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Why the Jets need to use more play action passing to get better offensive results

It’s time for Nathaniel Hackett to tweak his play calling.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New York Jets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The bye week is an opportunity for teams to assess what is working and tweak what isn’t.

Despite a handful of brief flourishes, the Jets offense has not played at a high level six weeks into the season. The Jets currently rate 23rd in the league in scoring average at 18.8 points per game.

On its own, that would not be great. Now consider the following factors. The Jets defense has forced the third most turnovers in the league. Thanks in no small part to this fact, the Jets offense has had the fifth best average starting field position on drives in the league. Even further, the Jets are one of only nine teams to produce more than one non-offensive touchdown. If you count the final touchdown the Jets scored against the Eagles, which for all intents and purposes was delivered by Tony Adams’ interception, the Jets would be one of only three teams to have three non-offensive touchdowns.

And still they rank 23rd in scoring.

The obvious culprit is red zone offense. The Jets rank sixth in the league with 15 field goal drives. However, they rank third from the bottom with only seven touchdown drives. In a situation like this, you will hear a lot about playcalling near the goal line. People will talk about the need to get some of the bigger bodied receivers more involved since there are more bodies in a compressed area on that part of the field and less opportunities to gain separation.

I’m going to offer a different theory. Perhaps the biggest problem the Jets have in the red zone is what happens before they get there. There is evidence suggesting that team performance in the red zone tends to be inconsistent from year to year. Teams go from being great one year to poor the next fairly frequently in the red zone. We might not like to hear it, but there tends to be a lot of randomness and luck within the red zone. One example that comes to mind is Mark Sanchez throwing a career high 26 touchdown passes in 2011 in a year where he otherwise made negligible statistical progress. The Jets had the league’s top red zone offense that season but were unable to sustain it the next season.

How can the Jets’ red zone woes be related to what they are doing on other parts of the field? Consider this. Through the first six weeks of the season, the average scoring drive in the NFL lasted 8.4 plays. The average Jets scoring drive lasted 7.7 plays. That is obviously not a huge difference. The Jets were within one play of the league average. When they score, they are extending drives roughly as long as the rest of the league.

What the Jets lack, however, are big plays, particularly in the passing game. The Jets rank fifth from the bottom of the NFL with 55 plays gaining at least 10 yards. In the passing game in particular, the Jets have produced only 42 plays netting at least 10 yards. That is also fifth from the bottom, but the four teams below them have played one less game due to an early bye week.

Zach Wilson has been one of the least aggressive passing quarterbacks in the league. According to NextGen Stats, Wilson’s average pass goes 2.1 yards short of the first down marker, the fourth most conservative rate in the league. At 6 yards per attempt, the Jets currently rate as the sixth least efficient passing offense in the league.

Why does this matter? If red zone performance is as much about skill as chance, it stands to reason something else drives the difference between touchdowns and field goals.

NFL defenses are really good. Maybe it just isn't reasonable to expect an offense to produce more than five to eight times in a row. At some point, a guy commits a penalty, a receiver drops a pass, somebody slips or a route, a lineman blows a block, or a defender just makes a great play.

If an offense isn’t producing big plays, the entirety of those snaps is spent just getting into the red zone. They have used up their allotment of successful plays An offense that produces big plays is already in the red zone before the end of the string and has a chance of reaching the goal line.

Part of the Jets’ inability to push the ball down the field is likely due to Wilson’s inexperience meshing with offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s system.

Hackett’s father was a disciple of Bill Walsh, architect of the famed “West Coast Offense.” The best known tenet of this philosophy was focus on the short passing game to open up bigger things for the offense.

Hackett uses this approach frequently. When you look at the way he constructs his offense, there are a number of plays where the primary read is a short pass. There’s nothing wrong with this.

And an experienced quarterback with a sophisticated understanding of route concepts and coverages like Aaron Rodgers can use the short outlet to bait a defense and find something bigger down the field.

Take this play. Rodgers’ first read is open in the flat, but it is going to draw a defender away which will open up a passing window for a bigger gain over the middle.

