Discover more from Steve’s Newsletter
Three Suggestions For A Post-Rodgers Jets Plan B
Now that we’ve had a couple of days to digest the season-ending loss of Jets Hall of Fame-bound quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a torn Achilles, it’s time to figure out how Gang Green can remain competitive during their most grueling portion of their 2023 schedule.
(By the way, this idea that New York’s post bye week slate, starting with a Week 8 rivalry battle with the Giants, “eases” is quite misleading. Sure, the scariest games against the biggest Super Bowl contenders will be done, but there’s also a revenge match in Buffalo, two against Miami, and contests versus the Chargers and Browns. Of course a healthy Jets squad playing stout defense can beat some of those opponents, but I wouldn’t exactly call them cupcakes.)
The positivity from New York’s exhilarating 22-16 overtime victory over the Bills on Monday in the season opener will not have a long shelf life if the Jets go to Dallas on Sunday and look overmatched. And make no mistake, the Cowboys, as they showed during their Week 1 40-0 thrashing of the Giants, can make you look like a JV team with their intense pass rush and ball-hawking secondary.
On paper, the nine-point spread seems low given that Jets QB2 Zach Wilson might be running for his life all day with the way his offensive line pass blocks. It could easily get ugly. However, the Bills, had their quarterback Josh Allen not gifted New York with four turnovers, might have also turned Monday night’s contest into a one-sided affair, only that’s the beauty of the NFL. The Jets found a way.
So, how can New York not only hang with Dallas, but also with upcoming opponents like Kansas City and Philadelphia, last season’s Super Bowl combatants? Here are some suggestions:
1) Zach trusting Garrett
Wilson got the “W” on Monday, but his performance shouldn’t have inspired a whole lot of confidence. Remember, he owned perhaps the worst metrics of any QB over his first two seasons and one game with 140 yards passing with an interception and two sacks taken shouldn’t alter perceptions.
Want to know why Wilson has always fared better against zone defenses as opposed to man-to-man coverages (about 20 points higher in passer rating and 2.5 more yards per attempt last season, according to Jets X Factor)? As my frustrated friend Stu often reminds me, Wilson seems reluctant to “throws guys open.” Whether it’s because he’s not seeing the field instinctively or he’s afraid of throwing picks, he seems to prefer waiting until his target sits in an open spot before delivering the ball. Unfortunately, if Wilson holds it until he’s sure his receiver is breaking free of quick defenders like Cowboys cornerbacks Trevon Diggs or Stephon Gilmore, it’s most likely too late.
Simple fix: When Wilson processes off the snap that wide receiver Garrett Wilson will be facing single coverage, the ball should be going his way. Automatic sight adjustment. He then shouldn’t care how tight the window appears. Throw it in an area where only his guy can get it and good things will happen more often than not. The reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year is that spectacular. Monday’s three-yard touchdown connection came on a pass that wasn’t exactly on the money—Garrett Wilson had to reach across the defender like a cornerback, tip the ball in the air, and then somehow corral it as he hit the turf.
By now, Zach Wilson has to have a high level of trust that Garrett Wilson will win his route against a single cornerback and that he can make plays on balls accurately thrown in his catch radius. Getting the ball out those fractions of a second quicker could also mean the difference between a negative versus an explosive play.
Five targets to Garrett Wilson on Monday? To borrow the colloquialism of the times, SMH. He should be getting double that every week going forward.
2) Run with Ruckert
New York’s 172 rushing yards against the Bills is a bit specious, as two Breece Hall scampers accounted for 109 of those yards. The other 21 rushing attempts by Hall and Dalvin Cook (not counting Michael Carter’s six-yard run on a third-down give-up play call) netted 51 yards, or 2.4 yards per carry.
Like with their pass protection (the second-worst pressure percentage allowed in Week 1 after the Giants, per ProFootballFocus.com), New York’s run blocking was inconsistent against Buffalo. Per PFF, the Bills were credited with 14 “run stops”, including six tackles for a loss, on 25 rush attempts.
