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By: Rivka Boord
Overlooked areas could make the difference in NY Jets-Bills matchup
While the Buffalo Bills have been the class of the AFC East for several years now, the New York Jets are on the hunt for that crown. All five of NFL.com’s analysts picked the Jets over the Bills in the Week 1 matchup, showcasing how the tables have turned. That confidence comes in part because of Aaron Rodgers, but also because the Jets beat the Bills once in 2022 with Zach Wilson at the helm and kept it close with a battered Mike White in the second game.
The Bills are listed as three-point favorites on DraftKings, suggesting that Vegas is not as sold on the Jets. If this game was in Buffalo, there would be a six-point spread in favor of the home team. Still, on paper, the Jets and Bills seem pretty even. The Bills are a good matchup for the Jets in many ways.
When teams of equal caliber meet, it’s often the other aspects of the game that determine the outcome—all the ones we don’t talk about as much. How those turn out in this game could made the difference.
Sports referees are universally hated, especially in the age of ultra-slow-motion replay. They play an outsized role in the outcome of games, even with the reduction of various calls in 2022. That applied to both Jets-Bills matchups, too.
Week 9 key penalties
In the Week 9 matchup, the Jets were called for just three penalties for 30 yards—one on offense and two on special teams. However, both of those special teams penalties were critical. The first was a 10-yard holding penalty by Marcell Harris negating a 44-yard kickoff return by Braxton Berrios. Buffalo had just taken a 7-0 lead, and the Jets would have had excellent field position. Instead, they started at their own 16.
The other special teams penalty was even worse, as it occurred after the play and was completely unacceptable. Captain Justin Hardee was called for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty for getting into it with a Bills player. The game was tied at 17 with 12:40 to go in the fourth quarter, and Braden Mann had just pinned the Bills at their own 12-yard line. Instead, they started from their own 27. While they did not score, that could have been a defining play in the game.
Buffalo had the same penalty total as the Jets with three for 30 yards. Two of theirs were also critical, though.
The first, a facemask penalty after a five-yard run by James Robinson on 2nd and 3, moved the Jets from their own 43-yard line to the Buffalo 42. The Jets gained another seven yards on the next series, and Greg Zuerlein nailed a 53-yard field goal to put the Jets on the board. Without that facemask, all things being equal, the Jets would have been forced to punt. Since the game was decided by three points, those could’ve been the three points right there.
The final penalty potentially decided the game.
The Bills got the ball back at their own 25 with 1:43 to go in the fourth quarter, trailing 20-17. Realistically, they needed about 35-40 yards to attempt a game-tying field goal. They appeared to knock off a chunk of it on first down when Josh Allen completed a 26-yard pass to Stefon Diggs. A Dion Dawkins holding penalty not only negated the completion, but set Buffalo back another 10 yards.
Although Allen completed an 18-yard pass to Gabe Davis on the next play, that still placed the Bills only at their own 33. The next play was the famous Bryce Huff strip sack, and the rest is history.
Week 14 key penalties
In the second matchup, the Jets lost out significantly from penalties, garnering seven for 61 yards. The most severe was C.J. Mosley’s jump offsides when the Bills were showing that they were going for it on 4th and 1 from their own 39. Everyone and their mother knew that the Bills were not going to actually snap the ball; they were merely trying to draw the Jets offsides, and Mosley obliged. It was another crushing blow from a Jets captain. The Bills walked right down the field and scored a touchdown after that penalty.
Michael Carter II had a rough game, getting called for two penalties for 25 yards. The second came after the Jets had just tied the game at 7. The Bills had the ball with a 2nd and 4 at the Jets 37. Carter was called for a 20-yard pass interference penalty, moving the Bills to the Jets 17. Three plays later, Allen scored a 5-yard rushing touchdown.
Another bad special teams penalty also affected the Jets. With the game scoreless, Braden Mann’s punt sailed into the end zone for a touchback. Long snapper Thomas Hennessy was called for a holding penalty, though, giving the Bills 10 free yards and better starting field position at the 30. That started the drive where Mosley’s penalty occurred.
The Bills had their share of penalties in the game, getting called for 5 penalties for 35 yards. Dawkins was once again a culprit, getting called for two holding penalties and a false start. Still, none of them came close to Mosley’s penalty, which could have well been the deciding factor in the game.
