In this week's BGA, I'm going to do something I promised to do once the season was over. You may recall me writing this after the loss to the Seahawks:
[The Jets are] an easy team to beat right now. I’m just an amateur, but I could give any team a list of things to do against this Jets team that will be successful most of the time and will probably net you enough big plays to be the difference in the game. I’d also note that this was not the case over the past few years, where it was different things every week that would let the Jets down. While I’m not going to list those things here, because I don’t feel comfortable with putting up a blueprint of how to beat the Jets, it probably doesn’t matter because every team the Jets seem to face has done its preparation and identified these things for themselves. This enables them to exploit some very obvious weaknesses in the Jets line-up [...] Needless to say, when the Jets do the same things to their opponents, they never have quite the same level of success.
Now that the season is over and I would imagine the Jets would be addressing these weaknesses, I feel comfortable laying out my blueprint for how to beat the 2012 Jets. Obviously no gameplan is 100% certain to give you a win, but I'll be suggesting things that usually worked and outlining the reasons why. Any team that did these things had a good chance of making some game changing plays happen and, generally speaking, every team that beat the Jets did some damage by doing some of these things.
After the jump, I'll be looking at some specific areas where the Jets were consistently vulnerable and providing examples of situations where teams exploited this.
This represents a bit of a departure from my usual M.O., since I like to base everything on a comprehensive review of every single snap. Here, I'm talking in more general terms about things I noticed that seemed to cause problems for the Jets on a consistent basis. However, I'm going to try to go beyond the obvious things like "Put Sanchez under pressure because he has bad numbers when pressured" or "Stack the box and try and make them beat you downfield because the receivers can't get deep separation" to look for specific frailties in the Jets schemes or any exploitable weaknesses in their personnel.
I'll break down a couple of different areas to discuss what teams did, why it worked and why the Jets weren't able to enjoy similar success by doing the same things. I'll also try to provide some examples of each.
Although the Jets are regarded as a team with limited offensive firepower, there's no need to try and get in a shootout with them. While you'd think that racking up points would be a smart idea - because there's no way their offense will be able to keep up - you're actually better off in a low-scoring game. Remember this stat from the BGA after the Arizona game?
On this day three years ago, the Jets beat Buffalo 19-13 in another game Mark Sanchez was unable to finish (this time due to injury). Since that time, they were 0-18 in regular season games when they scored 21 points or less…until yesterday’s win.
Why is that? What it seemed to boil down to is that the Jets relied on teams turning the ball over to give themselves excellent field position and create defensive scores. If a team plays conservatively against the Jets, there's not much risk of the Jets offense being good enough to pull themselves into a sizable lead and - as we'll see when I get into some specifics lower down - the team is apt to costly breakdowns that can be the difference between winning and losing in a close game or can turn a tight game into a blowout. Getting into a higher-scoring game with the Jets can be risky because those seem to be the only times that the offense gets into a rhythm.
You can point to several blowout losses the Jets had this year as evidence to the contrary, but most of these were actually pretty close until pretty late in the game, only to turn into blowouts later on, usually thanks in part to some of the issues I'll be discussing. The Steelers game was a 17-point loss but the Jets led late in the first half and were obviously still in the game for most of the second half. The Niners beat them 34-0, but it was only 7-0 until a last second field goal just before the half. The 28-7 loss to the Seahawks and 28-9 loss to the Bills were 14-7 and 14-9 entering the fourth quarter. My advice to any teams wanting to beat last year's Jets would have been simple: Remain patient. Keep the game close and it's likely someone will make a big mistake at a key moment. Don't give them any traction and once they're chasing from behind, you have them where you want them.
Defending the Pass
Stopping the Jets' pass offense from being successful generally comes down to all the things you would expect. Pressuring Sanchez, taking away his primary options in key situations and either sitting on all short-intermediate routes or flooding intermediate zones with players to try and compel him to beat you downfield are all things you'd expect to slow down the Jets aerial attack. Sure enough, these were all things teams did and had success with. How do you achieve these things though?
In some respects, slowing down the pass offense was a secondary goal for defenses. If you're looking for a game changing play to test the Jets' fragile psyche, one surefire way to give yourselves a good chance of beating them is to force turnovers. Entering 2012, the Jets were 29-11 when Sanchez threw one interception or less, but 2-11 when he threw two or more. Surprisingly, in 2012, he only threw two or more four times and the Jets actually won two of those games. However, he also had a slew of costly fumbles and when he does throw interceptions, they often prevent the Jets from converting a scoring opportunity or create one for the opposition, so it's definitely beneficial to try and tempt him into bad throws.
