The New York Jets are 0-8 for a reason. While their defense is a bottom-third unit in the league with particular weaknesses against the pass, the offense is operating on an entirely different plane of bad play. The statistics themselves do the unit, that is coordinated by head coach Adam Gase, only some justice.
Entering their Week 9 matchup against the New England Patriots, the Jets are ranked 32nd in scoring offense (10.9 points/game), first downs (129), yards per drive (23.5) and points per drive (1.00). They are only marginally better when it comes to plays per possession (5.73; 28th) and time per series (2:29; 29th). New York is also not faring much better in advanced metrics such as DVOA (-31.5%; 32nd), EPA (-0.199; 32nd) and success rate (38.7%; 32nd).
If there is one positive, it is the team’s ability to take care of the football: New York’s nine giveaways are ranked eighth in the league. And yet, the team’s punter — Braden Mann — leads the NFL with 44 kicks in eight games so far. The long story can therefore be broken down rather easily: the Jets are a bad offensive team.
According, the Patriots’ defense should be able to win its fair share of matchups even without starters Lawrence Guy, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Stephon Gilmore (let alone all the offseason departures and Covid-19 opt-outs). So with that out of the way, let’s find out how New England will be able to make life hard for Gase’s unit.
Force passes into tight windows
The Patriots knows what it feels like to lose a starting quarterback. After Tom Brady left the organization in free agency earlier this year, it also had to see his replacement, Cam Newton, sit out a game after testing positive for the Coronavirus. Newton had to be replaced by veteran backup Brian Hoyer (and later Jarrett Stidham) during that one game.
The Jets are in a similar position this week, albeit for different reasons. Sam Darnold is expected to be declared inactive because of a right shoulder injury that has bothered him for quite some time now and also forced him to miss the entire week of practice. In his place, New York’s own version of Brian Hoyer will line up under center for the team: long-time Baltimore Ravens QB and former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco.
New England is quite familiar with Flacco, having gone up against him regularly in the late 2000s and early-to-mid 2010s. The Flacco of 2020 is similar to the player the Patriots have faced a combined nine times while he was with the Ravens, but the years have not made him better and there is a reason he’s a backup: he’s no longer able to consistently deliver big plays and elevate the offense around him, despite all his experience.
One of his main issues since filling in for Darnold has been ball placement. While the sample size is small given that he started only two games entering this week, Flacco’s ranking among quarterbacks to attempt at least 75 passes this season tells of his struggles. He is ranked 37th of 38 such quarterbacks with an adjusted completion percentage of 65.7 percent. Only Mitchell Trubisky ’s 65.1 percent rank below the veteran. Cam Newton, for comparison is ranked 11th with a 78.2 completion rate.
The Patriots defense can take advantage of this by playing its usual brand of football down the field: tight man-to-man coverage that forces accurate passes in small windows. Even with the aforementioned Stephon Gilmore out, New England has enough depth in its secondary to play this kind of game and force Flacco into some difficult situations.
It would therefore not be a surprise to see plays like the following on Monday night:
The Miami Dolphins’ defense is structurally similar to New England’s, given that head coach Brian Flores spent the first 11 years of his career with the Patriots, and it too presented plenty of man looks when it faced the Jets in Week 6. Flacco’s stat-line was underwhelming that day: he completed just 21 of 44 pass attempts for 186 yards and the interception illustrated above.
That pick saw Miami align six defenders on the line of scrimmage, with linebackers Jerome Baker (#55) and Sam Eguavoen (#49) standing up over the B-gaps. The defense eventually did end up rushing six players after tight end Chris Herndon (#89) stayed in to block, but Miami actually did a good job keeping the pressure away from Flacco. He still decided to slide towards his blindside, however, which in turn forced him to rush through his mechanics a bit leading to an inaccurate pass.
While such throws do happen, they can be critical when the defense is playing tight coverage — something Miami did on this third down. Xavien Howard (#25) was trailing Vyncint Smith (#17) but still created a low-percentage situation for a quarterback who hasn’t been able to consistently place the ball where it needed to be. This play was no exception, and Howard was able to undercut Smith to take away the ball.
New England will likely try to make life similarly difficult for Flacco by using its own man-to-man prowess against a Jets receiving corps that lacks consistent threats outside of Jamison Crowder and Braxton Berrios. The former will likely be taken on by J.C. Jackson, though, who has proven himself capable of holding his ground against an opposing number one; the latter will face Jonathan Jones, who is one of the best slot cornerbacks in football.
