The LaFleur Lineage: Resurrecting the Jets’ Offense Requires a Return to Tradition

The Jets Offense is a failure; here’s what needs to change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mike LaFleur was the next man up in the vaunted Shanahan coaching tree when he was hired as the Jets’ Offensive Coordinator. Having worked under Kyle Shanahan for 7 years, LaFleur is well-versed in the wide zone offense that has taken over the NFL, and fans hoped that LaFleur could be the next Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Kevin Stefanski, or even Matt LaFleur. 8 weeks into the season, fans’ wishful thinking has morphed into widespread disdain for Mike LaFleur. 

The Jets are 29th in the NFL in scoring offense, 32nd in points per game, and the team’s promising rookie quarterback—who LaFleur was brought in to help—has twice as many interceptions as passing touchdowns.

As most fans see it, the offense is abysmal, the quarterback is treading water, and Mike LaFleur is to blame.

While I have defended LaFleur and have urged fans to be patient, I acknowledge that LaFleur’s playcalling must improve if we want to see Zach Wilson thrive. I believe that fixing the Jets’ offense requires LaFleur to return to the foundations of the modern wide zone attack, and that doing this can transform the Jets’ awful offense into a high-powered machine and allow Zach Wilson to reach the heights we all know he is capable of.

More RPOs

Zach Wilson thrived in college in part due to the amount of RPOs BYU ran in 2020, and the Jets would be wise to incorporate more of them into their offense.

For those who don’t know what an RPO is: an RPO combines a run scheme and a pass scheme into one play–for example, an inside zone run with a slant route. When an RPO is called, the quarterback holds the ball in the mesh point for the running back while, at the same time, reading a specific defender (often a linebacker or safety). If the defender fits the run, the Quarterback pulls the ball and throws a pass. If the defender relates to the passing concept, the Quarterback hands the ball off.

The benefit of the RPO is that it puts a defender in conflict and distributes the ball where the defense has the fewest defenders. In addition, the play is easy for the quarterback to execute and gives an offense optionality at the line of scrimmage.

One of Zach Wilson’s top plays in college was the RPO. BYU ran RPOs several times per game and Zach Wilson executed them near-flawlessly. In fact, according to Alex Kirby of throwdeeppublishing.com, BYU ran 42 RPOs off the wide zone running play alone last season. 

There are a few pass plays that are commonly attached to RPOs. One such pass play is the 5 yard speedout, which you can see below being executed by the Kansas City Chiefs. 

This route is known as a “free access” throw because the cornerback at the top of the screen is playing 7-8 yards off the line of scrimmage and is, in effect, conceding any short throws (resulting in the Quarterback having “free access”). Zach Wilson executed this exact throw dozens of times at BYU, and the Jets would be wise to start building in free access throws to their basic run concepts. 

A common pass play attached to the other side of the speedout RPO is the bubble screen. Here we see the San Francisco 49ers execute a bubble screen RPO. 

Executing a bubble screen RPO is just a matter of counting the defenders to the side of the RPO and deciding whether to throw the ball or hand it off. In this case, the defense royally screws up the coverage and has 2 defenders covering 3 receivers. That doesn’t usually happen, but the point is that RPOs stress defenses and force coordinators to be intentional about how they allocate players in run support and pass defense.

One final type of RPO that is increasingly common in the NFL is called a “now” screen and, ironically, no team uses now screens more than Matt LaFleur’s Green Bay Packers. A now screen is when the Quarterback throws the ball to an isolated receiver when the cornerback is playing 7-8 yards off the line of scrimmage. The difference between a now-screen and a bubble screen is who the ball is thrown to; a bubble screen is thrown to the two or three receiver side, while the now screen is thrown to the single receiver side. The benefit of the now screen is that it is a way to get cheap yards and distribute the ball to your team’s best playmaker (typically the X receiver). Just like all other RPOs, the now screen is attached to a run play so that the offense has an alternative in case the throw is not available.

I remember the Jets throwing a now screen in the preseason but I haven’t seen it since. I would love to see the Jets run more of these plays to get the ball in the hands of Corey Davis and Elijah Moore.

One might ask: why do you consider RPOs an element of the wide zone offense? After all, the wide zone is an old offense whereas the RPO is a modern innovation. The answer is that I see the RPO as integral to the modern wide zone offense. One of the biggest assets of a run-based offense is the ability to control the defense’s box count. RPOs allow offenses to keep the defense honest by punishing them when they cheat to play the run. This, coupled with the fact that virtually every modern wide zone team relies on RPOs, is why I believe the RPO is an aspect of the modern wide zone offense.

I’m fairly confident that the Jets have RPOs in their playbook; I just hope Mike LaFleur begins to call them in games.

More Play Action

When I first watched the 49ers offense to learn more about Mike LaFleur’s origins, I came away with a high opinion of their play-action pass game and, conversely, a very low opinion of their drop-back pass game. In my view, through 7 games, the Jets have relied too much on their drop-back pass game and too little on their play-action pass game.

