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Jets new offensive system breakdown: Establishing the run

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New York Jets vs New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

In Part 1 of our series on the Jets’ new offensive system, we took a look at some of the principles of the run game Jeremy Bates is likely to install as the new offensive coordinator. Today we are going to look at how his offense is built philosophically to make life easier on the quarterback.

As I observe the NFL in this age of the passing game, I have noticed two distinct philosophies for making the quarterback’s job less difficult.

One is to build what I will refer to as a “Quarterback Friendly Offense” for lack of a better term. People use “Quarterback Friendly Offense” in a number of different contexts to describe offensive systems. It isn’t an official term so don’t be confused if you see another writer describe an offense this way without discussing anything I am about to mention. When I think about a Quarterback Friendly Offense, I think about systems that use formations, alignments, and personnel groupings that force the defense to give away parts of its play call before the snap. It makes the quarterback’s job easier.

The other is simply establishing the run. Doing that takes some of the pressure off the quarterback. A strong run game forces the quarterback to make less plays through the air to win. It can also force the defense to sell out against the run, opening up the passing game.

In today’s NFL, it is not a hard and fast choice between the Quarterback Friendly Offense and establishing the run. Every offense in the league tries to do a bit of both. In fact, there are many offensive play calls that force defenses to tip their hand with those formations, alignments, and personnel groupings while establishing the run.

It is simply a question of the ratios with which teams use these methods.

On the whole, the trends are moving in the direction of the Quarterback Friendly Offense. Mike Shanahan disciples like Bates, however, tend to show a steadier diet of run establishing tendencies than the league as a whole.

Shotgun usage

The prevalence of the forward pass has grown and grown in football for around a century, and it shows no signs of slowing down. As the rules change to favor the passing game more and more teams continue to build around it. As a result, the NFL has become a shotgun league.

When the quarterback lines up a few yards back, he gets more depth to be able to scan the defense’s alignment and pick out weak points.

When the quarterback is under center, he doesn’t get the same view presnap. He doesn’t have the same depth. He also has to look over big 300 pound linemen who are right next to him.

So why would a team ever think about putting a quarterback under center and obstruct his view of the field?

Sometimes what works for the passing game hurts the run game.

A run from the shotgun essentially forces the back to start from zero as he’s getting the ball. The quarterback is right next to him. The back has no momentum.

Meanwhile on running plays from under center, the back has a chance to build a head of steam before he receives the handoff and approach the defense with momentum as he first touches the football.

If your goal is to help the quarterback by establishing the run, it makes sense to run more plays from under center.

Again, Shanahan disciples tend to sacrifice the advantages of the shotgun to get the run game going. In 2016, the teams who most frequently ran offensive plays from under center were Atlanta and Denver. The Falcons’ offensive coordinator was Kyle Shanahan, Mike’s son. They ran 61% of their plays from the under center. The Broncos’ head coach was longtime Shanahan assistant Gary Kubiak. They ran 58% of their plays from under center. The league average was 37% of plays from under center. No other team ran more than 53% of its snaps from under center.

In 2017, Kyle Shanahan was off to San Francisco as head coach of the 49ers. His new team ran plays from under center 55% of the time, the fourth highest rate in the NFL and well ahead of the league average of 45%.

Source: Sharp Football Stats

Personnel and formations

If you are looking for an offensive model in recent Jets history that resembled the Quarterback Friendly System I laid out earlier in the post, you need only go back two to three years to Chan Gailey’s offense. Gailey loved loading the field with wide receivers and spreading the defense out.

With the formation stretched out, there isn’t anywhere for the defenders to hide. If it is man to man, everybody has to line up across from his man.

On this particular play, Bilal Powell being split wide also tips off the coverage as man to man.

Jamie Collins was split out across from Powell. Why would a linebacker be at that spot on the field unless he was covering a running back man to man? The formation leads to a dead giveaway.

But it also makes the pass rush easier to decipher. If Powell wasn’t split out wide, Collins would be in the box, and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick would have to consider the possibility Collins was blitzing.

By putting Powell wide, it takes Collins with him. There is one less potential blitzer, which is one less thing the quarterback has to figure out presnap.