Compare this with a play by Wilson Week 6 against the Eagles. Randall Cobb is breaking open. A defender near Allen Lazard breaks to Cobb because that’s where his zone responsibility will take him. A big window opens up down the field for Lazard.

Now please indulge me as I make a couple of points about this play.

First, Cobb dropping a well thrown pass isn’t helping anything here.

Second, you have to be very careful with this type of analysis. I frequently see commentators unfairly criticize Zach for missing open receivers who aren’t really open. Sometimes defenders move based on where they see the ball thrown and create the illusion a receiver is open. In reality they would have covered it differently had the ball been thrown to a different spot. In this case, I watched over and over and saw the defender near Lazard driving on Cobb before the pass.

Third (and most importantly), this was 100 percent the correct read by Zach Wilson. I want to make it clear that Zach Wilson deserves zero criticism for this decision. A young quarterback is coached to throw the ball to the first open receiver in his progression.

And this brings me to my larger point. This is a good example of what it means when you hear this offense was designed for Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers probably has enough field vision and experience to hit Lazard on this play. A quarterback like Zach Wilson won’t. And if your offense is built on concepts like this, it will limit your ability to produce explosive plays, even if the quarterback gets the ball where he is supposed to get it.

You might think the answer is simple. Just dial up more downfield passes by design. It’s a great idea in theory. It isn’t clear how well it would work, though. To me Wilson doesn’t seem super comfortable standing in the pocket for long stretches of time waiting for something to develop. Zach has a tendency to rush through his reads and predetermine a pass to his check down target.

Take this early third down play in the Jets’ Week 3 loss to New England. The Jets are running three vertical routes. It’s going to take time for this to develop down the field.

The Jets have left an extra blocker in so there are six blockers against four pass rushers. The pocket is clean. It’s third and long so the Jets need an explosive play. It is going to take a while for something to develop. Yet as soon as his back foot hits, Zach is checking this ball down.

It amazes me how frequently I hear analysts talk about Zach Wilson as a “gunslinger” and “playmaker” and how they encourage the Jets coaching staff to “open up the offense” and “let him do what he does best.” To me it’s as though these people are still relying on a three year old scouting report and college highlight video.

Maybe in college Zach Wilson was a playmaker, but preferred playing styles frequently change between college and the NFL. The current iteration of Zach Wilson is much more of a facilitator than a playmaker. He’s at his best when he can get the ball out quickly, be decisive, and distribute to his guys. Wilson’s passer rating when he gets the ball out in under 2.5 seconds is over 100. When he holds it for longer, it is under 50.

Unfortunately, the Jets have built an offense where Garrett Wilson and Breece Hall (on screens and checkdowns) are the only receiving targets capable of providing the run after catch skills necessary to maximize these traits.

So to produce splash plays through the passing game, the Jets really only have one option. They need to manufacture them. This is done through play action.

Why does play action work? First, it simplifies the reads. Some of the eligible receivers need to be used to fake the run. On this particular play, two tight ends fake run blocking. Dalvin Cook fakes receiving the handoff. This is a two man pattern. This isn’t a complex progression at all.

Second, play action opens up bigger passing windows. Defenders who would normally drop to clog passing lanes move up to defend the run.

Third (and this is more Zach Wilson specific), when you have a quarterback who isn’t comfortable standing in the pocket for long stretches, it gives him something else to do while his receivers work their way down the field. By the time he’s finished the fake and is in throwing position, his receivers are already deep.

Again, a decisive, in rhythm Zach Wilson has shown he can throw a pretty ball.

Multiple statistical sites keep track of play action attempts. They all have the Jets running play action around 18% of the time. You can play around with the minimum number of passes to qualify, but generally this puts Wilson around 25th among quarterbacks on play action rate.

It should be noted that Wilson has been much more effective statistically on play action attempts than on regular pocket passes, but we are dealing with small sample sizes in both cases.

What is more significant are longer term trends that suggest play action passing in general is more efficient than regular passing. In general teams should be leaning into it, but that goes extra for a team like the Jets that otherwise struggle to make big plays in the passing game.

The Jets certainly shouldn’t be utilizing play action at a lower clip than the rest of the league. That is one bye week change Nathaniel Hackett should institute.