When looking at the kinds of mistakes Sanchez made that led to interceptions, there were some ill-advised short passes, a few tipped balls and some picks caused by poor accuracy. There were even a few that weren't really his fault. However, the one recurring mistake that he seemed to make was that he stared down his target and didn't see another defender coming across to jump the route having left their man. The most egregious of these was probably this play.
This is something Sanchez has struggled with for a while. Even at the start of the 2011 season, one of his most consistent stretches as a pro, he had two interceptions similar to this in a win over Jacksonville (in what was otherwise one of his more accomplished and confident performances) and it was a pattern that kept repeating itself over the next two years.
For teams to exploit this, it could be as simple as just having someone roaming deep - as Griffin was on the play linked above - ready to jump the route as soon as Sanchez starts staring down his primary read. However, teams have also been able to exploit this deficiency in the past by setting traps. Rolling coverage over so that a defender can come off his man, especially when Sanchez has a few obvious favorite routes (like the quick slant) that he likes to go to in certain situations, has been something that led to a lot of interceptions and near misses last year (and in 2011). Also, dropping a linebacker or even a lineman back into a passing lane has been something that can confuse him into a mistake (if he sees them) or lead to a tip or interception (if he doesn't).
My advice to teams facing the 2012 Jets would have been to set traps like this. Have your centerfielder roaming deep, drop front seven players into passing lanes and roll coverages every now and again. Based on last season, Sanchez would not be able to exploit any gaps this creates and the chances are that you'll force him into a mistake or two which could be the difference in a tight game.
The final question is why don't the Jets have success doing the same thing? They do from time to time and their defense certainly mixes up coverages as effectively as anyone in the league. Most quarterbacks see the field better than Sanchez does in such situations or are better at looking off defenders or freezing them with a pump-fake though. Also, if teams are playing conservatively based on the above advice then that makes it less likely that they'll throw one away. Even when they did, the Jets 2012 offense was not generally that good at capitalizing.
Another key element to the creation of turnovers, but one which also will invariably help to slow down the passing attack is the creation of pressure. On a day when Sanchez manages to limit the number of risky throws he makes, the chances are you could still benefit from a turnover if you manage to sack him. Alternatively, putting him under pressure increases the chance of a bad throw. You can't guarantee you're always going to create pressure though - and would want to avoid exposing yourself to unnecessary risk in terms of giving up big plays or allowing Sanchez to get into a rhythm - so what's the recommended approach?
Sending a bunch of guys is always a risky approach, even with a guy like Sanchez at quarterback who isn't great at hitting people in stride. However, if you just rely on four pass rushers and hoping one of them beats their man, the Jets' offensive line is usually good enough to handle that. That's what the Bills found in Week 1. They failed to sack Sanchez and only created six total pressures. In Week 17, they changed their approach - probably based on what they'd seen over the previous few weeks - and generated 14 total pressures with one key strip-sack.
Their approach was not necessarily to blitz more guys - they blitzed nine times in Week 17, only three more than in the opener - it was just to be smarter about how they sent the pressure. If you get creative with your pass rush - throw in a few stunts and so on - then even if the linemen handle that, it usually makes for less of a clean pocket which can cause a quarterback like Sanchez to rush his throw, run himself into trouble or lose his sightlines. The Bills had good success with this in the last game of the season and it made a big difference to Sanchez's performance against a team he had his best game of the year against four months earlier.
As an example of how a strategy like this can lead to a game changing play, we turn to the 49ers game in Week 4. The Jets trailed just 7-0 midway through the first quarter and had a third and one in 49ers territory. Had they converted, who knows how differently the game (34-0 final) would have turned out?
The 49ers lined themselves up like this:
Ray McDonald (#91) drove hard upfield and Ahmad Brooks (#55) stunted underneath him to sack Sanchez and force another Jets punt. The Niners also created plenty of pressure doing the same thing throughout the day.
