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The hidden problem that’s sinking NY Jets’ third down offense

Nathaniel Hackett, NY Jets, OC, Stats
Nathaniel Hackett, New York Jets, Getty Images

How can the New York Jets get better at converting on third down?

The New York Jets offense has not been very good in 2023. Its inability to convert third downs is arguably the primary reason why. New York ranks 32nd with a ghastly third-down conversion rate of 25%.

In their recent victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, the Jets often had success moving the football down the field but watched drives stall out in opponent territory due to their inability to convert on third down. The Jets had four drives where they ran at least eight plays but settled for a field goal.

The Jets converted just 2-of-11 third downs against Philadelphia, per the official box score, although they actually went 4-of-13 if you include two third downs that were converted through a defensive penalty (which for some reason are not included in the official tally). Nonetheless, 4-of-13 is still a lowly 31%.

Clearly, fixing the third-down issue will be one of the Jets’ top priorities during the bye week. Zach Wilson and the offense have shown signs of competency over the past three weeks, but until they start turning the field goals into touchdowns, they will continue to put an immense amount of pressure on the defense to win games.

But here’s the catch: The main problem with the Jets’ third-down offense is not what they’re doing on third down itself. The biggest issue is how the Jets are setting up their third downs.

The Jets need to do a better job of creating favorable third downs

Against Philadelphia, the Jets’ average to-go distance on third down was 10.8 yards. They had at least 13 yards to go on six of their 13 third-down plays.

When you’re facing such insurmountable distances on third down, your fate is essentially decided before the play even starts. Sure, you can pull off the occasional miracle to convert (it’s much easier with an elite QB), but for the most part, your bed is already made if you reach third-and-forever.

Consider this: In 2023, the league-average conversion rate on third-and-13+ is 9%. So, on nearly half of the Jets’ third downs against Philadelphia, they only had a 1-in-11 chance of converting when the ball was snapped (at best).

Even with 10 or 11 yards to go on third down, the league-average conversion rate this season is 23%. If you get to third-and-12, it plummets to 12%.

This highlights the problem that New York has had all year: They’re digging themselves into enormous holes ahead of third down.

On the year, New York’s average to-go distance on third down is 8.4 yards, which ranks second-worst in the NFL ahead of only the Washington Commanders. The league median is 6.8 yards. New York is nearly two full yards ahead of that.

Considering the Jets are 31st in average to-go distance on third down, it’s no surprise at all that they’re 32nd in third-down conversion rate. They’re converting about as often as you’d expect them to based on the odds they’re presented with.

It’s clear that the Jets’ primary goal is figuring out how to put themselves in better spots on third down. How can they do that?

Well, there are only two downs that come before third down, so let’s see what’s happening on those downs.

What is causing the Jets to get into holes on third down?

Interestingly enough, the Jets are actually doing a great job on first down. They are averaging 6.4 yards per play on first down, which ranks fifth-best in the NFL. One spot ahead of New York lies San Francisco (6.5) and one spot behind lies Buffalo (5.7). Not bad company.

The Jets also do a solid job of moving the chains on first down. They are 11th-best with a conversion rate of 21.3% on first down.

Okay, so now we know two things: The Jets are facing incredibly long to-go distances on third down and they’re excellent on first down.

That leaves only one culprit: second down.

New York has been utterly atrocious on second down, averaging a league-worst 3.2 yards per play on second down. The league median is 4.9 yards.

Fixing the Jets’ third-down woes has to start on second down. The Jets are doing a nice job of setting themselves up on first down, but when they get to second down, they become completely incompetent – forcing themselves to try and work miracles on third down.

The Philadelphia game perfectly exemplified the Jets’ season-long struggles in this department. The Jets consistently set themselves up nicely on first down before screwing up on second down.

New York was solid on first down against the Eagles, averaging a respectable 5.6 yards per play (would rank seventh-best this season). Nathaniel Hackett called an aggressive game plan (adhering to our wishes at Jets X-Factor throughout the week), electing to pass the ball on 70% of the Jets’ first down plays. And it worked out fairly well.

The Jets averaged 5.2 yards per dropback when calling pass plays on first down. It’s not amazing, but it’s a perfectly fine number to start off a series. Zach Wilson went 11-of-17 (65%) for 114 yards (6.5 Y/A) while the Jets allowed one sack (-6 yards) and committed one holding penalty (-10 yards).

The pass-heavy approach on first down helped clear out space for the run game. On eight first-down rush attempts, the Jets picked up 49 yards (6.1 per attempt). All in all, the Jets were solid on first down.

But on second down, the Jets averaged 2.8 yards per play – even worse than their season average.

The Jets ran 21 second down plays (counting out a kneeldown). They recorded no gain or a loss on nine plays (43%) and no more than two yards on 12 plays (57%).

It didn’t matter whether the Jets passed or ran on second down. Wilson generated 3.8 yards per dropback while the running backs averaged 2.4 yards per carry.

Before they worry about their third down execution, the Jets have to start putting themselves in manageable third downs that actually have a reasonable chance of being converted. They’re doing their part on first down to make that happen. Second down is where the Jets’ offense has the most problems to solve during the bye week.

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Matt Galemmo
7 months ago

I need more. Average 6.4 on first down and 3.2 on second…that’s an average of 9.6 yards on the first two downs. So how are they averaging 8.4 yards-to-go on third down?

Obviously it’s some combination of penalties, negative plays, and poor timing of negative plays. These numbers seem to imply that while the average on first down is 6.4, the range must be drastic. The mode is likely nowhere near 6.4, with the most common results being < 0 and > 12.

I’d like to know the splits of second down based on the results of first down. I’m guessing second down looks a lot worse when its 2nd and 10 as opposed to 2nd and 5, and that’s what’s pulling down the average. If that’s so, well…we’re going to have to live with it…to some extent. We have an inconsistent quarterback that we want throwing often on first down. There’s going to be a lot of 2nd and 10s.

Jonathan Richter
7 months ago

Interesting take. Thanks.

7 months ago

2nd down is usually the least predictable down. Strange that they can’t do anything with that, but interesting observation as usual.

Btw, something wrong with your website. When I go to a link I first get a blank page, then if I refresh I get the actual page. Multiple times over multiple days. Brave/Chrome.