I have had my mind on one particular play from the Jets’ loss to Denver for the last couple of days. It probably isn’t a play you found memorable, but I think it embodies a lot of the issues the Jets offense has with player usage.
This incompletion to Ty Johnson came on a fourth and one in the second half.
It isn’t uncommon for coaches to save the best short yardage play in the gameplay for a situation where they really need to pick it up. Even in the second half of a blowout, a fourth and short would figure to be the point where Mike LaFleur would call what he thought was his best short yardage play. The decision he made was to dial up a pass to his number two running back split wide.
Look, I’m not trying to let Johnson off the hook. He’s in the NFL, and that’s a ball that should have been caught.
Still, on a play you need to work one might wonder why the pass wasn't designed for a wide receiver, a player who makes his living catching the football.
This play might be a metaphor for the way Mike LaFleur has deployed players on offense through the first three weeks of the season. I’m not going to say that LaFleur has failed to play to his strengths. On a unit averaging less than a touchdown per game, it’s difficult to say there are strengths right now. However, I do think it would be accurate to say that the Jets seem to be leaning into their weaknesses on offense.
Johnson himself is an example of this. He leads all Jets running backs with 99 snaps through three weeks. That means he has participated in slightly more than half of the offensive snaps so far this season.
Johnson is currently averaging nine snaps more per game than Michael Carter. Now Carter does have more carries than Johnson, suggesting the Jets value Johnson in the passing game.
You could argue perhaps the Jets are reluctant to put a rookie on the field when they are throwing the ball due to concerns over pass protection. There’s just one problem with that. Johnson has shown himself to be a very poor pass protector in his own right.
Here were the numbers heading into the Denver game.
Most pressures Allowed by RBs (% of pass snaps pressure allowed) @PFF— Ty (@TnfFtyrell) September 21, 2021
Myles Gaskin 15 (27%)
Derrick Henry (29%)
The Drake 14 (21%)
Dalvin 13 (24%)
Ty Johnson 12 (26%)
CMC 11 (19%)
Najee Harris (15%)
Patrick Ricard (36%)
James White 10 (23%)
Elijah Mitchell 31%@TrueNorthFFB
It isn’t like this is a new development either. Johnson has a recent history of being one of the worst pass protecting backs in the NFL.
RBs that allowed the most total pressures per pass blocking attempt in 2019 (min. 25 pass-blocking attempts)— Michelle Magdziuk (@BallBlastEm) June 9, 2020
Phillip Lindsay 31%
Marlon Mack 21%
Ty Johnson 20%
Leonard Fournette 18%
Adrian Peterson 17%
Ronald Jones 16%
Why then are the Jets using him in this role?
This isn’t the only area where the team seems to be leaning into personnel weaknesses, however.
After Week 1, I discussed the Jets’ strikingly high tight end usage. I said at the time it wasn't clear whether this was a one week thing or whether it would be more enduring.
After three weeks, we have a better idea. The Jets have scaled things back a bit, but they still are using 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends, 2 wide receivers) 32% of the time according to Sharp Football Stats. That is the sixth highest rate in the league.
The Jets entered the Denver game with the second highest rate running 12 personnel in the NFL. That fell due to the injury that forced starter Tyler Kroft to leave the game early. The Jets were also playing from behind most of the afternoon, needing to throw the ball. This was a game that called for extra wide receivers on the field most of the time. Even so, the Jets were in 12 personnel 19% of the time, close to the league average.
The Jets have invested very little at the tight end position. They are near the bottom of the league in cap space spent at the position. They have invested no recent premium Draft picks at tight end either. Such roster construction suggests that the Jets should be minimizing the position. Yet they are putting an extra tight end on the field more than almost any team in football.
Some might note that offenses similar to the one Mike LaFleur is installing regularly use tight ends to assist in run blocking. Still coaches need to adapt to the talent they have.
I think this situation could lead to some questions about the cohesion between the front office and the offensive coaching staff. The Jets had the resources to overhaul much of their roster this offseason and did make sweeping changes. If tight end was going to be such a focus on offense, why didn’t the Jets do more to upgrade the position?
That is a question for another day, however. There simply isn’t any reason for the Jets to be playing extra tight ends this frequently.
You might go back to the argument that the Jets want to run the ball. Well, running the ball effectively doesn’t require an extra tight end to be on the field.
If you have followed college football over the last 15-20 years you likely have noted the rise of spread offenses. Yes, some college teams have spread the field so that their quarterback can toss the ball around all game long, but spread offenses have also risen on run heavy teams.
If you put an extra wide receiver on the field, somebody has to follow him when he splits out. That leaves one less player you need to block. For a team where wide receiver play is supposed to be a strength and tight end play is definitely a weakness, that sounds like the right approach to establishing the run.
Indeed, the Jets have a 57% success rate running the ball out of 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers) and just a 45% success rate running out of 12 personnel according to Sharp. The league average success rate on all run plays is 49%.
This provides us with a natural transition to the perplexing wide receiver position.
Quite frankly I have been very hesitant to wade into the Denzel Mims debate. The 2020 second round pick has been inactive the last two weeks after playing sparingly in the opener.
I tend to think people overstate the impact inserting him into the lineup would have. One player can’t fix everything that is wrong.
There certainly seems to be some issue between him and the coaching staff. Who is really at fault? It’s impossible to say with the limited information we have. I have seen numerous disputes between players and coaches in the past. Some have been the fault of the player. Some have been the fault of the coaches. Many have blame to go around.
It is very difficult to know how effective of a player Mims will be based on his career to date.
