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A Closer Look at the Jets Situational Playcalling
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A Closer Look at the Jets Situational Playcalling

In light of the recent problems with the Jets offense and pointing fingers at the play calling I decided to do a bit of a study on some other teams in the NFL and compare them with the Jets offense. To try to best illustrate some of the good and bad of the offense I tried to choose what I felt were reasonable comparables. At the high end of the spectrum I chose Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning, two high level Quarterbacks that are considered two of the best 3 or 4 in the NFL. At the low end I went with Joe Flacco, a 3rd year pro who comes from a system that the Jets head coach seems to want to emulate, and Josh Freeman, a player drafted alongside Mark Sanchez in the 2009 NFL draft.

All of the stats were taken from Yahoo Sports and then compiled by me to determine play selection and comparative statistics. Not everything is going to be 100% accurate. For instance it was too much of a task to include end around runs, wildcat QB downs, QB scrambles, etc…in the numbers. In the grand scheme of things those plays are statistically insignificant, but I just want to point that fact out.

1st Down Play Selection: Run Heavy or Not? Is Sanchez a Bad Passer on 1st down?

This is the first part of the Jets offensive gameplan that has come under heavy scrutiny, especially in recent weeks. Everyone read the reports about how they ran close to 80% of the time in the last losing effort on first downs and its something people have complained about since 2007. They say its unimaginative as the vision of Thomas Jones, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Shonn Greene seemingly running the draw into C Nick Mangold's backside seems to be very vivid. Is it true? First lets throw up the run percentages of the team and average yards gained.

1st Down Run Stats

% Run Plays Yards Per Carry
Jets 60.28 4.70
Buccaneers 49.34 4.11
Ravens 54.06 3.83
Colts 43.26 3.66
Chargers 51.05 4.46

As you can see the Jets are clearly the team that runs the most of this group and by a pretty wide margin. That being said they are the best of the group in average yards per run despite teams knowing what is coming at them. At an average of 4.7 YPC the Jets should be putting themselves in a good deal of 2nd and 5 and 2nd and 6 scenarios. That's a good number and a good place to be. The one negative with the run heavy approach is that you do probably get a number of 2 and 3 yard carries which are balanced out by some 6 and 7 yard gainers. A 2 yard gain is probably no better than an incomplete pass in terms of making second down easier for the QB and offense as the stats presented later on more or less show. Now people are certainly down on Sanchez right now so maybe the team is just afraid to have him throw on 1st down. How does he stack up to the NFL sample? Lets take a look.

1st Down Passing Stats

Comp % YPA YPC IPA% SPA%
Sanchez 54.68 6.79 12.42 0.77 6.47
Freeman 57.42 7.32 12.74 2.01 3.87
Flacco 62.20 6.59 10.60 0.00 4.27
Manning 64.84 7.31 11.27 0.93 2.28
Rivers 68.11 9.74 14.30 1.15 5.95

That is far more impressive than I ever would have expected. His percentage of interceptions is better than all but Flacco and his YPC is third among the five. Of course his biggest problem is the completion percentage which is poor at only 55%, a number that includes drop backs where the player was sacked. Pass protection is a major problem for the Jets here and negative yards are something you never want to see. Still even at a 55% completion rate it means he is gaining positive yards more than half the time. Most of those completions will result in a 1st down or a 2nd and very short. Considering an incomplete is about as good as a 2 or 3 yard run this is definitely the higher reward play, though by no means is the run a low reward play. How does this method of play stack up against other teams? Not too badly. The following table shows the approximate amount of 1st down conversions and what 2nd down situation results from the plays.

1st Down Success

% Result in 1st Down % Result in 2nd < 3 % Result in 2nd < 6 % Result in 2nd >6
Jets 17.71 8.29 16.29 57.43
Buccaneers 24.51 6.86 11.44 56.21
Ravens 22.41 7.56 11.48 58.54
Colts 19.17 8.29 17.88 54.15
Chargers 33.07 7.14 10.58 48.68

Now the Jets heavy run reliance is probably the reason why they have the lowest amount of 1st down plays that actually go for a first down. Surprisingly the Colts rank second. The Jets and Colts actually track very close in this category in terms of good situations, which is basically anything except having a 2nd down and more than 6 yards to go. If you add up the good 2nd down situations and 1st downs made you should get an approximation of what percentage of first down plays that should result in another 3 down series and the Jets track identical with the Ravens and Bucs and only a few percentage points behind Manning and the Colts. That's pretty good 1st down efficiency. The Chargers are a machine and should keep at least 50% of their drives going and outdistance themselves greatly from the other teams in this category.

