If the New York Jets play their cards right, Zach Wilson and Breece Hall should have breakout games in Denver
Optimism is in the air after the New York Jets offense finally showed signs of life in a hard-fought loss to the defending Super Bowl champions. But the optimism will immediately dissipate if the Jets do not follow it up with an electric performance against the repugnant Denver Broncos defense.
Denver is ranked 32nd in both points per game allowed (37.5) and total yards per game allowed (461.5). While those numbers are skewed by a historically gruesome 70-point game against the Dolphins, the Broncos have still been poor outside of that game.
In their other three games, Denver has allowed 26.7 points per game (would rank sixth-worst this season) and 373.3 yards per game (would rank ninth-worst). This is despite all three of those games coming against teams that are currently ranked in the bottom half of offensive EPA per play.
The bottom line is this: Denver’s defense is bad. So if the Jets offense wants to prove it has truly turned the corner, they must dominate on Sunday.
Kansas City isn’t typically known as a great defensive team, but they have been outstanding defensively in 2023. Prior to the Jets game, the Chiefs were allowing 11.0 points per game defensively, including two shutdown performances against good offenses. They allowed 14 points to the Lions (without Chris Jones) and 9 to the Jaguars. The 20 points they allowed to the Jets are the most they have allowed this season.
It was a legitimately inspiring performance for a previously sluggish Jets offense. It was also just one game. Chaining successful performances is the key to victory in the NFL – and the barometer for success is different each week.
In a prime-time game against the elite defense of the reigning Super Bowl champs, scoring 20 points in defeat was a successful outcome. But against the Broncos, a surprisingly respectable outcome won’t cut it. Now is the time for the offense to explode.
Wilson and Hall each have extremely favorable matchups in front of them this week – not just because the Broncos defense is bad, but because Denver’s specific weaknesses line up perfectly with Wilson and Hall’s strengths.
It’s on Nathaniel Hackett to allow Wilson and Hall to give them the best chance to fully exploit their respective mismatches.
Keep letting Zach Wilson pass on first down
The driving force behind Wilson’s resurgence against Kansas City was the simple fact that Hackett let him throw the ball on first down. Instead of running into loaded boxes on first down and making Wilson try to throw the team out of long-distance second and third downs, Hackett allowed Wilson to exploit the Chiefs defense for playing the run on first down.
On first downs, Wilson completed 10 of 14 passes (71%) for 117 yards (8.4 yards per attempt). He was sacked once (-10 yards) and also had a 14-yard scramble.
Overall, the Jets generated 7.6 yards per dropback when passing on first down, which is a fantastic number. With that type of efficiency, passing the ball is a substantially better way to start off a series than handing it off for a couple of yards (if that).
Until teams stop disrespecting the Jets’ passing attack, it’s a no-brainer to keep throwing the ball on first down. Once the Jets back the defense off by demanding respect through the air, then they will start to find success with first-down rushing attempts.
This was on display against Kansas City, as the Jets’ first-down passing success helped open things up for the rushing attack later in the game. With just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter, Breece Hall broke free for a 43-yard run on first down. New York’s prior passing success certainly contributed to making this run happen.
The Jets are in 12 personnel (2 TEs) and have the wide receivers aligned tight. It’s a perfect look to stack the box against if you don’t respect the opponent’s passing game. But the Chiefs drop one of their DBs just prior to the snap and end up countering with only seven defenders in the box relative to the Jets’ eight blockers (with Allen Lazard included). They are playing soft on the back end in response to the Jets’ previous success with passing on first down. Thus, the Jets have a numbers advantage, and Hall gets a huge hole to work with.
Luckily for the Jets, this week presents them with a tremendous opportunity to keep their first-down success going. Denver is atrocious at defending the pass on first down.
The Broncos have allowed a passer rating of 132.8 on first down this season, the worst mark in the NFL. It’s 16.0 points worse than the closest team. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 43 of 53 passes (81%) for 521 yards (9.8 yards per attempt), four touchdowns, and zero interceptions when throwing on first down against Denver.
This issue goes well beyond the Miami game. In Week 4, the Broncos were shredded on first down by Bears quarterback Justin Fields, who was having a similarly poor season to Wilson before he faced Denver. Fields completed 11 of 13 passes for 168 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions when passing on first down – giving him a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
Hackett must continue to let Zach cook on first down. Do not fall into the trap of thinking you can “play it safe” and “rely on your defense” to win a game on the road. Give the kid a chance to sling the rock with reckless abandon and let the chips fall where they may.
Give Breece Hall the lion’s share and let him get outside against Denver’s putrid second-level run defenders
Robert Saleh said earlier this week that Breece Hall is no longer on a pitch count going forward. It’s about darn time, as Hall has been severely outperforming Dalvin Cook all season long. Among running backs with at least 25 carries, Hall ranks second in yards per carry (6.6) and Cook ranks last (2.5).
Hall has only played 40% of the Jets’ offensive snaps this season. Last week, he played 44%, which was actually a decline from the season-high 49% he played against New England the previous week.
To stay true to Saleh’s word, the Jets must push Hall up into the 60-70% range. That’s where he was in 2022 as he started to seize control of the Jets’ backfield. Over his final three full games of 2022, Hall’s average snap ratio was 67%, ranging from 66% to 69%.
This is a fantastic week to unleash Hall. Denver’s run defense is abysmal. The Broncos are 32nd in rushing yards per game allowed (176.0) and 31st in yards per carry allowed (5.6). In fairness, nearly half of the rushing yards they’ve allowed this season came against Miami (350 of 704). Still, in their most recent game, the Broncos allowed 171 rushing yards on 5.5 yards per carry against Chicago.
While the Broncos are a juicy matchup for Hall just by looking at their basic run defense numbers, the matchup gets even juicier when you dig deeper.
One of Hall’s best traits this season has been his ability to make second-level defenders miss to break loose for big-time runs. We saw it on his 43-yard run against Kansas City as well as his 83-yard run against Buffalo.
What a job by Tyler Conklin & Jeremy Ruckert to spring Breece Hall's 83-yarder
1. Conklin opens the initial hole by plowing Rousseau inside, which also obstructs 2 other defenders
2. Ruckert lays out Hyde at the second level
Breece does the rest, making White & Poyer miss pic.twitter.com/6iyjrDPQrL
— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) September 13, 2023
This skill makes Hall a nightmarish matchup for the Broncos, who are the worst second-level tackling team in the NFL.
Denver’s linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties have combined for a missed tackle rate of 23.0% this season, per PFF, the worst of any team in the league. In total, the Broncos have suffered from 38 missed tackles between these three positions alone – an inconceivable 9.5 per game. For comparison, the Jets’ entire defense has only missed 30 tackles this season (7.5 per game / 9th-fewest).
Because of their terrible second-level tackling, the Broncos are particularly awful at defending runs to the outside. On runs directed outside of the tackle box, Denver is allowing a league-worst 8.2 yards per carry. They’re actually decent at defending inside runs, allowing 3.9 yards per carry.
The Jets need to give Breece Hall the lion’s share of touches he deserves, and against this particular defense, they need to give him plenty of chances to get on the edge against Denver’s terrible second-level tacklers.
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