Last year Mims had 23 catches for 357 yards while limited to nine games due to injury. That 40 yard per game average was solid for a second round rookie. It was in line with what many eventual impact receivers averaged in their first NFL season.
Still, does 357 yards in nine games really guarantee that Mims is going to be a player in this league? That’s a stretch. Moderate rookie production doesn’t always blossom into something bigger. Three years ago Chris Herndon became just one of 35 tight ends in the history of the NFL to post 500 receiving yards as a rookie, and that was the end of his functional career as a Jet.
There isn’t much we can say for sure about Mims.
And if it was only about Mims I could let this go, but the player usage issues at wide receiver go deeper. Last week I touched on the strikingly large share of targets Braxton Berrios was getting.
Things went back to normal this week to some extent, but Berrios got the second most playing time at wide receiver seeing 42 offensive snaps. Only Corey Davis played more.
Let’s forget about Mims for a second. The Jets have another receiver, Keelan Cole, on their roster. Cole might not be a game changer, but he is a proven professional receiver. He has a pair of 600 yard seasons under his belt and a better skillset than Berrios. The Jets gave him a $5.5 million contract this offseason for precisely the situation they find themselves in. If there were injuries at wide receiver, the team didn’t want to force its young quarterback to throw to the likes of Chris Hogan the way Sam Darnold had to last year. Cole was supposed to be an insurance policy. Yet he got 15 less snaps than Berrios against Denver.
Cole has experience working in the slot. Even if the Jets wanted him to play outside (or decided to go to Mims who can probably only play outside), Elijah Moore and Corey Davis are both capable of sliding into the slot.
Six years ago then-Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey moved wide receiver Eric Decker to the slot. This relegated slot receiver Jeremy Kerley to the bench since he couldn’t succeed as an outside receiver. The Jets did not have a natural replacement for Decker outside.
This led to complaints from some quarters of the fanbase. Why have a weakness outside when Decker could play there with Kerley in the slot? I think these complaints ignored that balance isn’t always what maximizes offensive production. Based on the way the offense and Decker in particular performed that year, there was a strong case to be made that Brandon Marshall outside + Decker feasting on matchups in the slot + black hole outside was more productive than Marshall outside + Kerley in the slot + Decker outside.
In theory before the season maybe you could have argued that Berrios allowing Davis and Moore to play outside made the offense more productive, even if it meant a lack of productivity from the slot. We now have three games of evidence, though. This is an offense averaging less than a touchdown per game, and Berrios has seen a high volume of unproductive targets.
Last week David posted some of Robert Saleh’s comments about Berrios, and they jumped out at me.
But in the slot, just that veteran presence to know where he is, I know you guys aren’t privy to practice, but he’s out there on Wednesday, which is a heavy install day, and helping the other receivers get lined up, he’s helping the quarterback out of the huddle, he’s helping everybody. You know that veteran presence who’s reliable, who can get separation, win one-on-ones, and those guys, they just naturally draw to the quarterback in terms of, “I know you’re going to be exactly where you need to be.” And so they can deliver the ball on time and not take a hit. So, just that veteran presence has been awesome.
This reminded me of how Rex Ryan used to talk about Eric Smith.
Smith was an excellent role player for the Jets who had some huge moments for the team. He was one of the unsung heroes of a Wild Card victory the Jets had over the Colts in 2010 where he registered 10 tackles. A week later he made a tackle stopping a fake punt that set up a critical touchdown in the Jets’ upset victory over the Patriots.
If you had Eric Smith as a subpackage player and special teamer, you were going to love what you got. Rex Ryan raved about his smarts, his command of a complex defensive playbook, his leadership, and his toughness.
He was, however, a limited athlete who would be exposed if put into too prominent of a role. That’s what the Jets did in 2011 when they made him a starting safety. Smith became a goat on almost a weekly basis, constantly culpable for big plays the other team made. Sadly today people remember Eric Smith for his struggles as a starter rather than the value he provided in a reserve role.
Coaches are human. It’s only natural that at times they let their personal feelings for people cloud their judgment on what is best for the team. Rex did it with Eric Smith. He also did it with Kerry Rhodes, a much more talented safety who he ran out of town and disparaged in his book. While the Jets struggled with Smith in a starting role, Rhodes produced in Arizona.
Every coach has moments where personal feelings lead to mistakes.
Todd Bowles’ came in building his coaching staff. He ran a productive offensive coordinator, John Morton, out of town over personality issues. At the same time, he retained a friend Kacy Rodgers as defensive coordinator for his entire tenure despite the unit’s shortcomings.
Adam Gase’s entire brand of coaching is practically based on personal feelings clouding his judgment.
This situation at wide receiver is another case where I can’t help but wonder whether personal feelings are getting in the way of a more productive unit. Berrios certainly isn’t helping matters much. While we don’t know everything happening behind the scenes with Mims, what little we do know doesn’t mesh the profile of with a difficult, uncoachable player.
Mims said he pressed the coaching staff to play him more on special teams— Connor Hughes (@Connor_J_Hughes) August 15, 2021
To be honest, I hesitated to write this article. I personally believe Mike LaFleur is taking too much of the blame for the offense’s struggles. The biggest improvement the unit needs is for players to perform up to their respective talent levels and expectations.
However, of the many problems the Jets have on offense the player usage issues are the easiest to fix. At this point in time Braxton Berrios, Tyler Kroft, Ryan Griffin, and Ty Johnson account for 46% of the targets in the Jets passing game. That just isn’t a winning formula.