It is probably safe to conclude that the Jets would be better served by a 45/55 split, especially over the last three games of the year when teams may be playing run, thus freeing things up even more for Sanchez. This will give them an opportunity to convert more 1st down plays into gains of 10 yards or more than they currently do. However, the excessive criticism of the 1st down run may be a bit too harsh. The team is in plenty of reasonable situations on 2nd down compared to the sample, which indicates very little issues on first down.

2nd Down: How Do The Jets Approach it? Why This Is The Real Problem Down? How Should They Approach It?

There are two very important categories we want to look at here. There is the 2nd and 2 yards or less to go, which should be almost automatic given 2 chances to covert. The other is the 2nd down where you need between 3 and 5 yards to convert. While the main goal is to get the 1st down as soon as possible you also want to make sure you get in a 3rd and 2 or better spot on third down. Why are these two situations extra crucial for the Jets? Because as we saw in the table above they gain less than 10 yards on 1st down more than any other team. To be as efficient as the Ravens or Bucs the Jets have to make up for it by making certain their good 2nd down situations eventually lead to 1st downs.

On the second and less than 3 yards to go the Jets are pretty pass heavy compared to some of the other teams. Sanchez throws more than Rivers and Flacco and is about on par with Peyton Manning. It is a play call that makes no sense at all. Only Freeman throws significantly more and that is because his running game only averages 2.8 yards per carry.

2nd Down & < 3 Yards Run Stats

% Run Plays Yards Per Carry
Jets 75.86 4.91
Buccaneers 52.38 2.82
Ravens 81.48 3.86
Colts 75.00 3.58
Chargers 92.59 3.28

The Jets blow away the field with a 4.9 YPC average which means they should pick up a 1st down almost every time they are in this position. Now I can already imagine what people are thinking that support the throw here. The Jets run well so its a great down for playaction passes and exploiting the downfield pass. Think again.

2nd Down & < 3 Yards Passing Stats

Comp % YPA YPC IPA% SPA%
Sanchez 42.86 4.00 9.33 16.67 14.29
Freeman 70.00 4.40 6.29 0.00 0.00
Flacco 80.00 10.00 12.50 0.00 0.00
Manning 62.50 3.75 6.00 12.50 0.00
Rivers 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00

Sanchez is absolutely horrendous in this situation. He completes 43% of his drop backs, has an interception and a sack, which amounts to essentially 15% of the plays being negative. His YPC is 9.3, but in this situation all that is important is a 1st down. Once you put yourself back into a 1st and 10 situation it doesn't matter if you are on the 41 or the 45. Its still 1st and 10. Look closely at the Manning and Freeman stats. Manning is at 6.5 YPC and Freeman and 6.3 YPC. Why? Because all they care about is the 1st down. They are not running plays designed to take chances down the field that can lead to a negative play. Other than Rivers, who never throws, everyone else completes at an ultra high percentage. That is a design flaw for the Jets. At only 4 YPA this is a lower percentage play than the run. Though the situation does not come up often, this is a play that absolutely needs to be changed.

It does not get better as Sanchez moves into 2nd and the intermediate range. The only QB arguably worse than him is Flacco, but the Ravens have taken that into account with their offensive strategy.

2nd Down & 3-5 Yards Passing Stats

Comp % YPA YPC IPA% SPA%
Sanchez 46.43 4.21 9.08 3.57 0.00
Freeman 68.75 7.31 10.64 0.00 0.00
Flacco 45.45 2.91 6.40 0.00 18.18
Manning 72.34 5.87 8.12 2.17 2.13
Rivers 75.00 9.75 13.00 6.25 0.00


2nd Down & 3-5 Yards Run Stats

% Run Plays Yards Per Carry
Jets 50.88 4.28
Buccaneers 54.29 3.74
Ravens 73.17 2.90
Colts 31.88 3.27
Chargers 60.00 3.54

Flacco only passes on 26% of the plays because he is no good in the situation. The Jets actually throw more than any team except the Colts, who throw the ball a ridiculous 68% of the time, but I guess you can do that when you complete over 70% of your passes on that down. Again the Jets have the best running game in this situation, which would be perfect to set up third and short, but use it the least. Sanchez has only been picked off once in this situation, but that represents the highest number per attempt for the group.

