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The New York Jets are playing ‘scared’ football | Film Analysis

New York Jets, Zach Wilson, Robert Saleh
New York Jets, Zach Wilson, Robert Saleh (Getty Images)

The NY Jets’ current mindset cannot work in 2023 NFL

The New York Jets are the undisputed masters of trying to jam a square block into a round hole. Robert Saleh‘s Jets take it to an unfortunate level.

Take Zach Wilson, for example—a run-and-gun risk-taker with a monster arm and athletic build. His role since drafted by Joe Douglas No. 2 in the 2021 NFL draft has been that of “game manager.”

Well, not exactly.

“Game manager” is the role Saleh would like to see his young quarterback ooze. You see, every bit of public evidence coming out of 1 Jets Drive suggests that Saleh wants Wilson to limit mistakes and just do the bare minimum—en route to supporting his quality defense along the way.

We’ve heard Wilson say such things like, “We have to set ourselves up in third-and-manageable situations, and I need to make a play on third down to keep the chains moving.”

The only thing missing is the 1985 Chicago Bears defense.

Scratch that: The other thing missing is the NFL rulebook from the 1985 season.

Coaching boils down to understanding one’s surroundings. A coach mustn’t just understand who each of his players are, and what makes them tick; he must also coach them in a way that provides the opportunity to reach maximum potential for all involved.

A coach must also realize that in today’s NFL, the 2023 version that tasks defenses with the impossible duty of stopping the passing game, building a conservative game plan that intentionally limits the quarterback and relies on the defense is akin to dying a slow death over 1,000 days.

Not only has Saleh hindered Wilson’s potential output, but he’s put his New York Jets in a situation where they’re constantly playing “scared” football. Game in and out, since his arrival, the offense is stuck in “three yards in a cloud of dust” mode (or rubber pelts, to be more specific), while the defense rarely blitzes with an eye on its lagging secondary shell.

Sure, that lagging shell will work against the quarterbacks who love forcing the issue downfield (see Buffalo Bills gunslinger Josh Allen), but it’s disastrous against a Dak Prescott or a Mac Jones—two guys who prefer taking the five-yard, three-step attempt.

Offensively, the all-important question fans are screaming right now is, “But why would Saleh trust Wilson with a standard (and modern) offensive gameplan when he hasn’t proven he could handle such a thing?”

Although it’s a valid question, the simple rules of football engagement today demand risk-taking.

It’s just that simple. And the Jets offense does anything but take risks.

The elements to pay attention to in this article, which are sorely missing from the Jets’ offensive game, are the following:

  • Lack of downfield passing attempts
  • Lack of first-down passing
  • Lack of an uptempo change-of-pace

NYJ BALL – 1ST AND 10 FROM NYJ 25 | 1ST QTR – 15:00 – NE 0, NYJ 0


Interestingly, Nathaniel Hackett’s first play of the game was right on the money.

Anticipating a heavily-encroached New England Patriots defense—anticipating the rushing attack while daring Zach Wilson to beat them over the top—Hackett went with a simple bubble screen to Garrett Wilson out of a 3×1 shotgun look.

Unfortunately, Wilson fell while cutting to the outside, but it would have gone for a decent first-down gain had he not. The greater point is that play No. 1 predictably started the trend everybody expected: Bill Belichick would indeed crowd the box and line of scrimmage.

This is as disrespectful a defensive look as there can be in the game of football—especially when facing a 3×1 gun look. Yet, this was the insane norm the Pats rolled out all game.

NYJ BALL – 2ND AND 9 FROM NYJ 26 | 1ST QTR – 14:14 – NE 0, NYJ 0


Of course, Belichick rolled with a similar look on second down, which eventually was stuffed for a big loss on a zone-rushing try with Breece Hall to the right.

NYJ BALL – 3RD AND 15 FROM NYJ 20 | 1ST QTR – 13:33 – NE 0, NYJ 0


Naturally, New England sags into a quarters pre-snap shell on third and 15. Also naturally, the Pats call is a quarters shell with two underneath mid zones (match) and a five-man rush.

By this point, it’s over for the Jets offense. The opportunity to gain the 15 necessary yards isn’t just slim, but anything worth calling downfield, this early in the game, isn’t worth the risk.

It’s why ensuring the offense does anything it can to force the Pats to change their early-down ways, by getting them to think twice about playing so aggressively at the line of scrimmage and in the box, must be considered. Yet, the Jets offense did no such thing.

