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Mike LaFleur’s First Series Playcalling Was Inexplicable Against the Patriots

New York Jets Training Camp Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

I am having a difficult time comprehending exactly what Mike LaFleur was trying to accomplish in the first series of yesterday’s loss to the Patriots.

Let me get the disclaimers out of the way. The Jets were outclassed in every phase of the game. The players and coaches both did a horrible job. The team is still at a talent disadvantage most weeks when it takes the field. The first series of the game wasn’t responsible for the outcome.

Still I was interested to see what the Jets would come up with. The bye week is a great opportunity for a coach. You get two weeks to assess every aspect of your team. You can study your own tendencies. You can figure out what has been going right and wrong and adjust accordingly.

I would expect the first series of the game to be the place where you try to make a statement. This is where a coach can put into practice everything he has learned from the extra week.

That’s why I have a tough time understanding what the Jets were doing on this opening series.

The Jets’ first quarter struggles were no secret entering this game.

There were also clear tendencies. By using the Stathead database I found that entering yesterday’s game the Jets had run the ball on first down 70.5% of the time in the first quarter. The Patriots had to be expecting the run. This was a real opportunity to break a tendency and catch the defense by surprise.

It is also no secret that the Jets had been using 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends, 2 wide receivers) frequently through the first five games of the season. According to the website Sharp Football Stats, the Jets’ usage was third highest in the league at 36% behind only Miami and Atlanta. I feel like a broken record talking about the Jets’ lack of talent at tight end. Needless to say, personnel groupings that lean on the tight end group for the Jets is not playing to the roster’s strengths.

What do the Jets do? They come out in a two tight end formation.

It’s also a tight formation with offensive players bunched close together.

This allows New England to have ten defenders between the numbers within ten yards of the line of scrimmage. It’s going to be very tough to run in these circumstances.

The Jets run it for a single yard.

On second down again we have two tight ends and a tight formation.

Again we have ten Patriots defenders between the numbers within ten yards of the line of scrimmage.

Again the Jets run it. They gain two yards this time.

I’d like to put this into a wider context, though. One of the primary goals for LaFleur should be to make life as easy as possible for Zach Wilson, especially early in the game. Not only is he a rookie. The last time he played this opponent he threw four interceptions.

It’s really important to try and get him some early success to build confidence.

I think back to something superhuman wrote a little while back here on GGN.

I was a huge fan of Bill Walsh when he was at the 49ers. Before Walsh the 49ers were a poor football team. They hadn’t been successful for decades. It took time, but eventually he built a dominant team with many future Hall of Fame players. Yet even then he had certain beliefs, and one was that QBs need to be successful early in game to keep their confidence high.

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This was 3 time Super Bowl winner (at the time) Joe Montana with a simple pass for 6 yards to his RB out of the backfield. Walsh wanted his QB to feel comfortable making throws so he started him off with a positive play.

I know there’s a tendency to think a successful run game will make life easy for a quarterback, but let’s think through this sequence of plays for the Jets.

This is a team that has averaged 3.6 yards per rushing attempt this year. The rushing with this particular 12 personnel grouping has matched that 3.6 yard average of futility. Running it twice on average isn’t going to come close to getting the ten yards necessary to move the chain. So by running it on the first two plays you are essentially guaranteeing that Zach Wilson’s first passing attempt is going to be on a third down play, a high stress situation.

Sure I guess you could argue that breaking a nice run that resulted in a first down could get the offense into a rhythm and take some pressure off Zach. Still that doesn’t seem like the most likely scenario. According to Football Outsiders, the Jets rank 26th in average rushing yards gained on the second level, where it would be necessary to hit to break an effective run. Beyond that, you have the general ineptitude of the run game with 12 personnel. And let’s not forget about the tendency to run on first down in the first quarter. Bill Belichick probably could figure that out and align his defense to stop the run (as he did). The odds of successfully running the ball early in this series didn’t seem great.

So now we are in third and long. You know Belichick is probably going to do everything in his power to confuse a rookie quarterback. The Jets make his job even easier by again coming out in a tight formation.

This makes it a lot easier for the defense to disguise its fronts. Look at all of these defenders tight to the formation. Any combination of them could be blitzers.

If you bump your receivers out a bit, it’s going to be tougher for a blitzer from the slot to disguise his intentions. He at least will be a greater distance from the quarterback with more ground to cover. He might need to leave the slot before the snap to shorten his path to the quarterback, thus tipping the blitz.

You know Belichick has watched the film and has seen that like many young quarterbacks, Wilson has displayed a tendency to have trouble picking up concepts he rarely saw in college like cornerbacks blitzing.

The tight formation means the Patriots can send this blitzer without tipping anything off. The blitzer now also has that short path to the quarterback.

By the time Wilson threw his first pass in the game, the Jets were down 14-0.

That fact isn’t LaFleur’s fault alone. Neither is the ultimate outcome of the game. Again, this was a system-wide failure.

I still have major issues beginning the game like this. It showed little reflection during the bye. The Jets played to their weaknesses. They didn’t break their own tendencies. Most importantly, they made life as difficult as possible for the young quarterback.

Coaches can only do so much. These days more than looking at the standings or statistical rankings I ask myself one simple question when evaluating coaches. Did they do everything possible to maximize their team’s chance of success?

For the Jets’ offensive coaching staff that answer was a resounding no, and this example is likely indicative of greater issues.