Friday, October 2, 2015

Breaking down Ryan Fitzpatrick's struggles throwing downfield

After starting the season with wins over the Browns and Colts, the Jets were looking to return home to MetLife Stadium and treat their fans to a 3-0 start against an Eagles team that looked listless in their first two games, particularly on offense. Instead, Philadelphia came in and took it to New York, opening an early 24-0 lead on its way to a 24-17 win.

The Jets’ defense recovered after a tough start, but it was their offense that held them back on this day. Without Eric Decker and Chris Ivory, who was active but didn’t play a snap, the Jets’ offense started and ended with Brandon Marshall, who suffered a few drops and a bone-headed lateral attempt despite an impressive 10-catch, 109-yard statline.

Regardless of who was hurt and who struggled, the real issue with the Jets’ offense was an ability to stretch the field. Despite the return of second-round pick Devin Smith, a vertical playmaker with 4.4 speed, New York couldn’t push the ball deep successfully. Ryan Fitzpatrick was just 3 for 9 targeting Smith, but 32 for 49 targeting his other receivers. And none of those three completions went for more than 16 yards.

The Eagles understood Fitzpatrick’s limitations coming into the game, as they stacked the box even with the Jets starting Bilal Powell at running back. The following screenshot from the game’s first play shows eight Eagles defenders in the box, with the Jets having just seven players to block them, one of whom was slot receiver Jeremy Kerley. Predictably, the play gained just three yards. Two short passes later, and the Jets were forced to punt.

The Jets repeated the same formula for three-and-out on their following drive, but did dink-and-dunk their way to a first down late in the opening quarter. On their first play of the second quarter with Zac Stacy in the backfield, this is what the Eagles’ defense looked like.

Again, eight Eagles defenders in the box against seven Jets. The play went for two yards. Philadelphia had such little respect for the Jets’ passing game that they loaded up to stop the run on first down, hoping to force the Jets into second-and-long situations that their offense struggles with.

The response to stacked boxes in the NFL is play-action passes and taking deep shots down the field. Unfortunately, the Jets didn’t throw a pass over 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage until they were facing a 24-point deficit with just over a minute left in the second quarter. Fitzpatrick completed the pass to Quincy Enunwa for 26 yards over the middle, but it wasn’t pretty.

Enunwa was breaking from left to right on the screen, but Fitzpatrick’s pass was woefully behind his man, and Enunwa did a great job to reach back and make the play before going to the ground and rolling for extra yardage. Fitzpatrick didn’t have the opportunity to lead Enunwa, as that would’ve taken him into the defenders to the right of the screen, but he didn’t anticipate the throw early enough to hit him in stride, either.

Fitzpatrick still hadn’t attempted a pass that traveled over 20 yards in the air until the second-to-last offensive play of the half, when he had Devin Smith open in the endzone for an easy touchdown. In the screenshot below, Smith is moving towards the vacant middle of the endzone as Fitzpatrick releases the pass from the 19-yard line. In the shot after, you can see where the ball ends up.

Another pass thrown well behind the receiver, and one that kept points off the board. Fitzpatrick did hit Marshall in the front of the endzone for a 16-yard score on the next play from scrimmage, giving the Jets their first points of the game heading into the half.

In the third quarter, Fitzpatrick attempted his second pass of the game over 20 yards. The result was an airmailed pass to Enunwa, a 6-2 wide receiver who couldn’t come close to getting a hand on the pass.

On the ensuing third-and-10, Fitzpatrick tried to find Smith deep down the left side, but the ball was underthrown and broken up by Eric Rowe. After another deep incompletion to Marshall on the next drive, Fitzpatrick threw a back-breaking interception deep in Philadelphia territory on, you guessed it, an attempted deep ball. Looking for Smith again in tight coverage, the pass was short and easily intercepted by Rowe.

If you’re counting, that’s zero completions for Fitzpatrick on five attempts over 20 yards down the field. On his next deep attempt, again to Smith, Fitzpatrick actually gives the two Eagles defenders a better chance to make a play on the ball than he does Smith. Luckily for the veteran, the interception was dropped.

Out of a whopping 58 pass attempts in a game the Jets were trailing by multiple possessions most of the way, Fitzpatrick tried to push the ball 20 yards downfield just six times. He completed zero of those attempts, and none of them were particularly close.

The Jets are likely to get Ivory back for a Week 4 matchup with the Dolphins in London, but Decker is still uncertain to play. Having Ivory back will help the running game, as he’s talented enough to take care of the extra defender in the box, either with a quick cut or by lowering his shoulder and running through the tackle. As useful as Powell is as a do-it-all backup, he doesn’t possess that kind of physical talent.

Although having Ivory back will help, the Jets need to be able to open up the playbook and take shots downfield, especially with Smith healthy. The lack of chemistry between Fitzpatrick and his rookie receiver was evident, as Smith was injured well before Fitzpatrick took the reins from Geno Smith and missed valuable practice time.

Even with chemistry, though, the question remains as to whether Fitzpatrick has the arm to stretch the field. Even when he had receivers open, he was a beat late with his throws, which is not the way to make up for a lack of arm strength. Fitzpatrick needs to be able to anticipate these throws to make them work, but that’s not something he’s ever been capable of in his first nine NFL seasons. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

With Fitzpatrick at the helm, the only way the Jets can win games is by building an early lead and controlling the game script, something they did in the first two weeks thanks to 10 forced turnovers from their defense. The Eagles took care of the ball and scored points early, which looks to be the blueprint to beat this year’s Jets with Fitzpatrick under center.

It’s a flawed formula, but one that can work against below-average teams without standout quarterbacks. The Jets’ schedule isn’t too daunting from here on out, as the only top-10 quarterbacks they face are Tom Brady (twice) and Tony Romo, if he’s back in time for a Week 15 matchup with the Cowboys. Besides the Pats and Cowboys, the Bills and Raiders are the only teams left on the Jets' schedule who currently have more than one win.

If the Jets’ offense falls flat again in London this weekend thanks to an inability to stretch the field, Todd Bowles will have a big decision on his hands. With Geno Smith healthy and possessing the arm strength necessary to challenge defenses deep, would Smith give the Jets a better chance to win? The coaching staff threw all of its support behind Smith this offseason even after the Fitzpatrick trade, which seems to imply they believe he gives their offense the greatest upside. They had no choice but to throw their full confidence behind Fitzpatrick once Smith broke his jaw, and Bowles may find himself in another spot where he is forced to make a move.

Fitzpatrick is a career backup and a game manager, and he’s made one heck of a career playing that role. He’s always been stretched as a starter, however, and another loss may mean it’s time for the Jets to give Smith one last chance. Smith has seen the team’s gameplan for success from the sidelines, and if he gets another opportunity, the only question remains: “Can he play within that blueprint while adding the deep ball to the Jets’ offense?” If Fitzpatrick falters again in Week 4, we may find out.

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