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NY Jets’ long-standing red zone issue combines several factors

Zach Wilson, NY Jets, Red Zone, Stats
Zach Wilson, New York Jets, Getty Images

The New York Jets have struggled in the red zone for several years now

It’s one of the more infuriating things in football, especially for New York Jets fans: the team is driving to get near the opponent’s end zone, but they can’t punch it in. It’s happened way too often for the Jets since the beginning of the 2022 season.

The Jets currently rank 31st in red zone touchdown percentage at 29.4%, ahead of only the Steelers. Amazingly, that is significantly worse than their 31st-ranked 43.5% in 2022.

They haven’t necessarily gotten to the red zone a lot, either. They are averaging 2.8 attempts per game in 2023 (T-21st) and had 2.7 attempts per game in 2022 (T-26th). Still, the league-average rate of red-zone touchdown conversion is roughly 55% year-over-year. The Jets have missed out on between 16 and 23 points in the red zone this season compared to the league average.

Those red zone issues have not cost them games this season so far. In their three wins, the Jets are 2-for-12 in red zone conversions, including Breece Hall’s where the Eagles let him score. In their three losses, they’ve gone 3-for-5 in red zone conversions, indicating that their biggest issue was a lack of red zone trips rather than failing to score.

Still, if the Jets keep struggling in the “gold zone,” as Nathaniel Hackett refers to the red zone, it will likely come back to bite them at some point. For now, in the three games that they won, the Jets have forced enough turnovers (11) to mask their lack of red zone efficiency. Considering the general flukiness of turnovers, though, that’s not something they can continue relying on.

What’s causing the Jets’ red zone futility, and is there anything they can do about it?

Zach Wilson

Most offensive issues start with the quarterback. From a statistical perspective, Zach Wilson has not been good in the red zone. From a film analysis perspective, he’s been even worse.

Wilson ranks 24th in red-zone completion percentage (48%), 29th in touchdown pass rate (12%), 30th in sack-plus-hit rate (25%), 30th in success rate (28.6%), and 27th in pass EPA (-0.340) among 34 qualified passers. It’s easy to look at the rate of sacks or hits and excuse Wilson’s play, but as we will see, many of those sacks and hits have been entirely his fault.

The Jets struggled the most in the red zone in their three victories. Let’s take a look at what Wilson had to do with it.

Bills

Wilson stared down Allen Lazard the whole way here. You can see it on the back angle; the stripe on his helmet remained fixed in that direction. Had he looked to his right, he would have seen Tyler Conklin open with the potential to get a first down or at least leave it at fourth and short. In fact, that’s the kind of throw Wilson usually likes to make in the red zone. Instead, Lazard wasn’t open, so Wilson had to bail what was previously a clean pocket.

Even while he was escaping the pocket, though, had he kept his eyes downfield, he would have seen Dalvin Cook come open enough to get a first down. The problem is that when Wilson scrambles, he either doesn’t look or doesn’t process what’s going on around him. By the time he threw the ball, there was no chance of completing the pass.

The Jets did score a touchdown on the second Bills red zone drive on the one-yard pass to Garrett Wilson. On the third drive, though, they chose to go all runs, an extremely conservative approach to try to tie the game at 16 rather than trying for the go-ahead touchdown.

Broncos

In a third and goal situation, Wilson’s first looks should be toward his players who actually have routes running in the end zone. Instead, Wilson glanced at Garrett Wilson and then threw straight to Cobb, who wasn’t anywhere near the end zone. The route combination of Randall Cobb and Lazard was meant to give Lazard a one-on-one, and he got it.

Yes, Lazard did get caught up before getting open, but that’s where Wilson needs to learn to hang in a clean pocket to try to see if he can hit the target in the end zone.

In this spot, Wilson identified the correct target — he just threw it late. He waited until he saw Wilson with space rather than trusting that the space would be there. In the tight confines of the red zone, it’s more common for a player to have only a step than to be clearly open; it often takes an anticipatory throw to score the touchdown, and being late on the throw means that there will almost never be a score. If Wilson had thrown this ball one or two ticks earlier, he likely would have thrown a touchdown to Garrett Wilson.

Eagles

Let’s start with the Eagles game since some of the misses were the most egregious.

This is at the 22 and technically not in the red zone, but it’s close enough. Wilson’s choice to throw the ball to Mecole Hardman is puzzling when considering that they had a strong screen setup to the boundary side. You’d think he would at least check that first, but he had determined pre-snap that he was going to Hardman. The defensive back had outside leverage and read the route all the way; all in all, a bad decision by Wilson.