The same scenario holds true for 2nd and long in terms of play selection where the Jets are throwing more than any team besides the Colts. At least in this case it is more justified since the run production is not there and in most cases you are going to need more than 3 or 4 yards to get into a good 3rd down situation. Without knowing the exact yardage to go on these plays it might be more justified to be passing the football.

2nd & 6+ Yards Run Stats

% Run Plays Yards Per Carry
Jets 31.84 3.97
Buccaneers 43.02 3.58
Ravens 35.41 3.93
Colts 18.18 3.34
Chargers 34.78 4.14

2nd & 6+ Yards Passing Stats

Comp % YPA YPC IPA% SPA%
Sanchez 56.20 6.50 11.56 3.05 4.38
Freeman 50.00 6.02 12.04 2.11 3.06
Flacco 61.48 7.56 12.30 1.60 7.41
Manning 67.25 7.19 10.69 1.81 2.92
Rivers 68.33 7.34 10.74 2.56 2.50

One thing to note is that Sanchez makes more mistakes in this scenario than the others and he gets sacked way too many times, but he does put up better stats here and actually is better than Freeman on this down and distance. Why is this the case for Sanchez? Just a guess but on the second and short situations the Jets run a lot of different things at the line which may be too confusing for the young QB. On a 2nd and long they probably just go with the called play much of the time making it simpler on him. With the exception of the negative plays, when he does connect he is putting up decent numbers.

Should they run a little more here? Its debatable. Again we cant know the exact situation to say for certain. We can extrapolate from the 1st down completion percentages and amount of pass plays run on that down that the Jets have at least 63 2nd and 10 or worse plays on 2nd down. The Colts would be the worst with 77, which is also a reason why they throw so much on 2nd and long. The Chargers have the least which is why they run more than people probably expect. The Bucs run a lot because they likely do not trust him in that situation due to the low completion percentage. The Jets probably should run a little more, but you need a more comprehensive study to say one way or the other.

So now here is why this is the worst down for the team. We already know that the Jets do not quickly turn a 1st down into a 1st down off just one play. But with a strong percentage of 2nd and short plays the Jets should be in a position to convert a number of 2nd down plays or at least be in a very easy spot on 3rd down. That simply does not happen. While it is not fair to expect the Jets to be as good as the Colts, they track similar to them on 1st down. What happens to Indy on second down? Nearly 45% of their plays result in a 1st down. Another 12% leave them with less than 2 yards to go. Only 27% are beyond 6 yards. The Jets? They only convert slightly over 36% of their 2nd downs yet they still wind up with the least number of 3rd and less than 2 plays. The only team with more 3rd and more than 6 situations is the Buccaneers, but they leave themselves with a significantly higher number of 3rd and 2 or less gimmie plays and are a better 1st down team.

2nd Down Success

% Result in 1stdown % Result in 3rd < 3 % Result in 3rd < 6 % Result in 3rd >6 SPA%
Jets 36.59 8.36 14.63 38.33
Buccaneers 33.33 12.28 12.72 40.79
Ravens 40.79 9.75 12.64 36.10
Colts 44.84 11.94 14.84 26.77
Chargers 37.85 8.37 16.33 35.86

When you play the game the way the Jets do on first down to simply create a reasonable 2nd down, you can not be this poor at 2nd down efficiency. The situational play calling is killing the Jets on 2nd down. They turn the ball over the most. They have the worst passer. Yet the run less than almost anyone besides the Colts. It can not happen. Maybe the play calls are great and the QB just stinks. Either way this is the down that stops the team every time they line up. They should never pass on 2nd and short and they should be running much more on 2nd and less than 6. They also have to get it in the QB's head to be safer with the football on 2nd and long. By the time 2nd down is over the Colts have turned nearly 65% of their first down plays into another set of first downs or a 3rd and less than 2. Tampa is at 58.5%. The Jets? 54.5%. The worst, despite a top 10 QB, 3 1st round WR's, and a solid running game. That is simply poor game management.

