NY Jets OC Mike LaFleur must address a major issue post-bye

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By: Michael Nania

The New York Jets have been brutal in a specific offensive situation

For the first time in many years, the New York Jets‘ offense can be described as “competent”. Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur has the Jets ranked 19th in points per game (21.8) and 18th in total yards per game (335.0). New York has placed no higher than 23rd in either category since placing 11th in scoring and 10th in total yards back in 2015.

But there is still plenty of room for improvement after the Jets’ Week 10 bye.

If the Jets’ offense wants to take the next step – progressing from competent to legitimately solid – they must start by improving in one crucial area: short-yardage situations.

The Jets are atrocious on third-and-short. They allow too many promising drives to stall because they struggle to grind out those final one or two yards on third down.

When facing third-and-1, the Jets have picked up a first down on just 7-of-17 plays. That’s a conversion rate of 41.2%, which is the NFL’s worst mark in such situations. The league average is 66.3%.

New York is just as bad with two yards to go. When facing third-and-2, the Jets have converted just 4-of-12 plays. It’s a league-worst conversion rate of 33.3%, falling well short of the 58.2% league average.

Poor short-yardage efficiency is the crux of New York’s most problematic offensive statistic: overall third-down conversion rate.

When including all third down plays (regardless of yards-to-go), the Jets have a third down conversion rate of 33.6%, which ranks 29th in the league.

But it’s really just in short-yardage situations where the Jets are terrible on third down. In most other third-down situations, the Jets range from respectable to very good.

Here is a look at the Jets’ third-down conversion rates by distance:

  • 1 yard to go: 41.2% (32nd) – NFL average: 66.3%
  • 2 yards to go: 33.3% (32nd) – NFL average: 58.2%
  • 3-4 yards to go: 53.8% (13th) – NFL average: 51.5%
  • 5-6 yards to go: 50.0% (7th) – NFL average: 43.2%
  • 7-8 yards to go: 26.7% (24th) – NFL average: 35.6%
  • 9-10 yards to go: 35.0% (14th) – NFL average: 31.1%
  • 11-15 yards to go: 7.1% (27th) – NFL average: 21.5%

When facing anywhere from 3-10 yards to go on third down, the Jets have converted 42.5% of the time, which ranks 14th-best. These situations make up the majority of their total third-down plays (80 of 126).

It’s the extremely short and the extremely long third downs that are crushing the Jets – specifically the short ones, as they make up a greater portion of the sample size. The Jets have faced 29 third downs with 1-2 yards to go, versus 14 with 11-15 yards to go.

This is not to say that the Jets cannot also improve their long-distance efficiency on third down – they absolutely can – but their number one issue right now, by a wide margin, is the short-yardage situations. That is where the Jets are hurting themselves the most.

Look at it this way. The Jets have converted 1-of-14 third downs with 11-15 yards to go, which is 7.1%. The league average is 21.5%. If they converted 21.5% of those 14 plays, they would have 3.0 conversions – 2.0 more than their actual total. So, the Jets have really only cost themselves 2.0 conversions in these situations all year.

That’s certainly bad. In short-yardage, though, the consequences are significantly more drastic.

The Jets have converted 11-of-29 third downs with 1-2 yards to go, giving them a 37.9% conversion rate. The league average is 63.3%. If the Jets converted 63.3% of those 29 plays, they would have 18.4 conversions.

This means the Jets have cost themselves a whopping total of 7.4 conversions versus league average in short-yardage situations alone. That’s at least seven whole drives that would have continued if the Jets were merely a league-average team at getting one or two more yards. Coming over nine games, that represents nearly one drive per game that was stalled by a short-yardage failure.

A boatload of potential points are being extinguished because of this problem.

As the Jets look to contend for a playoff spot (and division title) over the next eight games, they cannot afford to continue leaving points on the field due to their inability to get those all-important final few yards. It is eventually going to cost them a win or two.

In fact, the Jets have likely already suffered at least one loss by virtue of their short-yardage incompetence. Across their three losses, the Jets went 3-for-8 (37.5%) on third down with 1-2 yards to go, costing them a total of 2.0 conversions versus the league-average expectancy.

Who knows how much of a difference those two conversions could have made? That’s two potential touchdowns out the window. You could easily envision one of the Jets’ losses being flipped if you throw those in.

This is especially true when considering the Jets went 0-for-2 in these situations during their eventual 5-point loss to the Patriots; both occurring in the first half. One of those was a killer third-and-1 interception by Zach Wilson that went down as the game’s pivotal turning point.

This has to get cleaned up if the Jets are serious about contending.

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How can the Jets improve their short-yardage offense?

All of this troubling information begs the question: How can LaFleur and the Jets improve in short-yardage situations?

The solution that immediately comes to mind for most Jets fans is likely to lean heavier on run plays than pass plays. That’s not a bad idea, as the Jets are one of the NFL’s most pass-heavy teams in short-yardage situations.

With 16 passes and 13 runs, the Jets have run the ball only 44.8% of the time on third down with 1-2 yards to go, which ranks sixth-lowest. The league average is 60.0%.

Here’s the problem: The Jets are just as awful at running the ball on third-and-short as they are at throwing it.

When rushing, the Jets have converted 5-of-13 third downs with 1-2 yards to go. That’s 38.5%, ranking 32nd. They are no better when passing, converting 6-of-16, which is a 28th-ranked mark of 37.5%.

