Opinion: Late-Game Blame on Players, Not Sparano

Corey Griffin , TheJetsBlog.com

Under Brian Schottenheimer’s direction, the Jets’ offense seemingly had a new plan every week. While that can work when you’ve got Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers at the helm — or any quarterback with a true mastery of most basic NFL concepts — with a young, growing Mark Sanchez, it clearly overloaded him and his teammates and was one of the reasons why Schotty is off in St. Louis destroying Sam Bradford’s development.

Now, Tony Sparano has come under fire for doing Sunday exactly what he said the Jets’ offense would do when they hired him last winter and all offseason: execute the playbook every week, regardless of opponent. Sparano’s philosophy is about executing a small number of plays well, rather than executing a large number poorly.

It’s one of the reasons why I won’t kill Sparano for Sunday’s calls during the post-fumble fourth quarter drive that ended in a field goal and not a touchdown. After re-watching the tape, the problems with that drive lean more toward the players’ execution of the plays and less with Sparano’s calls. More after the jump.

First and 10

The play: The Jets pulled out a new “wrinkle” this week, with Tim Tebow lining up deep in the backfield and Mark Sanchez under center. Sanchez eventually motioned out wide, leaving Tebow as the de facto quarterback with Lex Hilliard as his fullback. Jeremy Kerley was in the slot to the left, Stephen Hill in the slot to the right and Dustin Keller was an inline blocker on the right end of the line. They ran Tebow out of the same formation earlier in the game and picked up a big third-down conversion. Obviously, that didn’t happen here, although the yardage amounts was pretty similar. On the snap, Hilliard went behind the right guard, while Tebow took the ball behind center as he’s done so many times from the shotgun/wildcat formation. While it’s a play that’s unlikely to gain 15 yards, it’s reasonable to expect the Jets to gain 4-5 yards and set them up, eventually, for third and short. Tebow ran into a wall and only gained two yards.

The problem: The Pats’ defense knew what was coming. The linebackers all crashed the line of scrimmage and Jerod Mayo hit the designed running lane before Tebow even got out of the backfield, occupying Nick Mangold. While Matt Slauson did a decent job of keeping Vince Wilfork out of the play, right guard Brandon Moore also got zero push and was held up at the line by the Pats’ other interior lineman (looked to to be No. 71 Brandon Deadrick). The official play gave Chandler Jones and Brandon Spikes credit for the tackle on the play, but it was Deadrick who was able to get a hand on Tebow at the line of scrimmage and hold him long enough for Jones and Spikes to combine on the tackle. For those that think maybe Tebow should have bounced the play outside, Keller got pushed back two yards right at the snap by Dont’a Hightower and would have been free if Tebow had gone in his direction.

The solution: This seems to be the play that has Jets fans up in arms. With the two-minute warning, why a run play when the clock will stop regardless? I can understand the frustration, but if Moore keeps Deadrick off of Tebow at the line, the play could have gone for 3-4 yards, setting up a much more manageable 2nd and 6 and putting the offense another 3 yards from a 3rd and short, as the play is designed to do. However, I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t the perfect time for Tebow to fake the dive and pull back in time to hit Stephen Hill (who was left alone in the middle of the field) on a short 5-7 yard pass. But then again, can you imagine the outrage if Tebow throws the ball there and it’s intercepted? Sparano would have been skewered for

2nd and 8

The play: Sanchez was back under center, except the Jets went with I’ve decided to tag their “Super-duper jumbo package.” Stephen Hill was the only wideout, split wide right and the Jets made offensive tackle Jason Smith eligible and lined him up to the right with blocking TE Konrad Reuland covering him up. Joe McKnight was the lone back behind Sanchez. Matt Slauson pulled right at the snap as the Jets tried to create a seal and give McKnight the option to run between a Mangold/Ferguson block and Slauson’s pull or bounce it around the right side where Reuland was matched up on a linebacker, this time Hightower. McKnight went right and was met thusly by Hightower and Wilfork after gaining one yard. The Patriots then used their first of three timeouts.

The problem: The problem here was again with the blocking. Brandon Spikes blitzed and with Slauson slow to get around, Spikes blew up the play and was in the backfield before McKnight had the ball. Still, Slauson got enough of a block him to allow McKnight to bounce right and try to take it between Brandon Moore and Reuland, but Reuland did a horrendous job and was literally tossed aside by Hightower, negating any chance McKnight had of bouncing the run outside, where Stephen Hill had given McKnight at lest 5-7 yards of running room.

