One of the personnel decisions which caused the most consternation at the beginning of the season was the decision to retain four tight ends on the active roster. However, this worked out pretty well in the end. The position was much more productive than it’s been over the past few years, with rookie Chris Herndon enjoying an outstanding first season and Jordan Leggett much improved in a reserve role, as Neal Sterling ended up missing most of the year through injuries.
One personnel package the Jets used regularly, perhaps in an effort to get all their tight ends more reps, was a three tight end personnel package. The Jets varied how much they used this during the year and the success they enjoyed was also up and down. However, perhaps we can spot some trends that will be informative going forwards as the team decides what to do at the position next year and what changes to make on offense.
For the avoidance of doubt, we are looking at personnel packages where there were three tight ends in the game. That doesn’t necessarily mean all of them would have been playing the tight end position as the Jets often lined one or more of their tight ends up out wide, in the slot or in the backfield. That’s one of the benefits of having a versatile group.
We will not be taking into account any plays where an offensive lineman was employed as a third tight end, just those where three of the tight ends were on the field. We’ve also excluded kneel-downs, fumbled snaps and penalties from our analysis.
Game by game
As you’ll recall we previously took a look at how often the Jets employed a fullback and there may be some overlap between the two studies, as Eric Tomlinson would have sometimes lined up at fullback with two other tight ends in the game.
However, there is less of a game-by-game disparity in how often they did used these sets than there was for how often they employed a fullback. Nevertheless, some trends emerge.
The first and most obvious trend was that they used these packages more at the start of the season. They had three tight ends in the game nine times per game in the first six weeks, but only four times per game thereafter. Perhaps that’s because Sterling got injured.
Another trend, which may just be a by-product of the above, was that the Jets used these packages 11 times per game in the four games they won, but only 4.5 times per game in their 12 losses. Maybe this is also affected by the fact that if you’re losing then perhaps you’re less likely to run the ball and more likely to spread things out.
There were two games where they didn’t use any three tight end personnel packages, despite the fact that three tight ends did play during the game. In the first, against the Bears, Tomlinson only played six snaps - a season low. You may recall that this was also the game where they never employed a fullback and only rushed for just 57 yards on 24 carries. The other game with no three tight end packages was the Packers game towards the end of the year.
Run versus pass
Given the complaints about how predictable the Jets’ offense was in 2018, you might expect a heavy percentage of runs from the three tight end personnel packages. However, they actually only ran the ball 57 percent of the time, which is probably less than you’d expect.
Again, this was a developing trend over the course of the season. The Jets actually ran the ball 64 percent of the time from these sets in those first three games, going 3-3. They then lost 9 of their last 10 as the run percentage dropped to below 50 percent.
This flipped in week seven, as the Jets passed the ball on all six of their plays with three tight ends in the game. This tendency breaker didn’t really work, as the Jets still lost by 20. Then, as noted above, they didn’t use any three tight end sets the following week.
Again, similar to before, the Jets were more successful with their initial gameplan, as they ran 67 percent of the time from these sets in their four wins but less than 50 percent of the time in their 12 losses. Again though, you pass more when you’re losing. Also, the running game tanked in the second half of the season with James Carpenter and Isaiah Crowell’s injuries and Spencer Long’s move to guard. Which of those was the biggest factor in the downfall of the running game is a good question for another time.
So, how did the offense fare when using these sets. They do give rise to some interesting numbers.
When running the ball, the Jets gained 297 yards and scored two touchdowns on 55 carries. That’s 5.4 yards per carry. Pretty good.
However, as will be the case with any statistical review of the Jets’ running game this year, the Broncos game is a big outlier. You’ll recall that’s where the Jets, fueled by Crowell’s record breaking display, racked up over 300 yards. That included 80 yards on seven carries from three tight end sets and removing those plays from the equation brings the average right down to 4.5. Still pretty good.
There’s one other major outlier in there though, as the Detroit game saw them gain 88 yards and a touchdown on seven carries, including a 62-yard touchdown run by Crowell. Excluding this game as well brings the average all the way down to 3.1 yards per carry. Not so good.
As was the case with the Jets running game all year, they showed the capability to break a nice run every now and then, but a high percentage of runs were stuffed. From their 55 plays with three tight ends, the Jets broke seven runs of longer than 10 yards, accounting for 208 yards. Their other 48 carries netted just 89 yards; less than two per carry.
Of course we can’t just exclude these out of hand as if they never happened, as they are positive contributions and exactly what you’re trying to achieve. Clearly, though, they didn’t manage to do enough of this. 36 of the 55 plays went for three yards or less. That’s not a lot of wins. 16 of those 36 went for no gain or a loss of yardage.
When passing the ball, the statistics are very interesting indeed:
Sam Darnold was 22-of-36 for 190 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions when passing from three tight end personnel packages.
That’s a quarterback rating of 102.8. It also represents an improvement on his completion percentage (61 percent, as opposed to 57 percent on the throws in other sets), but a reduction in his yards per attempt (5.3, as opposed to 7.1 on all other throws).
This, coupled with his 0.0 percent interception rate, probably suggests the Jets were able to run some safe passes for Darnold from these sets and also perhaps exploited the defense’s expectation that a run might be forthcoming. Nevertheless, it does seem to be something that helped him.
For the record, Josh McCown was 4-of-4 for 25 yards from three tight end sets, but this isn’t particularly significant. Also, Darnold was sacked just once and McCown was not sacked from a three tight end set.
Player by Player
Obviously, most of the Jets’ three tight end sets involved Tomlinson, Leggett and Herndon, but can we glean any patterns from those sets that involved either Sterling or Walford instead?
In the running game, where the Jets ran three tight end sets with Sterling in place of Leggett, they had good success, with 91 yards and a touchdown on six carries. However, that mostly coincides with that Lions game which we already decided should perhaps be treated as an outlier.
In the passing game, Darnold was 3-of-8 for 29 yards and sacked once when working with a three tight end set other than the usual triumvirate of Tomlinson, Leggett and Herndon. All that means is that his numbers when throwing out of a three tight end set with those three were even better: 19-of-28 (68%) for 161 yards and three touchdowns (QB rating - 118.3).
Three tight end sets are a wrinkle which many teams won’t use at all, other than in short yardage situations, so you might ask the question if they added an element of smoke and mirrors to the offense that added unnecessary complexity and arguably showed a lack of faith in Sam Darnold to succeed in a conventional fashion.
Other than a few games, mostly in the first half of the season, the Jets struggled badly to establish their running game all year. Some of the injuries noted above no doubt played their part in this failure and the lack of success within the three tight end packages was pretty much symptomatic of what we saw all season long regardless of what personnel grouping was in the game.
As for the passing game, it was interesting that Darnold displayed good efficiency from these packages and perhaps represented something he became comfortable with over the course of the season, enabling him to pad his stats and keep drives alive.
There are sure to be personnel changes ahead, both in terms of who is on the roster and who is in charge of the coaching. However, based on their success in 2018, perhaps these packages should not be abandoned altogether if the new coach believes they can mix things up and give the Jets some flexibility to create favorable match-ups. However, hopefully the overall philosophy will move towards a more conventionally modern approach on offense.