Beyond the formation, the personnel grouping helps the quarterback figure things out. The Jets have four wide receivers on the field on this play. Let’s imagine you take one of the receivers off the field, and replace him with a tight end. The defense could play one less cornerback and replace him with a linebacker. You’d have the same effect as we discussed with Powell. There would be another potential blitzer the quarterback would have to account for and decipher at the line of scrimmage.

The personnel grouping and the formation give the quarterback one less thing to figure out.

This gave Fitzpatrick everything he needed to know before the snap. He had his receiver.

Once the receiver got inside the defensive back, Fitzpatrick knew there would be no help inside since it was man to man coverage.

If it was zone coverage, there would have been a defender the next zone over who could have been there to break up the pass.

But the presnap look gave away man coverage, and Fitzpatrick knew his man was open.

And spreading the field forced the defense to tip off zone coverage as well when not every receiver had a defender across from him. The quarterback could figure out which receiver would run the route that would give the zone the toughest time.

This offensive approach contributed to a very limited quarterback in Fitzpatrick having surprising stretches of success under Gailey in New York and Buffalo. Of course, eventually a lack of talent eventually catches up with anybody, and we all know it did with Fitzpatrick. An offensive philosophy such as this does take a lot of the heavy lifting off the plate of the quarterback, though, which paves the way for success.

During Gailey’s final season with the Jets, his offense had at least four receivers on the field on 38% of the team’s offensive snaps. The Jets had two or less receivers on the field on just 18% of their snaps.

An offense based on establishing the run does things the other way. Big guys like extra fullbacks and tight ends help block and make the run more effective. Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers in 2017 had the traditional two back, one tight end, two receiver set a league high 28% of the time, quadruple the league average of 7%.

His offense had four or more receivers on the field on just 19 snaps all season long. It was more about establishing the run.

Source: Sharp Football Stats

Play action

At this point, you might be wondering why the heck a team would even consider the establish the run approach over the Quarterback Friendly Offense approach. Why not let the quarterback sit in the shotgun and give him favorable personnel groupings and formations to help him figure out the defense?

There certainly isn’t anything wrong with that approach, but there are advantages to establishing the run. Namely, it forces the defense to commit to stopping the run. Once that happens, it leaves vulnerabilities the offense can exploit once it does start throwing. The offense can start exploiting play action in particular.

When the offense starts getting the run game going, the defense starts thinking about shutting down the run first. That opens up the play action game.

It can slow down the pass rush. Notice how many pass rushers on this play slide to the left of the picture on their first step. They are going to your left because that is the direction the run play would be flowing if the ball was handed off. Their first step was not at the quarterback to rush him.

It also opens up passing windows when defenders overcommit to stopping the run.

When you establish the run, the other team focuses on stopping the run. When the other team is playing to stop the run, it becomes vulnerable to the pass.

When executed correctly, these play action plays slow down the pass rushers and create big throwing lanes and simple reads.

Establishing the run might be a less direct path to helping out the quarterback than the alternative, but the benefits can be huge. It probably isn’t an accident Matt Ryan morphed from good quarterback to league MVP in an offense like this.

Sure enough, under Kyle Shanahan’s direction Atlanta’s offense had a league high 27% of its pass plays come from play action.

Good play calling is all about creating tendencies, baiting the defense into attacking these tendencies, and then changing things up to catch the defense off guard.

Source: Football Outsiders

Conclusion

It is important that you not take the lessons of this post too far. The league is trending strongly in the direction of the Quarterback Friendly Offense style laid out above.

The shotgun is sure to be a major element of the Jets offense under Bates. Even if he takes things to an extreme and calls 60% of the snaps from under center, the other 40% from shotgun will account for a huge chunk of plays. And there are no guarantees Bates takes things to those extremes.

And while Shanahan did run the most plays with two backs, one tight end, and two wide receivers in the NFL, those only did account for 28% of San Francisco’s snaps.

You certainly are going to see the Jets use the shotgun, personnel groupings, and formations to make things easier on the quarterback. Every team does that, and every team should do that.

However, you probably will see the Jets try to establish the run and utilize play action at a higher rate than your typical NFL team. Reports have suggested Todd Bowles made a change at offensive coordinator in part because he wanted more focus on the run game.

That isn’t necessarily something to fear. Establishing the run can complement and improve a passing attack.