A look at the subtle offensive changes Rex Ryan and his staff made during the bye week.
Scott Salmon posted a nice article suggesting Rex Ryan should be given credit for keeping the Jets in the playoff hunt despite the setbacks the Jets have suffered and the overall level of talent, or lack thereof, on this team. In this article I'm going to follow up on Scott's excellent work with a look at a few of the subtle changes Rex and his coaching staff have made since the bye week that have benefited Mark Sanchez and the Jets offense.
Taking a Pass on the Passer
The first and most obvious decision Rex made was to take the ball out of Mark Sanchez' hands. As much as Rex is criticized here and elsewhere for his stubbornness in sticking with Mark Sanchez at QB, in fact the statistics suggest that since the bye week Rex has essentially given up on Mark as a positive force for the offense. A look at the numbers tells the story. Before the bye week Sanchez played 8 games and threw 272 passes, an average of 34 passes per game, close to the league average of 35 passes per game. After the bye week Sanchez has thrown 118 passes in 5 games, an average of 23.6 passes per game. That is 10+ passes per game less than before the bye. It is also the lowest figure in the NFL.
Now you might think part of the difference may be attributed to the blowouts the Jets suffered before the bye week which required more passing. But that is in fact probably little, if any, part of the explanation for the change in offensive philosophy. The Jets have suffered 5 losses this year of more than 6 points. 3 of those came in the first 8 games, representing 37.5% of those games, and 2 came in the last 5 games, representing 40% of those games. So based solely on the blowout loss factor you would expect there to be little difference in passing numbers between pre bye and post bye numbers. Well, what about the blowout wins? There you would expect more running, right? Well, the Jets had 2 blowout wins in the first 8 games (25%) and 1 blowout win the last 5 games (20%). So again, you would expect little change in passing numbers based on those game results.
Based on the above analysis, it seems clear that Rex and the coaching staff made a conscious decision after the bye to take the ball out of Sanchez' hands. Even in the blowout NE loss, when you would expect the Jets to put up 45-50 passes since every down after halftime was a passing down, the Jets still only passed the ball 36 times while running it 29 times, an incredible ratio given the circumstances. For Jets fans who believe Sanchez is shot, Rex apparently has come to the same conclusion. He starts because he is paid big bucks to start, and because the alternatives, while maybe a little better, are unlikely to make much of a difference this year. But make no mistake, the Jets coaching staff knows Sanchez is cooked, and have made the necessary adjustments. It is unlikely we will see another game this year in which Sanchez exceeds 25 pass attempts, and unless the Jets are being blown out, it will likely be more like 20 or so per game, just enough to keep the defense from completely selling out on the run.
Going Against The Greene
With decreased passing comes increased running. But Rex has gone beyond just running the ball more. He has also given increasing opportunities to Bilal Powell, who has been a more effective runner than Shonn Geene this year. Before the bye week Greene had 139 carries for 509 yards, 3.7 YPC, an average of 17.4 carries per game. Bilal Powell before the bye had 34 carries for 131 yards, 3.9 YPC, an average of 4.3 carries per game. While the difference was not large, Powell had been the more effective runner. Since the bye, Greene has 91 carries for 374 yards, 4.1 YPC, an average of 18.2 carries per game, while Powell has 45 carries for 225 yards, 5.0 YPC, an average of 11.2 carries per game. Powell has clearly been the more effective runner, and Rex has responded by feeding him the ball, to the point where last week Powell led the Jets in rushing for the first time in his career. The Jets have averaged 8.9 additional carries per game since the bye, and nearly all those additional carries have gone to the more effective runner, Powell. Subtle, but again, Rex has made the right adjustment after the bye.
The swing pass has been the bane of Mark Sanchez' existence. The little 5 yard dump off to the back has proven surprisingly difficult for Sanchez. It requires touch, lifting it over the reach of onrushing defensive linemen while keeping it from sailing over the back's reach. It requires leading the back and hitting him on the run, something Sanchez struggles mightily with. For whatever reason, this, seemingly the simplest of passes, has become a disaster waiting to happen for Mark. Batted down passes, interceptions, passes into the turf, passes overthrown by 10 yards - Sanchez simply could not execute this play. Yet it was a regular staple of the Jets' passing game... until the bye. Prior to the bye, the Jets targeted Greene and Powell 37 times, 4.6 per game, and 13.6% of passes thrown. After the bye, Greene and Powell have been targeted only 10 times, 2.0 times per game and only 8.5% of passes thrown. Better still, over the last 2 games, the Jets have only thrown 1 pass to the backs. Even as the Jets have moved to a more conservative game plan, they have largely eliminated the passes to the backs. It is counterintuitive for a more conservative passing game, yet for Sanchez, it is absolutely the right adjustment to make. Again, credit must be given to Rex for making the correct adjustment. It certainly took too long, but better late than never, and the Jets finally seem to be fully aware of Sanchez' biggest weakness. It's a small step forward, but it represents real growth in the coaching staff.
Look Ma, No Hands!
We have all seen Shonn Greene and his hands of stone. There is no skill player on this team not named Hill who is anywhere close to Greene when it comes to ineptness at catching the ball, yet the Jets stubbornly continued to feed him a steady diet of passes. No more. Before the bye, Greene was targeted 20 times, an average of 2.5 targets per game. Since the bye, Greene has been targeted 3 times, an average of 0.6 targets per game, including 3 out of 5 games where he wasn't targeted at all. Again, small but real progress. Since the bye Rex and staff finally recognized how futile passing to Shonn Greene was, and they made the proper adjustment.
Put it all together and it adds up to progress. For all that has been said and written about the stubbornness of the offensive coaches and the failure to make proper adjusments, in fact since the bye Rex and Co. seem to have made a series of subtle moves to improve the performance of the offense and put the Jets in the best situations for a modicum of success. These adjustments have not resulted in much in terms of scoring, largely due to the increasingly unsettled play of Sanchez, but they were the right moves to make, and should pay dividends over time. The last and most important step is the most difficult, and Rex may never pull the trigger, but his willingness and ability to make these necessary adjustments gives me at least some hope he will eventually do the right thing for this team and make the most important adjustment of all: pull the plug on Sanchez. Until then, I think we can at least be left with a glimmer of hope that this coaching staff is aware of the unique challenges this putrid offense presents and is taking many of the right corrective measures to squeeze the most out of a very limited cast of offensive talent.