Flood the underneath zones
When looking closer at Joe Flacco and the football he has been playing so far this season, one thing stands out: the 35-year-old has struggled mightily when attacking the deep parts of the field and is a lot more successful going to the short and intermediate areas. Just take a look at the following breakdown, courtesy of Sharp Football Stats, to see how he has fared on passes that have traveled more of fewer than 15 yards through the air:
Joe Flacco passing statistics: Throw type
|Deep (15+ air yards)||14||1||52||0||0||42.6|
|Short (0-14 air yards)||58||40||345||1||1||82.9|
As can be seen, Flacco is a lot more effective when targeting the short areas of the field rather than going deep — something he did quite a bit while still starting in Baltimore. This in combination with the Patriots’ strong defensive backfield will likely mean that he and the Jets will try to move the ball through the air by attacking the underneath zones.
Needless to say, that New England will have to put an emphasis on preventing this plan from turning into a reality. How could the team do it?
Disguising the defensive intentions could be one way to make Flacco hesitate before pulling the trigger, while flooding the underneath zones by having off-the-ball linebackers Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings regularly drop back to join “star” safety Adrian Phillips in coverage might also be an approach worth trying. The Patriots could also go with their standard defensive-back-heavy set, of course, to create a numbers advantage.
That third plan, however, could open up opportunities for New York’s ground game against a run defense that is missing its best player — defensive tackle Lawrence Guy — and has struggled even when he was available. The Patriots might therefore opt to go with more zone defense to make up for this against the Jets’ rushing attack.
That said, the best plan might still be to play plenty of man-to-man defense on the outside with zone underneath and plenty of Cover 0 looks and disguised blitzes mixed in as well. Flacco will not be able to repeatedly target the short parts of the field if he is unable to identify where the openings will develop.
Be ready for outside zone runs
Even with Joe Flacco under center instead of Sam Darnold, the Jets have more passing than running attempts on their résumé this season. However, the numbers are skewed a bit considering that the team fell behind quite a bit in both of the games he started. In total, the team is still among the most conservative in the league, passing on early downs on four percent below expectation based on game situation.
Add the Patriots’ aforementioned struggles at stopping the run, and it would not be a surprise to see New York put an emphasis on establishing a presence on the ground early on on Monday night. Adam Gase’s team could try to do that by attacking New England’s biggest Achilles heel on the defensive side of the ball: stopping outside zone runs. The Patriots are dead-last in the NFL in yards gained per outside zone rushing attempts (5.8).
Before digging deeper, though, a quick reminder. Outside zone is a running scheme that asks the offensive line to focus on moving into pre-defined spaces rather than taking on opposing defenders one-on-one or two-on-one. The linemen are often moving in unison towards the sidelines, while the ball carriers are asked to either bounce around them to the outside or either cut up the field or across the formation to the other side.
This play from the Jets’ game against the Kansas City Chiefs is a good example of such a zone run:
New York has blocked this 7-yard run by veteran Frank Gore (#21) very well, especially on the front side of the play. Outstanding first-round rookie Mekhi Becton (#77) is quick out of his stance at left tackle to take on Chiefs edge defender Frank Clark (#55) and move him off the ball. Left guard Alex Lewis (#71), meanwhile, crashes down on Clark as well to deliver the pancake block before quickly turning up the field and on to the second level.
The line is doing a mighty fine job setting up the blocks up front, while Gore reads them well to follow right guard Greg Van Roten (#62) to gain additional yardage. All in all, this is an impressively executed play — and one that could give the Patriots some problems on Monday given their undersized front and inability to hold firm on the edge this season.
What could the Patriots therefore try to do?
They could opt to go with a 6-1 front that they used in Super Bowl 53 against the Los Angeles Rams’ outside zone offense. However, the San Francisco 49ers were able to get the better of this alignment by simply moving the edge farther towards the boundary and winning with short dump-off passes on top of their stretch runs. Going back to the 6-1 could do the trick against a less-talented opponent like the Jets, but missing Ja’Whaun Bentley as the only experienced off-the-ball linebacker would certainly weaken the alignment.
As a result, the Patriots might try to play a more traditional 5-2 front with Phillips as well as either Uche and Jennings playing the off-the-ball roles. That front might look as follows:
Defensive line: SLB John Simon — E Deatrich Wise Jr. — NT Byron Cowart — E Adam Butler — WLB Chase Winovich
Off-the-ball: SS Adrian Phillips — MLB Josh Uche
Secondary: CB J.C. Jackson — SCB Jonathan Jones — FS Devin McCourty — CB Jason McCourty
While this alignment would get New England’s best available players on the field regardless of situation, it still would have plenty of questions attached. Is the front too light with Cowart at the nose, or should the stouter Carl Davis make his debut as a Patriot? Will Chase Winovich be given a chance again instead of Shilique Calhoun or other edge options? How ready will Uche and Jennings be for an increased role?
The answers to those questions could very well decide the Patriots’ fortunes against the Jets’ running game, and whether or not an alignment like the one outlined above will be a realistic option to begin with. No matter what the team opts to do, the fact remains that its run defense is the biggest question mark especially when the opponent relies on zone blocking to move players off the ball.