fall into that predictable approach. Even in bad weather against Wilson’s nightmare opponent, he has to trust Wilson to throw on first down.
There are reasons to believe Wilson is up to the task. He was actually quite good on first down against Dallas last week.
Across 18 first-down dropbacks, Wilson generated 160 yards (8.9 yards per play) and seven first downs (39%). The Jets gained at least five yards on 10 of those 18 plays (56%).
Those are excellent numbers in any situation, let alone with the amount of pressure Wilson faced behind a sputtering offensive line. Wilson proved he can demand respect with first-down success.
Wilson completed 7-of-13 passes on first down for 139 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, which is a passer rating of 91.5. Two of his incompletions were dropped screens by Hall. Wilson also scrambled three times for 33 yards and was sacked twice for a combined loss of 12 yards.
The highlight of Wilson’s first-down performance was a 68-yard touchdown to Garrett Wilson off play action.
Wilson to Wilson for a 68 yard TD.
Good throw play from Zach here as he checks the MOF safety and sees him gaining depth + Garrett with inside leverage on the CB.
Puts good zip on the ball in the perfect spot, Garrett runs through the arm tackle for the TD. pic.twitter.com/kCtjMBDq8D
— Joe Blewett (@Joerb31) September 18, 2023
This play is the perfect encapsulation of how the Jets can force defenses to back off via first-down passing success. Check out the Cowboys’ defensive alignment on that play: there are eight guys in the box. Hackett dials up play action to suck the linebackers in and then Wilson throws it right behind them for the touchdown. The Jets maximize the space that is left open downfield due to having so many defenders near the line of scrimmage.
In the play above, there were eight Cowboys defenders in the box against seven Jets blockers. It’s hard to run the ball when you’re outnumbered. But when you make plays like that one, it will force the defensive coordinator to think twice about loading the box on first down – thus giving your offense the room it needs to run the ball successfully.
Not only does it alter the defensive coordinator’s thinking, but it affects the players’ mindsets, too. Look how aggressively the Cowboys’ linebackers bit on that play fake (especially #14). They did not care in the slightest about a possible pass, remaining solely focused on charging downhill to play the run.
But after watching a touchdown whizz by their ears, they are likely to be more hesitant for the rest of the game, focusing more on staying back in coverage than playing the run. Anytime they see a potential handoff from that point forward, they will be more likely to hang back than dart toward the line of scrimmage. The slight increase in hesitation buys even more space for the rushing attack.
Letting Wilson throw on first down led to the Jets’ best offensive results in Dallas. When they tried to have Wilson dig them out of holes on second and third down, it led to disaster.
Because of the early-down rushing struggles and two first-down sacks, Wilson faced an average of 8.3 yards to go on his second and third down dropbacks. This means that most of Wilson’s second and third down plays were obvious passing situations, which is an unfavorable position for the quarterback to be in.
Predictably, Wilson struggled to make things happen in obvious passing situations behind a terrible offensive line. On second and third down, Wilson went 5-of-14 for 31 yards with just one first down and two interceptions. He was also sacked once and had one three-yard scramble.
If the Jets stubbornly try to run the ball on first down against New England, Wilson is most likely going to end up facing many of the same unfavorable second and third down situations that he did against Dallas. The Jets do not want to find themselves in those positions against the opportunistic Patriots defense in rainy, windy weather.
But if the Jets let Wilson pass on first down, they can seize control of the game flow and create favorable situations for both Wilson and the run game.
Passing on first down early in the game is crucial. The Jets must get off to a fast start to avoid falling into the negative game script that ruined the entire Dallas game. If the Jets show the Patriots they will pass the ball on first down from the very first drive, that will set up the run game for the rest of the afternoon (so long as the passes are actually successful).
Taking a quarter-and-a-half to “establish the run” is a waste of time. That philosophy is a myth in the modern NFL. It’s been proven that you don’t need to run the ball first for play action to be successful – or even run it well. Just look at the Garrett Wilson touchdown. The Jets not only ran the ball infrequently to that point, but they ran it terribly, and yet, the linebackers still bit hard on the play fake.
That will be especially true in this game, as the Patriots will already be expecting the Jets to go run-heavy from the start. From the first play of the game, the Jets should have the necessary leverage to successfully utilize play action on first down.
In a perfect world, the Jets defeat New England with over 30 rushing attempts and under 30 passing dropbacks from Wilson. To get there, though, the Jets first need to set the tone by trusting Wilson to throw the ball on first down early in the game.
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