Again, a creative pass rushing approach wasn't necessarily something which only worked against the Jets in 2012. Teams like the Cowboys and Ravens really rattled Sanchez in 2011 by doing similar things. It's something which the Jets do have some success with, but many teams - including the Bills - tend to see it coming and get rid of the ball to prevent it from leading to any pressure. Since the pass rusher isn't taking a direct route to the quarterback, these blitzes take slightly longer to develop so if your quarterback is decisive, he should still be able to get rid of the ball even as his linemen are on their heels. The reason this was so much more effective against Sanchez at the tail end of last season was because his decisiveness really deserted him and he brought a lot of pressure on himself by being hesitant. Also, even when he did get rid of the ball quickly, his accuracy often let him down and he rarely hit receivers in stride so they could punish the defense and dissuade them from continuing with that approach.
It wasn't just Sanchez that struggled with these situations though. Greg McElroy also showed an alarming lack of poise and an inability to get rid of the ball in his start against the Chargers. He was sacked 11 times and four of these (including three of the first four) came as a direct result of somebody stunting. In McElroy's defense, he was concussed early on in the game which may have slowed down his thought process in the pocket. Also, he may have been specifically told that he should take a sack rather than make a risky throw under pressure. In addition, he hadn't really worked with the first unit. With that said, he did seem to be running for his life a lot in preseason over the past few years too, so I would suggest that he isn't fully developed in terms of having NFL-ready ability to stand comfortably in the pocket and make quick decisions.
In that 11-sack game, the Chargers didn't get their second sack until halfway through the second quarter. It came as a result of a stunt as shown below. The Chargers set up like this:
Jarret Johnson (#96) stunts from the outside to the middle. While Austin Howard and Brandon Moore get themselves in position to deal with this, they both lose inside leverage and Moore is on his heels. He ends up being driven backwards into McElroy by Kendall Reyes (#91). The situation isn't helped by the fact that a defensive back is coming off the edge unblocked, while the back who perhaps should have been directed to stay in, has gone the other way. (We'll revisit that scenario lower down).
On the very next play, the Chargers obviously realized they were onto something. They set up like this:
This time the stunt came from the opposite side and Melvin Ingram (#54) has a clean shot at McElroy because D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Matt Slauson are both blocking the same guy. To his credit, McElroy escaped the rush and got back to the line of scrimmage where he was tackled for no gain (which goes down as a zero-yard sack officially).
You don't need to be that creative all the time, just do it enough times and you're likely to reap the benefits. Sometimes, you can generate pressure simply by sending an extra rusher off the edge. As seen in the example above, this can often lead to a clean shot at the quarterback.
Here's another example. On this play, Richard Sherman comes unblocked off the edge. Maybe this is Sanchez's fault for not directing the back (Lex Hilliard) to get out there and block him or getting rid of it to a hot receiver. Maybe it's Hilliard's fault and he heard the call or read the play wrongly. Maybe one of the receivers should have gone "hot" and didn't, thereby leaving Sanchez exposed. I don't know for certain and it doesn't matter. What does matter is that this is another pattern which kept repeating itself and teams were comfortable to send a guy off the edge because Sanchez wasn't ever able to punish them effectively enough.
The good thing about doing this is that you can mix it up with one of our earlier strategies and drop a linemen or linebacker into coverage at the same time, so you're still only sending four and the rush is less risky.
Again, the Jets do this too, but other quarterbacks tend to be better than Sanchez was last year at getting rid of quick passes to mitigate pressure. It also doesn't help when you don't have great speed at linebacker, which can prevent the coverage underneath such a blitz from being air-tight.
Passing the Ball
So far, the blueprint seems to be to keep the game close and rely on the Jets to turn the ball over or at least struggle to move the chains on offense. However, in 2012 (and this wasn't the case in 2011) one area where you could usually outperform the Jets was in terms of converting scoring opportunities. Take the last game of the year as an example. The Jets had to settle for four field goals (missing one), whereas the Bills got in the endzone four times. Despite being outgained by just two yards, that translates to a 19-point loss in what otherwise would have been a close game.
My advice to teams down near the goal line would therefore be to throw the ball. We know from a previous BGA that the Jets' goal line defense is pretty good. However, down in the red zone, they can be prone to coverage breakdowns.
Coverage breakdowns are again not something that were unique to the 2012 season. Brodney Pool made some bad mistakes in 2011 and 2010. Even the 2009 defense wasn't immune as Kerry Rhodes and James Ihedigbo both had costly blown coverages. However, these types of play - where a receiver is all alone in the end zone - are like free points to an NFL-caliber player and there were enough of them that I think it would be worthwhile to set up a play looking for an easy option, while still having the option to throw into a tight window or scramble for the line if the defense doesn't flinch.