Instead, they continued to play scared football.

NYJ BALL – 1ST AND 10 FROM NYJ 25 | 1ST QTR – 10:41 – NE 3, NYJ 0


New York’s second offensive possession featured a New England defense doubling up their pleasure. Yet again, the Pats show a disrespectful first-down look.

Predictably, the Jets’ first-down inside zone call to Hall is gobbled up for just a three-yard gain.

The next play featured the Jets’ second solid play-call of the game (after the first play of the game, the bubble screen to Garrett Wilson). In a second and 7 situation, New York goes play-action, only to have the wide-open intermediate out route fall incomplete thanks to Mekhi Becton allowing his man to get inside of him.

NYJ BALL – 3RD AND 7 FROM NYJ 28 | 1ST QTR – 09:59 – NE 3, NYJ 0

On third down, Zach Wilson put something on tape that he can physically accomplish better than most quarterbacks in the NFL: an intermediate out-breaking route in rhythm (thanks to physical gifts).

Since it’s third down, Belichick will naturally lag a bit on the back end (where possible). But he certainly won’t rush just four.

Of course, after the above third-down conversion on third and 7, the Jets gained a grand total of two yards on two rushing plays (first and second down). It set up another tough third and 8 situation.

NYJ BALL – 3RD AND 8 FROM NYJ 42 | 1ST QTR – 08:05 – NE 3, NYJ 0

Where exactly is Zach Wilson supposed to go here? While nobody (including Joe Namath) loves to see their quarterback fall to the ground like that, look at the coverage against this specific design.

Another interior pressure from Belichick, with smart bracketing and leverage on the back end, forced the quarterback into another tough situation. His only chance would have been Tyler Conklin earlier in the flat, after his late release.

While there’s no question regarding Wilson’s poor play—he missed several options in the game, including shallow crosses directly in his face—what the Jets are doing with the kid makes no Eartlhy sense.

Wilson’s dump-down to Conklin on fourth down infuriated onlookers to no end, and deservedly so, but this Jets team has entirely too much talent to constantly be placing themselves in these horrendous situations to begin with.

Offensive football has always been dictated by what the defense allows. This has never been more true than in today’s game—where three-step drops allow offenses to do whatever they want when they want.

Yet, Robert Saleh and the Jets pretend as though forcing tough third-down situations actually makes it easier on a kid QB with no confidence and very little by way of “game management” attributes.

Key stats

In fact, Belichick’s game plan was quite simple: bring extra pressure, particularly down the A and B gaps, while telling his coverage to trail and play to the inside (whether it’s a solo high or a late-developing two-high).

This challenges the Jets’ pass protection to hold up, first and foremost, and also invites Zach Wilson to take downfield shots outside the numbers. Think of it as something to this effect: “Sure, Zach … I know you have the ability to make these throws that so few QBs can make, but my bet is that you won’t even try them.”

Obviously, Wilson and the Jets never did try to attack downfield—and it’s not as though the O-line didn’t provide enough time (per many metrics).

Instead, it was Wilson’s fear and the conservative game plan that never forced Belichick to even reconsider his outlandish game plan once.

The Jets attempted just two passes over 20 yards all game—as opposed to five for the Patriots, the team that had the lead all afternoon, per NFL Next Gen Stats (NGS).

Zach Wilson Headshot% of AttComp/AttYardsTD-INTPasser RatingYds/AttComp %CPOE (COMP % OVER EXPECTATION)
Behind LOS19.40%5/7190-074.12.771.40%-4.10%
Short (0-9 yards)38.90%9/14580-
Intermediate (10-19 yards)16.70%3/6510-079.28.550.00%-5.90%
Deep (20+ yards)5.60%1/2290-095.814.550.00%0.136
Mac Jones Headshot% of AttComp/AttYardsTD-INTPasser RatingYds/AttComp %CPOE (COMP % OVER EXPECTATION)
Behind LOS10.30%1/330-042.4133.30%-57.30%
Short (0-9 yards)44.80%9/13730-083.25.669.20%-0.80%
Intermediate (10-19 yards)20.70%5/61251-0158.320.883.30%19.30%
Deep (20+ yards)17.20%0/500-039.600.00%-36.50%

Better yet, New England didn’t even complete one pass over 20 air yards. So, it was all for naught, right?

Not even close. Simply attempting those deeper shots, particularly early in the game, forces the defense to respect that possibility. I can remember two or three instances with Michael Carter II bailing the Jets out in those spots (one where he may have gotten away with a defensive pass interference against a corner route).

