BGA Weekly: The Balance Shifts

As we enter the slow part of the offseason, I’ll be here each weekend with an analytical article based on statistics from the 2011 season, building on my analysis on the 2010 season from last year.

This week, I’ll be looking back at how successful the Jets were at using an unbalanced line on offense. Last year’s analysis showed that the Jets surprisingly had more success using unbalanced lines with Wayne Hunter at right tackle than they did with Damien Woody at right tackle, leading me to conclude this:

The best explanation for this is that Hunter, who already has plenty of experience as an extra tight end, has a skill-set better suited to being on the outside where he might be required to display mobility or block in space. If that’s a fair assumption, then using an unbalanced line more often might be one way the Jets can overcome the loss of Woody by tailoring their running game to Hunter’s strengths (superior athleticism, inferior strength).

So, did they exploit this? And, if not, why not? Find out after the jump.

Revisting the 2010 numbers

- The Jets ran 56 unbalanced line plays (and another eight in the postseason)
– They averaged 5.3 yards, although this drops to 4.3 if you factor in penalty yardage
– If you omit Seminole plays, they averaged 2.9 yards, with no significant difference between overloading either side
– On seminole plays, they were significantly more successful when they overloaded to the left
– They ran 39 unbalanced line plays with Woody at RT and 33 with Hunter
– The plays with Hunter in were more successful (6.2 yards to 4.6 on all plays, or 4.6 to 2.3 if you omit Seminole plays).

2011 Usage Rate

Immediately, we find a significant difference from last year. The Jets only went into an unbalanced line formation 11 times in 2011. Less than one-fifth of the amount they used it in 2010. So, why use a personnel group less when it was one of the few run formations where their numbers with Hunter in actually outperformed their numbers with Woody in?

The reason is obvious once you consider the personnel they used to run these plays in 2010. Ben Hartsock was the weakside tackle on 43 of the 64 plays and Rob Turner was on most of the rest. Matthew Mulligan did have some experience doing it, but nearly all of it was in the meaningless blowout of the Bills on the last day of the regular season and Dustin Keller did it just twice. With Hartsock and Turner unavailable (and two other guys who would have practiced these formations in the past now starting on the line), that left the Jets woefully underprepared to try this, especially with the line struggling to gel early.

On those 11 plays, Mulligan was the weakside tackle on eight plays, Vladimir Ducasse on two and Dustin Keller on one. However, with Wayne Hunter struggling, should they have identified this as an area where he could have thrived and made a better effort to get everyone ready to use unbalanced line formations more often? Let’s look at what success they had with their limited use of these plays.

2012 Statistics

On the 11 unbalanced line plays they did run, the Jets gained 44 yards, an average of four per play. Two of the plays went for over ten yards and three gained no yards or worse. The average was slightly better when they went overloaded to the left, although they only did this four times so we’re getting into really small sample sizes, so it’s not really possible to draw any concrete conclusions. However, I would have thought that they saw enough success to consider persevering with these looks.

Is this something the Jets will consider making a big part of their offense in 2012? Let’s consider that, given the changes since the end of the season.

2012 Usage Rate

The first major change is the addition of Tony Sparano as offensive coordinator. Is he a guy that favors these unbalanced line formations? Certainly, with the Dolphins having used them approximately 117 times over the past four years. However, much like the Jets under Brian Schottenheimer, they do often use these formations in conjunction with the Wildcat formation. The fact that the Dolphins have been gradually phasing out the Wildcat over the past few years is evident in the decreasing amount with which they have been using unbalanced line formations. They used 60 in 2008 (almost always overloading the right side), as the Wildcat took off. This dropped to 29 in 2009 and then only 28 over the last two years.

Looking back on two Jets-Dolphins games I charted back in 2010, the Dolphins used an unbalanced line once in the 31-23 loss in Week 3. They ended up running an end-around to Patrick Cobbs, who was tackled for a six yard loss by David Harris. Perhaps not surprisingly, they didn’t use an unbalanced line the next time the teams met, although that may also be because their starting right tackle, Vernon Carey, was out.

So, Sparano has used unbalanced lines in the past, although mostly with the Wildcat. Which bring us to the acquisition of Tim Tebow and the assumption that the Wildcat would be used quite a lot by the Jets this year. That alone should factor into how often they use an unbalanced line – and it will be interesting to see if the preference is to send D’Brickashaw Ferguson over to the right side, as the Dolphins used to with Jake Long.

One other factor that could mean it makes sense for the Jets to overload the right side when Tebow is in the game is that he is left-handed. If he’s going to throw, that would ordinarily mean that Wayne Hunter would be responsible for protecting his blind side.

Conclusions

With such a small sample size for 2011, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions about last year, but it does seem that there were obvious reasons why this was something the Jets did less of. I am led to believe that you could attribute the fact the Jets didn’t use this to Turner’s injury. Therefore, we may be underestimating the effect that had because if they had a bigger role earmarked for him as the Jumbo Package TE and unbalanced line weakside tackle, then that was something that was suddenly off the table – as were the promising three-TE packages once Jeff Cumberland got hurt. Although those both seem like minor losses, I think it factored into how impotent and predictable the offense was at times that two of their favorite wrinkles were unavailable to them for most of the year.

It also seems clear that this could be something they do a lot more of in 2012 and so, if Hunter is still the right tackle, perhaps it will be this year that they can use that to put him in situations that make the best use of his strengths. Identifying Hunter’s strengths from last year’s performance isn’t going to be easy, so Sparano would be well advised to look back at 2010 and consider some of the things he did well to get himself a long term deal in the first place.

Thanks to PFF for giving us exclusive access to statistics and data that were used in compiling this article.