The issue seems to come from defensive players being unaware whether they have a man or zone assignment. Let's look at some examples:
On this play, the Rams send three guys to the outside and then have one break back to the back of the end zone. Three defenders all follow to the outside, so clearly someone should either have been in man coverage on the receiver who got loose or someone should have stayed underneath in zone coverage. Without knowing the defensive set, I can't know who was at fault, but it doesn't really matter from the offense's perspective. What matters is that it happened and they exploited it.
On this play, Ellis Lankster is covering in the slot and when Wes Welker goes to the outside, he clearly passes him off to the man behind him. The only problem is that the man who would be behind him - Kyle Wilson - has followed another receiver to the inside. Clearly Lankster thought this was a zone coverage and Wilson thought it was a man. Again, you can't know who was at fault without knowing the defensive set, but the fact is that the easy scoring opportunity presented itself, so this is the kind of thing worth looking at doing for an offensive opponent.
Finally, this play is a well executed playfake. Rob Gronkowski runs a drag route and ends up outrunning Bart Scott and Calvin Pace to the outside for an easy catch. It looks like Scott is responsible for the zone over the middle and Pace - who starts off lined up opposite another tight end is responsible for the outside, but ends up taking a step to the inside and is unable to get his momentum going in the other direction in time. This isn't so much a blown coverage as a coverage where there was an easily exploitable weakness - Pace's lack of mobility and acceleration. It's similar though, because he ends up being a step late - just due to a physical deficiency rather than a mental error.
What these plays have in common and what they tell us about how to attack the Jets' pass defense is that offenses should use misdirection to create gaps in the Jets zones. Instead of attacking single coverage, where the Jets excel, you're better off running a clear-out route, bunching receivers or criss-crossing routes to try and cause confusion. Down there, if you cause enough hesitation to get one step of separation, most NFL quarterbacks can make that throw.
This isn't just effective in the red zone - consider my breakdown of the Antonio Gates touchdown which showed how well-crafted the play was in terms of pulling Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson away from where Gates was able to get open. Also, consider the Shane Vereen touchdown on Thanksgiving (which nobody wants to see again so I'm not going to link to it) where they drew the defense to the inside and then were able to get a long touchdown down the sideline.
(If I'm going to be snarky, I'd also add to my blueprint the suggestion to set as many illegal picks as possible because the Jets never seem to get that call).
I'd like to hope that the new offensive coordinator would be able to do a better job of designing plays so that opportunities like those that presented themselves in the examples above occur regularly for whoever is quarterbacking the Jets next year, but we'll have to see. As far as 2012 was concerned, Sanchez just wasn't as good in the red zone as he was in 2011, blowing opportunities like this one, for example. His accuracy and hesitancy continued to blight him all year.
Without any coverage breakdowns, it's not easy to attack the Jets. While Scott has a reputation for being exploited repeatedly in coverage, the reality simply doesn't bear this out, as he's only given up catches down the field on a couple of occasions in the last few years. Tom Brady famously picked on rookies Antonio Allen and Demario Davis in the Pats' come-from-behind overtime win earlier in the year and Isaiah Trufant went through a phase of being routinely picked on whenever he lined up on the outside, but generally your best bet is to take what the defense gives you.
As I said at the outset, there did seem to be a few distinct things which teams routinely saw success with during the 2012 season and I've discussed these above. You're not guaranteed to have success with these things all the time, but they generally weren't things the Jets were able to exploit, so it wasn't a big risk to try them - and often led to key plays that were the difference in any given contest.
Are these things a flawless way of achieving certain victory? Absolutely not - in fact, often when you spot a weakness in your opponent, you'll find that they've been working on it all week and when you try to exploit it, they've figured things out. (A good example of this is the Eagles game in 2011, where the Jets were facing a team that was notoriously bad against the screen pass, so they tried a bunch of screen passes and the Eagles had been well-drilled enough to blow them all up, en route to a huge win). However, these are things that the Jets never managed to figure out and by the end of the year it was apparent that if teams did these things, they were increasing their chances of winning.
A lot of the content in this article is opinion-based, moreso than in a usual BGA. You may have your own ideas about some of the things I suggested above or even other suggestions for things that always seemed to catch the Jets out. This is not the final word on this by any means, so feel free to pick holes in what I've written down in the comments.