More damning is the narrative around the Jets’ lack of first-down passing.

Taking the lone late-game spike out of the equation, Zach Wilson finished 7 for 11 on the day on first down. In fact, he was 7 of 8 at the time Nick Bawden tallied the Jets’ lone touchdown on the classic fullback dive (inspiring the football ghost of Aaron Rodgers’s buddy John Kuhn).

The shame in attempting as few first-down passes as New York did, against the discriminatory look Belichick continued to trot out there, is overwhelming. Prior to the scoring drive, Zach Wilson’s first-down passing statistics were as follows: 2 for 2 and a sack.


After the worthwhile first play of the game—a bubble screen to Garrett Wilson—the Jets insanely ran the ball on 10 of their next 11 first downs, against a Pats defense expecting the run.

The rare uptempo and first-down passing drive

The Jets’ only touchdown drive of the game is already misunderstood as the Patriots beginning to play “prevent” defense, exchanging yards for time. While New England’s first defensive play of the game certainly qualifies in that realm, that’s not how it went down exactly.

What happened was Saleh allowed the Jets to go uptempo and start using the three-step game as the early-down rushing attack:

  • First and 10 from the NYJ 13: 5-yard completion to Garrett Wilson
  • Second and 5 from the NYJ 18: Deep incompletion to Allen Lazard
  • Third and 5 from the NYJ 18: 18-yard completion to Tyler Conklin
  • First and 10 from the NYJ 36: 8-yard completion to Dalvin Cook
  • Second and 2 from the NYJ 44: 3-yard rush by Dalvin Cook
  • First and 10 from the NYJ 47: 9-yard completion to Garrett Wilson
  • Second and 1 from the NE 44: 1-yard rush by Dalvin Cook
  • First and 10 from the NE 43: 21-yard completion to Allen Lazard (the Cover 2 hole shot)
  • First and 10 from the NE 22: 6-yard completion to Allen Lazard
  • Second and 4 from the NE 16: 12-yard completion to Randall Cobb
  • First and Goal from the NE 4: Alijah Vera-Tucker false start
  • First and Goal from the NE 9: Short incompletion to Garrett Wilson
  • Second and Goal from the NE 9: End zone incompletion to Garrett Wilson
  • Third and Goal from the NE 9: End zone incompletion to Randall Cobb (defensive pass interference)
  • First and goal from the NE 1: 1-yard TD by Nick Bawden

What happened was something so simple yet profound when considering an overall offensive mindset: They decided to attack things in an aggressive manner. They decided to throw on first down and make the Pats pay for playing so ridiculously.

Unfortunately, they ran out of time, and Zach Wilson missed key throws thereafter. Still, the point that is putting his kid in the best possible scenario for potential success still holds very much true.

Final thoughts

I once caught a glance at Andy Reid’s “QB Bible”—which accompanies his team’s offensive playbook—and it put the quarterback’s mindset brilliantly, something to the effect of the following …

“Cut down on turnovers but never be afraid to make a mistake.”

Right now, and since Week 2 of his rookie campaign when he faced Bill Belichick for the first time, Zach Wilson is terrified of making a mistake that can hurt his team. It’s as obvious as anything.

Worse yet, Robert Saleh is worried about his quarterback making a mistake that could cost his team. The Jets’ defense is afraid the quarterback will make a mistake that will hurt the unit.

Until the New York Jets drill the mindset home that Zach Wilson should make more plays than he does mistakes, as opposed to simply “managing the game” without any turnovers, nothing will change, and this team will continue to play scared football.

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Jonathan Richter
9 months ago

Great article, Robby! The fact that these are all simple fixes is why I’m not in panic mode about the season yet. Also I think the O line will get better with more games together. Really like Tippmann.

Last edited 9 months ago by Jonathan Richter
9 months ago

I still think there is a kind of chicken-or-egg syndrome here, where Zach is scared himself, which makes his coaches scared to place responsibility in his hands. Zach’s repeated failures to just throw the ball when receivers are flashing open is something that dates back to his first year and has hardly improved if at all. So, it’s very discouraging to watch him. The one thing I can think of that might help is being more freewheeling just in play selection, such as using end-arounds with Hardiman or maybe Gipson, rolling Zach out more frequently to let him improvise, or maybe a few planned QB runs. They should get a little crazy.

9 months ago

Excellent article. Thank you