How will the Jets and Bills fare penalty-wise in the two games? That remains to be seen, but the Jets victimized themselves with boneheaded penalties in each of the two 2022 matchups.
We’ve already gone over some of the brutal special teams penalties the Jets were called for in the 2022 games. Hardee’s was the worst, but the other two also hurt the team.
Aaron Rodgers can explain how important special teams is. His team lost the 2021 NFC Divisional game to the 49ers largely due to a blocked punt touchdown that allowed San Francisco to tie the game at 10. The 49ers could not get anything going on offense but eventually won the game 13-10. That was a game-changing play. Obviously, Rodgers’ own offensive struggles hurt the Packers, but the special teams play was the direct difference.
Week 9 key special teams plays
The first Jets-Bills matchup began with, of all things, a Braden Mann shanked kickoff. It sailed a mere 20 yards, giving Buffalo the ball at their own 45 instead of what would have likely been the 25. Although the drive ended with a Josh Allen interception, it was a poor way to start the game.
The Bills’ first punt return was also impactful. Mann punted 63 yards to the Bills’ 15, but Nyheim Hines returned it 18 yards to the 33. The 45-yard net was still good but not nearly as good as it could have been.
Zuerlein’s made 53-yard field goal was a huge deal for the Jets. Getting points on the board was critical, and the game probably would have gone differently without it.
Ashtyn Davis had a fake punt on 4th and 1 that he converted into a first down, although it ended with a Zach Wilson lost fumble.
Mann redeemed himself by pinning the Bills at their own 7 with a 38-yard punt, although the Bills drove down for a 93-yard touchdown. He also had that punt inside the 20 mitigated by the Hardee penalty.
Bills kicker Tyler Bass struggled in the game. He missed a 55-yard field goal to end the half and also had a kickoff out of bounds, although he did make a 51-yard field goal later.
Punter Sam Martin pinned the Jets at their own 4 later in the game. The Jets were able to overcome that, driving all the way down to the Buffalo 2 before settling for a 28-yard field goal to take the lead for good.
Week 14 key special teams plays
In the second matchup, Braxton Berrios’ awful decision on a punt return put the Jets behind the eight-ball. He allowed a ball to bounce over his head and be downed at the 2-yard line instead of what would have been close to the 20.
Mann had a 40-yard punt to give Buffalo field position at their own 33 and a 51-yard punt that went into the end zone for a 31-yard net. He had a 41-yarder downed at the 18, only marginally better than a touchback. He had another 39-yard punt to the Buffalo 18 which was returned to the 20, the equivalent of a touchback.
Later, Mann’s 51-yard punt was returned 17 yards, a 34-yard net that gave the Bills starting field position at their own 48. Mann did have one punt downed at the Buffalo 8, but overall it was a miserable day in the snow for the Jets’ punter.
Jermaine Johnson altered the Jets’ trajectory in the game with a blocked punt for a safety that made the score 20-9. Martin tempered that, though, with a 60-yard free kick that Berrios fielded at the Jets 23. He returned it to the 36, which is good field position but less than you’d want from a free kick.
Overall, the Bills won the special teams battle in Week 14 due to Mann’s ineffective punting and Berrios’ bad decision.
2023 special teams outlook
With Mann and Berrios gone and Hines out for the season, several things have changed on special teams for both teams. Thomas Morstead and Xavier Gipson take over for the two Jets, respectively.
Morstead is a more reliable punter than Mann. In 2022, Morstead only had three punts under 40 yards that were not downed inside the 20 compared to Mann’s nine. Mann had 26 punts from a distance of 60 yards or less to the end zone, and Morstead had 25; on those punts, Mann had five touchbacks (19.2%) compared to Morstead’s two (8%), and Mann downed 18 inside the 20 (69.2%) compared to Morstead’s 22 (88%). Morstead’s reliability can make a huge difference.
For reference, Martin, the Bills punter, had five punts under 40 yards that were not downed inside the 20, and three of his 16 punts (18.8%) from a distance of ≤60 yards went into the end zone, while 11 were downed inside the 20 (68.8%).
Martin averaged 47.7 gross yards per punt and 42.2 net with a 35.6% return rate on 45 punts. Morstead had 47.1 gross yards and 41.3 net yards with a 50% return rate on 60 punts.