While the Jets didn’t need to score the touchdown on this first down play, there was certainly an opportunity to do so. Wilson stared down Garrett Wilson despite the fact that James Bradberry had very clearly matched the out-and-up. A slightly lower throw might have given Garrett an opportunity for a 50-50 ball (and he should have put both hands up rather than trying for a one-handed catch). Still, looking elsewhere when Garrett made his break was the smarter move.

If Wilson had looked down the seam, he would have seen C.J. Uzomah running to the end zone with no defender within 20 feet of him. It appears that Zach Cunningham (No. 52) was supposed to carry Uzomah but did not do so. Uzomah was well past Cunningham before Wilson released the ball. Even if Cunningham had read Wilson’s eyes, he did not have enough depth to do anything about it. Wilson simply did not progress quickly enough.

On second down, the exact opposite happens. Now Wilson stares down Uzomah when Garrett Wilson is wide open in the slot. Because Wilson stared down Uzomah, the middle-of-the-field safety shaded that way. A savvy quarterback would have looked at Uzomah to draw the safety and then fired to Garrett, whose post route against a cornerback with outside leverage was a good option. Sure enough, Wilson cooked that cornerback and was open in the end zone.

It can be argued that Uzomah might have had leverage on the back shoulder had the linebacker not stood right in his way. It can just as easily be argued that Uzomah ran right into the linebacker rather than merely juking into him because Uzomah doesn’t have route-running skills.

After Wes Schweitzer was called for holding to set up first and 20, the goal had to be to gain back some of the yardage, bit by bit. On this play, Wilson faces pressure pretty quickly, but he also looks the wrong way. The Jets attempted to run a rub with Allen Lazard and Tyler Conklin; given the defensive alignment, it was likely going to work. Had Wilson been looking at Conklin, he had a chance for a completion for five or six yards.

Not a major play, but it’s just another blow in the red zone.

This is a combination of play-calling and Wilson. Calling a naked bootleg is asking for trouble. Still, Wilson cannot take a sack here. The Jets don’t have an easy throw to the flat, which is another big mistake; later in the game, Wilson easily floated a ball over the defender on a naked bootleg. Seeing no one open, Wilson needed to get the ball away in the direction of Cobb. Live to fight another down. Instead of third and five from the eight, it’s third and 17 from the 20.

Play-calling

There are times when the Jets’ play-calling in the red zone is quite suspect. There are specific scenarios where a run play made little sense. Here are some examples.

  • 2nd & 9 from BUF 12
  • 2nd & 13 from BUF 19
  • 2nd & goal from DEN 10
  • 2nd & goal from DEN 8
  • 2nd & goal from DEN 8
  • 2nd & 15 from DEN 16
  • 2nd & 10 from PHI 12

It goes beyond just the run/pass play selection, though. There have been some poorly designed pass plays that didn’t give Wilson a shot, including the naked bootleg described above.

The Jets ran a rollout with a half-field read. Philadelphia locked the play down, and Wilson had to throw it away. Although the play was designed to evade pressure, it was still a pretty lackluster call.

With a middle-of-field-closed look, the routes on this play were doomed from the start. Conklin literally ran right into the safety. They should have sent Garrett Wilson up the seam instead of to the corner. Perhaps Zach Wilson could have gained a few yards on a throw to Lazard, but the protection broke down pretty quickly. There just wasn’t anywhere to go with the football.

At the very least, there should be an audible option or a route change based on the coverage. Hackett probably does not trust Wilson with those kinds of checks, but that’s the kind of conservative play-calling that severely limits the offense.

This one is going to seem like nitpicking, but it’s been a recurring theme out of the red zone, too. Yes, you want to avoid third down and keep ahead of the sticks. Still, second and short is a time to take a shot. The Jets should have run a pass play here; they could have had some shorter routes to help pick up the first down along with at least one bigger play. Instead, they ran the ball and didn’t even pick up the first down, forcing them into a third and short, anyway.

Overall play-calling or personnel?

In general, when watching the Jets’ red zone plays, one thing you notice is that rarely is there an easy throw available. Yes, occasionally someone comes wide open, but often that’s later in the play. As I pointed out on the middle-of-field-closed play above, sometimes the routes are dead on arrival.

It’s possible that the Jets just don’t have the offensive talent to make things happen in the red zone, but that seems unlikely. Between Wilson’s shiftiness, Lazard’s height, Conklin’s route running against linebackers, and Breece Hall’s abilities in space, there should be more opportunities than there are. Against Philadelphia, in particular, Wilson often had few choices even though the Eagles’ secondary was heavily banged up.

How did the Jets score touchdowns with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall, and Eric Decker? Yes, Marshall and Decker had really good years, but Marshall was a contested-catch guy, not necessarily one who created a lot of separation. Decker was more shifty. That team didn’t even get much production from the tight end position, but they had Bilal Powell as their receiving back. They made it work.

