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Why Dolphins are an ideal matchup for Zach Wilson, Jets offense

Zach Wilson, NY Jets, Dolphins, Stats, Scheme, Offense
Zach Wilson, New York Jets, Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins are an ideal opponent for Zach Wilson and the New York Jets offense to build on their Houston performance

If the New York Jets are going to storm into Miami and upset the high-octane Dolphins, it almost feels like a necessity that Zach Wilson replicates his Offensive Player of the Week performance in Week 14. Great quarterbacking has been a constant theme for each of the teams to defeat Miami this season.

Across their four losses, the Dolphins have allowed an opposing passer rating of 113.6. Three of the four quarterbacks to beat Miami had a passer rating above 105.0 in the victory. The only one who did not was Will Levis, and while Levis had an 86.2 passer rating, he did throw for 327 yards while delivering two marvelous drives in the fourth quarter to engineer a miraculous comeback.

Fortunately for Wilson and the Jets, Miami provides a perfect opportunity to build on the things that worked against Houston last week.

Miami’s defense is susceptible to the Jets’ offensive strengths

As we discussed in yesterday’s breakdown, one of the biggest keys to the Jets’ offensive turnaround was Nathaniel Hackett‘s long-overdue decision to optimize the team’s usage of personnel packages. Hackett vastly decreased the usage of 11 personnel (1 RB/1 WR/3 TE), which has been the team’s worst package this year, and he increased the usage of 12 personnel (1 RB/2 TE/2 WR) and 21 personnel (1 RB/1 FB/1 TE/2 WR), two packages that have yielded great results for them.

Here are the Jets’ 2023 ranks in yards per play for each of those three packages:

  • 11 personnel: 3.9 (32nd)
  • 12 personnel: 5.6 (10th)
  • 21 personnel: 6.4 (9th)

The Jets have thrived with two-receiver sets, whether it be with two tight ends or a fullback on the field. But they have struggled mightily with three-receiver sets.

Despite this, the Jets have relied heavily on 11 personnel throughout most of the season. Here is how often the Jets used each package over their first 12 games of the season (prior to the Houston game):

  • 11 personnel: 66.5% of plays (12th) – NFL average: 62%
  • 12 personnel: 16.1% (21st) – NFL average: 19.3%
  • 21 personnel: 6.7% (11th) – NFL average: 7.3%

Against the Texans, Hackett finally wised up and adjusted the personnel distribution to match the Jets’ strengths and weaknesses. Here are the Jets’ usage rates against Houston, and where those numbers would rank in 2023 if maintained over the whole season:

  • 11 personnel: 40.9% of plays (Would rank 30th)
  • 12 personnel: 22.7% (12th)
  • 21 personnel: 18.2% (6th)

The greatest beneficiary of this adjustment was Zach Wilson. Throughout the season, Wilson has been excellent when the Jets have either 12 or 21 personnel on the field, but he is abysmal when the Jets have 11 personnel on the field:

  • Zach Wilson with 12 personnel or 21 personnel: 106.0 passer rating (9th of 31), 0.09 EPA per dropback (14th)
  • Zach Wilson with 11 personnel: 67.4 passer rating (33rd of 34), -0.41 EPA per dropback (33rd)

Unfortunately for Wilson, only 20% of his dropbacks this season have come with either 12 or 21 personnel on the field, whereas 73% have come with 11 personnel on the field. The difference was even larger before the Houston game: 18% versus 76%. That’s a ratio of more than four to one in favor of the play type that brings out the worst in Wilson.

Considering the drastic difference in Wilson’s performance based on the personnel, it is baffling that the Jets have allowed this to happen. They have been building the offense around Wilson’s weaknesses all year long while putting his strengths on the back burner.

The Jets struck a far better balance against Houston:

  • 42 total dropbacks
  • 21 dropbacks in 11 personnel (50%)
  • 16 dropbacks in either 12 or 11 personnel (38%)

Before the Houston game, Wilson had a 4.2-to-1 ratio of 11 personnel dropbacks to 12/21 personnel dropbacks. Against Houston, it was 1.3-to-1.

This adjustment led to wonderful results. When throwing out of 12 or 21 personnel against Houston, Wilson completed 13-of-16 passes for 176 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions while taking just one sack. He averaged 11.7 yards per attempt and 0.51 EPA per dropback.

Wilson still wasn’t great out of 11 personnel, averaging 6.1 yards per attempt and -0.14 EPA per dropback (although that’s far less brutal than his season average of -0.41). But since Wilson had far fewer 11P plays than usual and far more 12P/21P plays than usual, it did not matter that he was unimpressive with 11 personnel. The excellence of his 12/21 plays outweighed the mediocrity of his 11 plays, leading to a strong overall performance.

All of that brings us to Vic Fangio’s Miami Dolphins defense, which is a juicy matchup for Wilson and the Jets in this particular spot. Why? You guessed it: They struggle to defend against 12 and 21 personnel.

Here are some of the Dolphins’ numbers against the pass when the opponent has either 12 personnel or 21 personnel on the field:

  • 104.7 passer rating allowed (24th)
  • 0.15 EPA per dropback allowed (26th)
  • 45.7% defensive success rate (28th)

Conversely, Miami holds up well against 11 personnel:

  • 80.2 passer rating allowed (8th)
  • -0.27 EPA per dropback allowed (3rd)
  • 60.5% defensive success rate (9th)

It is clear that Hackett must continue using a similar personnel-package distribution to the one he deployed against Houston last week. If Hackett goes back to the rates he used before the Houston game, then he would not only be working against the strengths of his own team, but he would be playing into the strengths of the opponent.

To accomplish this goal, the key for Hackett is patience.

Hackett has tended to get away from heavy personnel packages when the Jets are trailing, instead favoring to spam 11 personnel as he tries to get back into the game. And since the Jets have spent so much time trailing, this is a big reason why the Jets have used so much 11 personnel despite their failures with the package.

With their outstanding defense, the Jets do not need to rush to get back into games. They can methodically work their way back into games using the healthy run/pass/play-action mix that becomes possible when you rely on packages with two tight ends and/or a fullback.

But when you over-rely on 11 personnel, it often causes you to become too pass-heavy, making the offense highly predictable. That’s a problem for any football team, but it’s an especially crushing problem for a team that only has one reliable wide receiver.

You can overcome predictability when you have an abundance of sheer talent at wide receiver – i.e. a deep unit that is so skilled it can make plays even when the defense knows a pass is coming. The Jets do not have that. So, when the Jets run 11 personnel while trailing, they are a predictable team with two subpar wide receivers who cannot get open and one great wide receiver who is constantly doubled. That’s a recipe for disaster in any game, let alone on the road against a division rival that excels at stopping 11 personnel.

Hackett finally showed some positive signs against the Texans. The challenge is to build upon that and avoid reverting to his old ways. One solid game means nothing when it is preceded by 12 games of historically poor production.

If Hackett cannot come through with an optimal personnel package plan in this game of all games – a matchup where it is incredibly obvious what the Jets should do to maximize their chances of success – then it would fully erase the good vibes of the Houston game.

Keep the 11 personnel as low as you can. Ride your 12 personnel and 21 personnel. It’s that simple. Do that, and the Jets will get the best version of Zach Wilson against the worst version of the Miami Dolphins’ defense.

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6 months ago

Great offensive plan, as usual. I hope they listen to you this time!

Btw, you might want to edit this from the 4th paragraph:

Hackett vastly decreased the usage of 11 personnel (1 RB/1 WR/3 TE)