The benefit of play-action, which is a central concept to the wide zone offense, is that it creates bigger throwing windows because of the threat of the run. In addition, play-action passes often have fewer receivers in the route concept so it’s easier to read for the quarterback. 

A play-action pass play that I would love the Jets to run more is “Drift.” This is a Day 1 install play for the San Francisco 49ers and one of the most commonly run plays across the league in wide zone offenses. There are two routes in Drift: a clearout from one receiver and a dig with a speed cut from the other. The ball almost ALWAYS goes to the Drift route because the play-action fake sucks the linebackers in, thereby creating a massive throwing window.

Drift is an easy play to execute because the Quarterback either throws the drift route or checks it down. If I remember correctly, I think the Jets ran Drift once in the preseason; I would love to see the Jets rely more heavily on plays like Drift.

Drift is not the only play-action passing play that creates massive throwing windows and offers easy decisions for the quarterback. Other play-action passes, like “high cross,” create massive vertical stretches on the defense and open big throwing windows for the Quarterback.

More throws outside the numbers

One of Zach Wilson’s notable strengths is his ability to throw the ball outside of the numbers. Some of his best throws from college are on back-shoulder fades and comeback routes. 

One might argue that there is some innate tension between an offense that uses condensed formations (like the Jets) and throwing the ball outside the numbers. However, I believe there is a lot of evidence to the contrary. First of all, Zach’s college offense at BYU was based on the wide zone run game and utilized a lot of condensed splits. This did not stop them from widening out and throwing outside the numbers effectively. Secondly, NFL teams with the wide zone system like the Rams and the Packers have no trouble throwing near the sideline. 

An example of a passing play that would utilize Zach’s strengths is this post-out combination by the 2017 Los Angeles Rams. 

The opposing defense is playing quarters coverage (a 4 deep, 3 under coverage that is dominating the league right now). The Rams, a noted wide zone team, run the classic quarters “beater” of post-out. The reason this play works is because the cornerback is carried deep by the post route and the safety is out-leveraged, on an island, and must flip his hips in order to make a play on the out route. That’s really hard to do. The ball is thrown to the post but should really have been thrown to the out route. 

I would love to see the Jets take advantage of Zach’s arm strength by running classic quarters beaters post-out.

There are many other passes that wide zone offenses have used to attack the sidelines. One such play is “Bench,” and the key route on this play is one that Zach Wilson threw dozens of times at BYU: the deep out route. 

The Jets would be wise to call more plays like Bench, Post-Out, and others that take advantage of Zach’s ability to drive the ball towards the sidelines.

More one read throws

When calling plays for a rookie Quarterback, a play caller should always ask himself: what can I do to take pressure off the Quarterback’? The simple answer is that you can take pressure off the Quarterback by calling plays that they’re good at (we’ve covered this above) and by limiting the amount of decision-making, or “processing,” they need to do. 

How do we limit the amount of processing they need to do? RPOs are certainly one way, and Play-action helps, but another way to lighten Zach’s mental load is by calling “gimme” plays that create easy completions.

An example of that is this pick play that the Chiefs use to open up the RB wheel.

This play is a great man-coverage beater. The defense is aligned in Cover 1, meaning a four man rush, man-to-man coverage on the receivers and running back, and a free safety guarding the deep middle. The receiver and tight end at the top run “pick routes,” meaning they try to get in the way of the linebacker who is in man coverage on the running back. This play is a textbook example of a pick route working well because the linebacker gets completely stuck in the traffic created by the picks. However, even a more subtle pick–one that only slightly interferes with the pursuit of the linebacker–is good because it would provide the running back a split-second of more separation, allowing him to maximize YAC.

The other common one-read throw is the screen pass. 

I would love to see the Jets call more screens to take advantage of their athletic offensive linemen and take pressure off of Zach Wilson. Kyle Shanahan, who relies heavily on screen passes, often calls “Slammer,” which is a wide receiver screen off the outside zone run. 

While the Jets’ personnel is different from the 49ers’, the Jets have explosive playmakers like Elijah Moore and screen passes offer the opportunity to get him the ball in space and take pressure off of Zach Wilson. 

In Conclusion:

The four suggestions outlined above are by no means offer a comprehensive solution to fixing the Jets’ offense. 

The confluence of a young starting lineup, a rookie QB, and a rookie play caller all contribute to the offense’s inauspicious start. However, incorporating more RPOs, relying more heavily on play action, throwing the ball outside the numbers, and calling more one-read throws are all things I believe Mike LaFleur should do because they would improve the offense.

Acknowledgements:

I would like to acknowledge Alex Byrne, whose cutups of NFL offenses were an invaluable resource for me in the writing of this article. You can check out his YouTube channel here