BGA Weekly: Formation Contemplation (Part Two)

During the offseason, I’ll be looking back at certain aspects of the Jets’ season by analyzing data compiled from all nineteen games, rather than watching film. I will be tackling as many diverse topics as possible, but welcome your suggestions or requests in the comments.

Last week, I looked at the various defensive formations employed by the Jets and analyzed whether there was any correlation between the success of the defense and the formations they used. This week, I’m going to consider the other side of the coin.

I’m going to be looking at the Jets running game and trying to determine from which formations they had the most success. I will also be considering whether certain formations were more effective against certain teams and how this factored into their postseason strategy.

Once again, this article has used data exclusively provided to us from the guys at PFF. Our thanks, as ever, go out to them.

Introduction

Compiling the data for this article required me to go through each game and note down the formation used and the amount of yards gained on each running play. In order to ensure that only conventional running plays are analyzed, I have omitted the following from the data:

1. Quarterback kneel-downs
2. Any pass play where the quarterback scrambled
3. Fumbled snaps
4. Any plays negated by a penalty
5. Fake punts

That should explain why the numbers for each game will be less than the official rushing totals.

In terms of formations, I have split them as follows:

1. Seminole. Any formation where Brad Smith was the quarterback, regardless of the alignment of the other eligible receivers.
2. Pro Set. Any formation (other than a Seminole) with one TE, two backs and two receivers.
3. 3 WR. Any formation (other than a Seminole) with three wide receivers. There could be two backs or one back and one TE.
4. 2 TE. Any formation (other than a Seminole) with two tight ends. There could be two backs and one receiver or one back and two receivers.
5. 3 TE. Any formation (other than a Seminole) with three tight ends. There could be one back and one receiver or two backs.

The Jets did not run out of any other formations (ie four wideouts, three backs, empty backfield) all season long.

2010 Totals

Here is the breakdown of the success of each formation over the course of the regular season:

Pro Set – 155 carries, 638 yards, 4.1 average
Seminole – 48 carries, 288 yards, 6.0 average
3 WR – 80 carries, 372 yards, 4.7 average
2 TE – 197 carries, 882 yards, 4.5 average
3 TE – 27 carries, 96 yards, 3.6 average

Immediately, we can see that the Seminole formation was the most successful. However, it was boosted by a several big gains in the meaningless final game of the year against the Bills. Entering that game, the average was 5.3 yards per carry, which is perhaps a more realistic number to quantify the success of that play.

It is also worth noting that the play started off being very successful and ended up the year with some good success, but after the bye week, teams seemed to have figured it out and forced the Jets to go away from it. In Weeks 11 to 15, the Jets gained just 17 yards on 11 Seminole plays. For the rest of the year, they averaged 7.3 yards per carry.

At the other end of the scale, the lowest average per carry came when the Jets went with three tight ends. However, these plays tended to be short yardage plays, so they weren’t designed to get big chunks of yardage. They actually picked up a first down or touchdown on 15 of the 27 carries and were only stopped in a short yardage situation five or six times.

The yards per carry average for the Pro Set, 2 TE and 3 WR formations were pretty similar, but there were still some interesting patterns. The numbers for a 3 WR set were boosted by the game against New England in week two, where they broke three long runs. Without that game, the average from that formation was only 4.1 yards per carry.

It was also instantly apparent how reliant the two TE formation was on big plays to boost the yardage each game. For example, in Week One against the Ravens, the Jets gained 43 yards on two plays. The other eight carries from a two TE set netted seven yards. Similarly, in Week Five, they gained 39 yards on two late carries. Other than that, they had been 10-for-19. This makes sense, because having a heavy set like that is going to bring people into the box and bring down the amount of yards you typically make, but if you do break through the line, you can get good yardage because there is less deep support. Of course, the added benefit is that it could open up the passing game too.

This can be clearly demonstrated by looking at how many big runs were made from each formation. For these purposes, let’s call any gain of 10 or over a “big run”.

Pro Set – 12 big plays, 179 yards, one every 13 carries
Seminole – Eight big plays, 149 yards, one every six carries
3 WR – Nine big plays, 128 yards, one every 9 carries
2 TE – 18 big plays, 327 yards, one every 11 carries
3 TE – One big play, 18 yards, one every 27 carries

What’s also interesting to consider is the average yards per carry if we omit the big plays from the data. In choosing which formation to use, you need to weigh up the benefit of grinding out yards against the probability of breaking a long run:

Average yards per carry – Excluding big plays
Pro Set – 3.2
Seminole – 3.5
3 WR – 3.4
2 TE – 3.1
3 TE – 3.0

Game by game splits

Here we can start to analyze which formations were successful (or not) against each team to determine if there are any obvious patterns.