Martin seems to be a somewhat better punter in terms of distance and preventing returns, but Morstead is better at pinning the opponent inside the 20. This could also have something to do with punt coverage, but that will not benefit the Jets, who allowed two of the three punt return touchdowns across the league. Perhaps Irvin Charles can help with that.
As for Gipson, it remains to be seen how he will perform. However, his college acumen as a punt returner was almost Devin Hester-like, as he scored four punt return touchdowns on 35 returns and averaged 15.5 yards per return. He wasn’t much of a kick returner in college on few attempts, but he had a 45-yarder in the preseason. Muffs could be an issue for Gipson, but not substantially more than the league average.
The Bills are listing Deonte Harty as their returner; he averages 25.4 yards per kickoff return and 9.8 yards per punt return in his career. Still, Hines had two kick return touchdowns in one game in 2022, although his yards per punt return is identical at 9.8.
At kicker, Tyler Bass went 27-for-31 (87.1%) on field goals, although he missed two from 30-39 yards and only attempted three from beyond 50 (making two). Greg Zuerlein went 30-for-39 (81.1%), going just 6-for-11 (54.6%) beyond 50 yards. He also missed two in the 40-49 range. Zuerlein made 28 of 29 extra points (96.6%), while Bass made 48 of 50 (96%). Overall, it appears that Bass is a more reliable kicker.
Michael Nania wrote an article about several philosophical changes Robert Saleh needs to make. I followed it up with another article about the importance of fourth down decision-making when playing good teams.
Week 9 key fourth down decisions
In the Week 9 matchup, Saleh went for it twice against Buffalo on 4th and 1: once at the two-minute warning of the first half while trailing 14-3, and again on a fake punt when trailing 14-10 in the third quarter. The Jets converted both times, first on a pass to C.J. Uzomah, the second with a two-yard run by Ashtyn Davis.
The first drive turned into a touchdown. While the second ended with a Zach Wilson strip-sack, Josh Allen threw an interception to Sauce Gardner a few plays later, and the fact that the Jets had driven down to the Buffalo 28 previously ultimately led to them regaining possession at the Buffalo 16. Four plays later, the Jets punched it in to take a 17-14 lead.
In the second game, though, Saleh also made a mistake in this area.
Week 14 key fourth down decisions
With the Jets trailing 20-9 and facing a 4th and 1 from the Buffalo 9 with 1:21 remaining and three timeouts, Saleh opted to kick the field goal to make it a one-score game and then kick off.
Conventional wisdom says that it makes no difference whether to kick the field goal or go for it, but looking at it logically, it’s harder to drive into range for a touchdown than a field goal. With the ball at the 9, it made more sense to try to get the touchdown, go for two, hopefully make it, and then either kick off or try the onside kick.
If they missed the two-point conversion, they’d need another touchdown, anyway. Perhaps Saleh felt that going for it would force him to go for the onside kick even if they got the touchdown, but the numbers support going for it.
While the Jets’ win probability wasn’t very strong either way (only 2.38% even if they made the conversion), it was 1.84% higher if they had gone for it. Saleh opted for the conventional wisdom. It likely didn’t cost the Jets the game, as their chances were so low anyway and they also did get the ball back at their own 21 with a last chance to drive down, but it was a mistake nevertheless.
Sean McDermott’s decision to try to draw the Jets offsides on 4th and 1 from his own 39 worked. Still, this is the same McDermott who allowed Kansas City to score a game-tying field goal in 13 seconds in the 2021 AFC Divisional due to his decision-making. From kicking the ball deep to guarding the sideline even though Kansas City had three timeouts, the blame for that loss falls on McDermott’s shoulders.
With McDermott now calling defensive plays for Buffalo, there’s a further chance for Saleh and Nathaniel Hackett to outcoach him. Can they do it?
Overall, these are the things that make the difference between winning and losing a relatively evenly matched game. Turnovers, scores, etc. all play a role, but the game swings on unforced errors, coaching decisions, and special teams play. This will be the first chance for the Jets to prove that they’ve improved from 2022 in those areas.
Next Article: NY Jets have no clue how Bills will attack Rodgers in this area
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Originally posted on Jets X-Factor