Despite the similarly bad results between both phases, I would still urge the Jets to start leaning much more heavily on the run game in short-yardage situations. This is because it is clearly the better option when looking at league-wide trends.

On third-and-1 plays this season, NFL teams have a 71.5% conversion rate via the run compared to only 53.4% via the pass. On third-and-2, the gap shrinks, but it remains large: 64.0% to 54.5% in favor of the run.

Utilizing a pass-heavy approach on third-and-short in spite of those trends only makes sense if you have a great quarterback and/or overall passing game. New York does not qualify at the moment.

Consider this: the only teams to run more total pass plays on third-and-short than the Jets are the Chiefs, Chargers, Bengals, Packers, and Vikings. Those teams can trust their quarterbacks far more than the Jets can trust Zach Wilson until further notice.

Plus, the Jets are built to be a ground-and-pound type of football team, anyway. Why abandon this mentality on third-and-short?

I would implore the Jets to start running the football at least 60% of the time on third-and-short, if not significantly more.

That’s where I would start. But the simple fact of the matter is that the Jets just have to block better in these situations.

It’s important to remember that offensive success has just as much to due with the players’ execution as it does with the offensive coordinator’s play-calling. Every fan loves to rag on the offensive coordinator when a play doesn’t work. Sometimes, though, the OC makes a good decision considering the circumstances, but the play doesn’t work out because the players fail to execute.

Check out these two failed short-yardage runs against Buffalo (the first is third-and-1 and the second is third-and-2). In each play, running the ball is a great idea based on Buffalo’s pre-snap look, but the play fails due to poor blocking.

It’s largely up to the players themselves to simply start executing better in these situations, but I do have one suggestion for LaFleur: call more runs to the outside.

New York is mostly running up the middle on third-and-short, with the two plays above serving as prime examples. Of the Jets’ 13 third-and-short runs, 10 of them went in-between the tackles.

This is an odd disparity, as the Jets are much better at running to the outside than running in-between the tackles. I think they should lean into that in short-yardage situations.

Sure, every team leans toward inside runs on third-and-short, as that’s just the nature of those situations, but I think the Jets’ margin between outside and inside success is wide enough to warrant using slightly more outside runs on third-and-short than most other teams.

When running outside of the tackles this season (this is including all carries, not just short-yardage), the Jets are averaging 5.7 yards per rush attempt, which ranks sixth-best in the NFL. They are averaging only 3.8 yards per rush attempt when running in-between the tackles, which ranks 23rd.

Yes, Breece Hall is a big part of this, as he averaged 6.6 yards per rush attempt when going outside of the tackles prior to his injury. But the point stands even if you take Hall out of the equation.

Removing Hall’s numbers, the rest of the Jets’ players are averaging 5.1 yards per rush attempt to the outside and 3.4 yards per rush attempt to the inside. Those numbers would rank 15th and 31st, respectively.

Michael Carter – the Jets’ new lead back after Hall’s injury – is averaging 4.3 yards per carry to the outside versus 3.5 to the inside. This is a continuation of his rookie year, when he posted marks of 4.8 and 3.7, respectively.

Posting the same splits in back-to-back years is a clear signal that the trend is accurate, so the Jets should follow it in must-convert situations. Let Carter occasionally try and get to the edge when you need one or two yards, rather than pounding him up the middle nearly every time.

It’s not just the running backs who should be getting more carries to the outside on third-and-short. LaFleur should also start dipping into his bag of tricks in these situations, getting the wide receivers involved on jet-sweeps and end-arounds.

A lot of the Jets’ non-Hall success to the outside comes from wide receiver Braxton Berrios. He’s gained 82 yards on seven carries to the outside (11.7 per carry). Fellow wide receiver Garrett Wilson also gained a solid chunk of 7 yards on his only rush to the outside. As an added piece of possible untapped potential, it’s easy to picture Elijah Moore being successful on the plays that Berrios has enjoyed success with.

Third-and-short run plays to wide receivers are very rare in the NFL, but they have been extremely successful when used.

Since 2020, NFL teams have a 75.0% conversion rate on outside runs by wide receivers on third down with 1-2 yards to go. It’s worth noting that this includes a sample of only 56 plays league-wide over 45 weeks of football, so this isn’t something the Jets should be expected to do often, but they could conceivably pull it out two or three times over the rest of this season.

There’s only so much LaFleur can do, though. You can’t rely heavily on outside runs or WR runs in short-yardage situations. Runs toward the edge involve a lot of risk in these scenarios since defenses typically load the box and have their defensive ends crash down hard.

While I do believe LaFleur and the Jets can use outside runs and WR runs in short-yardage situations more often than they have been, we’re only taking about a minor increase here. Runs up the middle will always be every team’s bread-and-butter in these scenarios. The Jets just have to block better on those plays. Sometimes it’s that simple.

Ultimately, if I were LaFleur, my contributions to fixing the third-and-short conundrum would be as follows: run the ball more frequently, run it outside on a slightly higher percentage of those runs, and hand it to the wide receivers occasionally. The rest of it is up to the players’ execution. Changing the play-calling will only do so much if the players can’t do their jobs.

Keep an eye on the Jets’ third-and-short performance in the second half of the season. So far, they have been able to survive their ineptitude in this area and continue winning games, but if they don’t fix the problem soon, it could prove costly. If they can fix it, however, this Jets’ offense will become substantially more formidable.

Next Article: How NY Jets can flip the script on Patriots in Foxborough 

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