Seminole

As mentioned, the Seminole package saw a bit of a lull in the middle of the season. They only used it more than five times in three games (Denver, Cleveland and the final game against the Bills) and due to its gimmicky nature, there aren’t a lot of conclusions we can draw from which teams struggled to stop it.

Three WR

It seemed like the Jets may have surprised a few teams by running out of a three receiver set early in the year, but then teams wised up to it and became less susceptible to giving up big plays. Over the first five games, the Jets averaged 4.0 yards per carry or more in each game, but then failed to achieve that in seven of the last 11 games.

They ran most successfully from the three WR set against the Patriots, Lions, Vikings and Steelers in the regular season. In each case, the opposition is renowned for having a space stuffer on the line. Therefore, it perhaps makes sense that spreading the front seven out by having three wideouts would create more running room.

Teams they struggled to run against from a three receiver set included the Bears, a 4-3 team that relies more on the speed of its linebackers than the size of its front seven and Houston, a 3-4 team that is built around versatility moreso than pure size and doesn’t have that beef on the defensive line.

Two (or Three) Tight Ends

The Jets had the most success running from these formations against the Bills (twice) and the Bengals. The Bengals are a 4-3 team, so their front seven lacks the size of a 3-4 team like the Patriots or Ravens. The Bills are a 3-4 team, but they were in their first year since changing over, so they were doing that, in part, with 4-3 personnel. They also had some decent success from this formation against the Bears, another 4-3 team.

They struggled with two TE formations against New England – a team that could match up with them physically – and Denver and Houston – two teams that stacked the box. They also struggled against the Steelers, picking up 17 yards on the first two carries, but then only 19 yards on their last nine. As noted above, the numbers against Baltimore and Minnesota – two more physical teams – were solid, but artificially enhanced by a couple of big runs in each.

Pro Set

For the mostpart, the success from the Pro Set was similar to the average for the game as a whole. The only team against which it was markedly worse was New England, whose front seven size enables them to counter the use of a fullback with gang-tackling and the only team against whom the Pro Set did significantly better than the norm was Denver, which was mainly due to LaDainian Tomlinson breaking one late in the game.

Use of a fullback

Just to add to the available pool of data, I calculated the average yards per carry with a fullback in the game. Obviously, this mostly comprises all the Pro Set formations, but there is also some of the two TE sets where a fullback was also used and a handful of other plays that used a fullback. I have elected NOT to include any Seminole formation plays with a fullback on the field within this data.

The only teams that the Jets averaged better than 4.5 yards per carry with a fullback in the game were Baltimore, Buffalo and Minnesota. Two of the other teams where they had just under that were Detroit and Denver. These are mostly 4-3 teams or recent converts that have a carry-over of 4-3 personnel. Baltimore is the one exception, but that’s by far the smallest sample size (only nine carries) and the average is bolstered by a couple of long plays. The team the Jets struggled against most when using a fullback was New England. Overall, the Jets averaged 4.3 yards with a fullback, just below their overall average of 4.5 yards for the plays included within this study.

Postseason Strategy

Let’s now look at each postseason game in turn and see whether the Jets had success where we’d expect and whether they focused on the areas where they had most success during the season.

Indianapolis

Unlike their two other postseason opponents, the Jets hadn’t faced the Colts in the regular season. However, in order to get the running game going, we’d expect them to focus on the things that worked against similar teams. The Colts are an undersized 4-3 defense, which relies heavily on speed. While it didn’t always hold true, as a general rule, the Jets were able to have success with heavy sets (ie using fullbacks and multiple TE sets) when they faced teams like this. However, running from spread (3 WR) formations seemed to be most effective against the bigger teams. Let’s see if that’s what they did and how successful they were:

As you will recall, the Jets rode their running game to two long touchdown drives in the second half. They did use plenty of multiple tight end sets (17 in total) and although they didn’t rack up big yardage (2.6 ypc), that did play a part in moving the chains and also got them into the endzone twice. Where they did see extended success was when they used a fullback. They gained over 100 yards at 4.4 yards per carry with a fullback in the game, which Tony Richardson was on just under two thirds of their running plays. The Jets ran out of the spread formation sparingly, but to good effect, picking up 29 yards on four carries.