I’m not comparing Lazard to Marshall, but the red-zone capabilities aren’t all that different. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Wilson is a better route runner than Decker was. Conklin wipes Jeff Cumberland out of the water. As good as Powell was, Hall is much better. There needs to be a way to put defenders in conflict and score easier touchdowns.

Penalties

The Jets have taken a number of drive-killing penalties in the red zone. They’ve been called for five penalties inside the opponent’s 20, including three false starts and two holding penalties. Here was the effect of each of those penalties.

  • First and goal from the four, false start makes it first and goal from the nine
  • Third and goal from the seven, false start makes it third and goal from the 12
  • First and 10 from the 11, holding makes it first and 20 from the 21
  • Third and eight from the 20, false start makes it third and 13 from the 25
  • First and 10 from the 12, holding makes it first and 20 from the 22

Each of those had a significantly detrimental effect on the Jets’ drives, making it difficult to score touchdowns. They scored a touchdown on only one of those five drives, and that came due to a defensive penalty against New England that gave them a new set of downs.

What’s particularly infuriating about the false starts is that two of them were called on position players, not offensive linemen. They need to tighten up the easy things in the red zone.

Personnel usage

Cobb continues to see a large number of red zone plays, as he’s been on the field for 32 of the Jets’ offensive plays inside the 20 (60%), including 25 of 31 plays in 11 personnel. Meanwhile, Xavier Gipson has been on the field for just nine of those plays and Mecole Hardman for only two. The long and short of it is that Cobb simply does not get open in the red zone; while he still has a limited amount of route-running ability left, his short-area quickness just isn’t sufficient for the tight confines of the red zone.

Additionally, the Jets are simply not scheming up enough plays for their tight ends in the red zone. If you look at the plays above, although there were a couple where the tight end was open in the end zone, most of them feature tight ends whose routes are essentially doomed from before the snap. Jeremy Ruckert is almost never one of those tight ends, either; Uzomah might be significantly taller than Ruckert, but Ruckert has demonstrated superior leaping ability and better route-running. Unless it’s very tight to the goal line, Ruckert is the preferable option.

What can they do about it?

Three of the categories mentioned above are more easily within the Jets’ control: stopping the penalties, using better personnel, and calling better plays — specifically, passing on second and long. Those are things Hackett and offensive line coach Keith Carter should be working on.

As far as Wilson is concerned, there are a few ways to help him with processing in the red zone. One is to tell him to stop being afraid to throw picks. It’s almost always necessary to fit a ball into a tighter window in the red zone. He should be told to throw the ball into the end zone on third down, even if it’s a harder throw, rather than just dumping it off and settling for a field goal.

Just as importantly, though, Hackett needs to do a better job with his play-calling. The “gold zone” was supposed to be his specialty, as Rodgers’ best years in that area came with Hackett designing the plays inside the 20. Instead, the Jets’ offense is woefully stale in that area.

For example, sending Lazard on routes designed for jump balls and telling Wilson to look for that would be a good idea. The Jets should be running triangle reads between Garrett Wilson, Lazard, and Conklin, their three best red zone weapons, with Breece Hall as the checkdown.

There are many facets to be unwound here. If it’s merely about Zach Wilson, then maybe that’s something the Jets just have to hope gets better; after all, he’s their backup quarterback. But Hackett is not making things easier for him, and that’s something that should be correctable.

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mlesko73
9 months ago

Wow, great job finding these.
To be honest I stopped watching the vids after the missed “skinny post” to Garrett.
No way to refute these missed opportunities, unless he’s being told “this is option A, go with it” in his helmet. I don’t believe that’s happening.
As we’ve said before, the mental part of Zach’s game is the issue.

Matt Galemmo
9 months ago

“The Jets should be running triangle reads”

I would love to learn more about that, but maybe I’ve already inferred what it means from the name. I haven’t come across that phrase before.

Jets71
9 months ago

If they tell Zach to not be afraid to throw picks and he throws one (happens to ALL QB’s) are we going to get a barrage of articles about how bad he is? How it’s embarrassing he’s even out there? Smashing him for forcing the ball rather than throw it away or take a sack? Because they was I see the narrative Zach is the ONLY QB in the NFL who…if he makes a bad play it’s an unmitigated disaster.

Jets71
9 months ago
Reply to  Rivka Boord

At least you are being fair and not lumping them all in one. I don’t think the Denver throw was all that bad, to me it was a penalty, Garrett still could have made a play, and while it could have been a better throw it was still an outstanding defensive play to catch the INT between his legs.

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