3rd Down: Why so bad?

3rd down is a terrible down to be in. The stats of even the great ones go way down. Philip Rivers completes barley over 50% of his pass attempts on the down. Manning has become a turnover machine on third down. On third and long he only completes 55% of his throws and nearly 7% of his passes are picked off. Unfortunately this is the situation the Jets find themselves in too often.

On third and short the Jets run much more than I would have expected since traditionally I always think of them as a passing team in that spot. I guess when they use the shotgun on 3rd and 2 it just sticks in my head and I get the feeling they throw too much. They actually run 62.5% of the time, far more than the other teams. Statistically Sanchez is fine in the situation. The only QB with a higher completion percentage in Manning and Sanchez' YPC of 11.4 is far higher than what seems to be about a 7 yard dump off average. The playfake probably helps in that regrad. Tomlinson has proven to be a worthless runner on this down with 5 carries for only 5 yards, which makes Greene the guy to be out there. With the high percentage of runs that probably helps the playaction.

Sanchez' big problem comes in the 3rd and 3-5 yards to go category. Its his worst situational play. This is just further evidence as to why the Jets are making drastic mistakes on 2nd down by getting into these situations. While you can not expect to convert all of these plays, it is a makeable distance. Sanchez only completes 35% of his drop backs meaning 65% of the plays are dead before they begin. That is not to say the other QB's are good, but Sanchez is just hideous. Again maybe this is a complicated situation for him with a lot of checking off at the line which might be why the 2nd and short plays are equally rough for him. His YPC is second only to Rivers in this category so maybe the Jets could help him by calling more short plays and dump offs. Tampa does that with Freeman and he has been slightly better in the situation.

3rd & 3-5 Yards Passing Stats

Comp % YPA YPC IPA% SPA%
Sanchez 35.90 3.87 10.79 0.00 10.26
Freeman 42.31 2.58 6.09 4.35 11.54
Flacco 57.58 6.03 10.47 6.90 12.12
Manning 62.16 4.97 8.00 8.11 0.00
Rivers 48.72 5.79 11.89 2.70 5.13

When you get into 3rd and long there is almost no hope. Sanchez is the worst of the group. There is zero threat of a run on this play and the defenses know it. Sanchez clearly presses with a very high interception rate. That may be an issue with the head coach putting too much pressure on him and Sanchez doing too much trying to make a play. His other numbers are basically all in line with the others, he just doesn't complete passes. That is not a flaw in play calling. That is a flaw in either play design or simple execution. His YPC is a little on the high end which could indicate that he would be helped by looking just a bit shorter, but most likely this is an example of a player that has too much pressure on him and can not handle it.

3rd & 6+ Yards Statistics

Comp % YPA YPC IPA% SPA%
Sanchez 44.55 6.44 14.46 5.20 4.95
Freeman 58.13 7.70 13.26 0.00 8.13
Flacco 54.081 8.04 14.86 3.29 7.14
Manning 55.12 7.56 13.72 6.57 2.56
Rivers 52.43 8.87 16.93 3.94 7.31

Conclusion:

The Jets real problems boil down to second down. The stats tell the team that they are a bad 3rd down team. Outside of 2 or 3 yards they have minimal hope of converting due to poor QB play. Yet on second downs they do not do what is necessary to put the QB in the best situations on 3rd down. The team plays extremely conservative on 1st down, but then far too loose on 2nd down creating a great number of 3rd down plays and hard to gain 1st downs. If they played closer to the norms on those first two downs the Jets would likely convert a number of 1st downs without even getting into a 3rd down situation. That is on the play calling and the way the Jets manage the game from the sidelines. The actual 3rd down issues themselves are almost exclusively on the poor play of the QB. The only way to fix it is to not allow the situation to present itself.

At the end of the day the Jets convert less than 67% of their first down plays into the start of another set of downs. All of these other teams are above 70%. That is going to be too many 3 and outs especially for a team that once it enters the red zone seems to completely stall. The Jets have 3 weeks left in their season to break these tendencies and catch some teams off guard. Two wins guarantees the playoffs and one win will likely get them in, but if they continue to do the same play selection while paying no attention to what other teams do and most importantly what their QB can not do, then 9-7 is going to be staring them in the face.

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