New England

The two games against the Patriots had produced some significant results. Using a fullback was completely ineffective, whereas running out of a spread formation had been extremely effective against them. Multiple TE formations had also been reasonably successful, as long as there wasn’t a fullback in the game too. Would this shape the Jets’ running game or would those be the areas New England would be most geared up to stop?

Their gameplan seemed to follow the pattern we would expect. Almost twice as many carries from spread formations, only nine carries with the fullback in the game and plenty of multiple TE formations (15 carries). Once again, running from the spread/three WR formation was succesful (4.9 ypc) and the multiple TE sets were less so (4.0 ypc, but closer to 3.0 ypc until Shonn Greene’s late touchdown run). Surprisingly, they ran for 55 yards on nine carries with a fullback in the game, although 36 of those yards came on two plays. This game was also notable for the fact that the Seminole formation was unavailable to them, due to Brad Smith’s injury.

Pittsburgh

In the Week 15 meeting with the Steelers, the Jets had managed a creditable 100 yards on 26 carries and had fared particularly well on runs from the spread (34 yards on five carries). They were less successful on two TE sets, although they used Robert Turner as the second TE more than they had all season to try and counter Pittsburgh’s size. Surprisingly, they did reasonably well when they used a fullback, which was not usually the case against the teams with size on their front seven.

For this meeting, there were two enormous personnel differences from the first matchup. The Jets had Wayne Hunter in for Damien Woody and the Steelers had Troy Polamalu in for Ryan Mundy. Advantage Steelers, in both cases. How could the Jets replicate that Week 15 performance?

In Week 15, the Jets opened in a two TE set and picked up 17 yards on their first two carries. This enabled them to establish a bit of a running game and no doubt contributed to their eventual win. The AFC Title Game began very differently, not with a Brad Smith kickoff return, but with a long Steelers TD drive. The Jets didn’t touch the ball until halfway through the first quarter and came out in a two TE formation again. This caused controversy after the game, because it meant Santonio Holmes did not start. It’s pretty normal for Holmes to be on the bench when the Jets have two TE’s in the game, although he did start the Week 15 game, just sitting out one play on the second series. Holmes still received starter reps – he was in on 79% of the plays, right around his usual workload and actually more than for Week 15 – but was clearly aggrieved at having missed five of the first seven plays. Although I don’t think it was considered as a benching, perhaps the Jets ought to have considered that he’d view it as a slight.

Had the Jets used those plays to establish the run, perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered, but they weren’t quite so successful this time. They gained just two yards on those three plays and had one yard on five carries at halftime. It’s pretty difficult to establish a running game when you can’t gain any yardage.

In the second half, Shonn Greene was able to break two big runs, the second of which set the Jets up for their ill-fated attempt to punch the ball in from the two. On each of the big runs, Ryan Clark missed a tackle – Pittsburgh’s only two missed tackles all game. Other than those two big runs, the Jets were getting stuffed every time. After that second big run, they gained just five yards on six carries the rest of the game (including one yard on their next four carries). All told, the only success they had was when they ran from the spread (48 yards on five carries). Other than that, they had 16 yards on 15 carries.

Whatever the Jets did, it didn’t work and perhaps with Woody out, it was never likely to. The Jets did manage to move the ball through the air in the second half, but sadly not fast enough to get the ball back with a chance to win.

Conclusions

It’s difficult to make any judgments about the gameplans in the postseason, because it’s impossible to know whether the team spent all week working on something that didn’t work the last time they faced that team or perhaps had identified an area where they thought they had a chance to do some damage. We also don’t know if they ended up doing something they weren’t planning to because of how the games played out. There is so much bluffing, reacting and this-will-be-the-last-thing-they’d-expect in the postseason, we sometimes forget that the defense will be focusing on the areas they think the offense will attack too.

To continue to have an elite running attack, I think the key is versatility. The Jets have a series of different formations and plays at their disposal and have shown that they can usually rack up good yardage, even if certain things work against some teams and not against others.

The key going forward will be to figure our where their strengths lie and focus on improving in the other areas to produce a running attack that is as multi-faceted as possible. That’s a challenge I’m sure Running Game Co-ordinator Bill Callahan is already working on.

More BGA next week. Keep your suggestions coming in!