There was one Jet who outshone his fellow run blockers, according to PFF’s grading system: Third-string tight end Jeremy Ruckert, who was on the field for 15 of those runs. Per ESPN’s Rich Cimini, the Jets gained 115 yards on 10 carries using “13” personnel, which means one receiver, one back, and all three tight ends. Of course, take out Hall’s 86-yard dash in the second quarter and the resulting 29 yards on 9 carries looks far less impressive.
However, just like Ruckert didn’t cause the cave-in on the left side of the Bills’ line that sprung Hall (his takeout of safety Micah Hyde did enable Hall to break free into open space), he wasn’t responsible for all the runs that got stuffed. When his tape is reviewed, it will certainly be evaluated highly, like his performance in the 2022 season finale in Miami.
In his limited use, Ruckert hasn’t been involved much in New York’s passing game, with one catch for eight yards last season and only three route-running snaps on Monday night. But it’s not like TE2 C.J. Uzomah has been a real threat either—after a mere 21 receptions last season he wasn’t even targeted once against the Bills in 11 opportunities. If he didn’t have such a large dead money salary cap hit, which could now be spread over five years thanks to an offseason restructure, he probably would have been released after such a disappointing season.
If Gang Green’s plan is to get back to ground-and-pound with a second tight end beside Tyler Conklin, they’d be better off running behind Ruckert, preferably on the right side where Mekhi Becton and Alijah Vera-Tucker are superior road graders than the Duane Brown/Laken Tomlinson left tackle/guard duo.
3) Use all four downs
I couldn’t believe ESPN analyst Troy Aikman questioned Jets Head Coach Robert Saleh’s decision to go for a fourth-and-1 with 2:50 remaining in Monday’s fourth quarter. Wilson easily converted the sneak, which I understand is about 95% successful, to extend their drive to the go-ahead field goal.
In this case, it was Aikman, not the defensive-oriented Saleh, who was guilty of old-school thinking. The last thing the Jets should desire, even with what they believe is a top-5 defense, is to give the ball back to elite quarterbacks prematurely. Using all four downs is one way to keep it away from them.
I’m well aware that not all fourth downs are created equal. A 4th-and-12 from your own 22 will yield a different percentage outcome than a 4th-and-2 from plus territory. Time and score are also factors, with coaches more likely to say, “The hell with it” if they’re down big late in a game than if it were a one-score contest. However, each team maintains their own analysis of expected win percentages on fourth down decisions during any situation in their football operations department. Those should be used as game management tools more often than a coach’s “gut.”
I was kind of surprised that according to a chart prepared by the33rdteam.com, Saleh ranked 12th among NFL coaches over the past season plus one week in win probability added from fourth down decisions. Hopefully, he won’t use Rodgers’ injury as a crutch to “play not to lose.”
Bonus obvious key: Win the turnover battles
I wrote at length about this in advance of the opener ((1) To Rise To Elite Company, Jets D Must Force More Turnovers (substack.com)) and it was perhaps the most prescient post I’ve submitted on this forum.
Not that the prior post was anything deeply analytical, but the point now is that this offense is no longer built to sustain long drives. With Wilson and other quarterback dreck, they ranked 25th last season in plays per drive and 29th in points per drive, per pro-football-refereence.com. It didn’t get any better on Monday night, with New York averaging 5.1 plays (27th) and 1.45 points (22nd) per drive against the Bills.
Forcing turnovers helped the Jets flip the field on certain key possessions to ignite the comeback from a 13-3 halftime deficit. On the flip side, Wilson threw one awful interception that the Bills converted into a field goal at the end of the first half, but New York kept it clean thereafter.
It will be interesting to see if future opponents run safer offenses early in games, banking on their defenses to hold the Wilson-led Jets in check and make these contests more of a field position game. I find it hard to believe that Cowboys QB Dak Prescott will be slinging the ball all over the place on Sunday as recklessly as what we just saw from Allen.
Then again, I could be due to be wrong.
Prediction: Cowboys 23 Jets 3