The solution: Have the blocking TE block better? Reuland’s inability to hold Hightower at the point of attack single-handedly wrecked the play. While a hobbled McKnight clearly didn’t have the burst Sunday we’re used to seeing from him, I still believe he could have gained 4-5 yards on the outside if Reuland had kept Hightower at bay. If Greene was healthy, I would have expected them to try to push the ball inside but McKnight’s best runs are when he gets in space and can use his speed and athleticism. While you can second guess the Tebow run, this was a good call and played to their running back’s strengths and forced the Pats to use a timeout. The execution was lacking but the call was sound.

3rd and 7

The play: Sanchez stayed under center and the Jets kept Reuland in the game, this time lining both him and Keller up on the left side of the line with Keller  one step off the line of scrimmage. McKnight was the lone running back and Kerley was in the right slot with Stephen Hill out wide right. The Jets ran a designed playaction bootleg to the right, giving Sanchez a little less than a third of the field. Hill and Kerley ran crossing routed with Hill flattening out his route around the goal line and Kerely pulling a double move and eventually turning right at right around the first-down marker. Keller, who had begun to motion right before the snap, continued to the right flat in front of Sanchez. McKnight rolled left  behind much of the blocking, giving Sanchez the option to toss the ball to the side of the field most of the defense had vacated. Keller’s motion held up the Pats’ outside linebacker (Hightower) and Wilfork long enough for Sanchez to get the ball to his primary target (Kerley), but after a pump fake, Hightower closed on Sanchez. Sanchez ate the ball, took the sack and the Pats used their second timeout.

The problem: While you can have an issue here with the Jets not keeping Sanchez in the pocket and giving him more of the field to work with, Sparano ran a play that Sanchez has been running since his rookie year. Again, Sparano chose a play the Jets tend to execute over and over in a key situation and played to his quarterback’s strength (playaction). Despite Alfonzo Dennard in coverage and breaking, Kerley WAS open, but slipped on the second part of his double move, leading to Sanchez hesitating and Hightower closing for the sack. The other problem is Kerley ran too long of a route. A play like that has a very short shelf life. If you’re going to leave the outside LB and DE unchecked in order to clear out room, Kerley’s route should have been cut short after the cross with Hill.  If you watch the tape, you see Dennard hesitate after Hill went over the middle and Kerley went right. Kerley, who had a fantastic game, should have turned to Sanchez right after the two WRs crossed paths. He would have been a yard from the first-down marker, but Dennard’s hesitation gave him just enough room to get it after the catch.

The solution: None. It was a smart call and one that put their best WR (Kerley) a chance to be at or around the marker. It also put a rookie CB (Dennard) in a switch situation and gave Kerley enough room to make the marker and the catch. While Sanchez can struggle to throw the ball accurately down the field on the move, he’s easily capable of hitting a wideout with 8-15 yards in that situation. If Kerley doesn’t fall down, Sanchez hits him and it’s either a first down or very close. With Hill and Keller blanketed, Sanchez did the smart thing and didn’t force the ball to anyone. He ate it, took the sack and made the Pats use a timeout.

FINAL CONCLUSION

So what should we take from this? In that situation, the Jets had the job of scoring, killing the clock and forcing the Pats to burn timeouts and they did all three of those. Yes, the Jets ran plays of a conservative nature on the drive, but they’re all plays that the Jets have run over and over again to a good success rate. On first and second down, Sparano put his players in position to execute a methodical approach that should have put the offense in a third and short situation. When that didn’t happen, he went with a playcall that put Sanchez in a comfortable situation with room to throw to a reliable weapon against a rookie cornerback.

If the Jets were going to play for the field goal, they would have lined up McKnight or Hilliard behind Sanchez and run into the line three straight times. Sparano called three plays that attacked different parts of the Pats’ defense. Also, while Sanchez did a good job of exposing a terrible secondary most of the day, keep in mind that from the 18 yard line, there are no deep passes. A weak secondary benefits from a limited amount of real estate because they don’t have to cover as much ground or cover as long as they do on deep route. You cannot assume that if the Jets had passed the ball more than once that they would have succeeded.

Sparano coached the drive like he would coach any other drive in the situation — he did not coach scared. He put his players in a position to succeed with plays they are comfortable running. It was a sound strategy. The players just didn’t execute.