All sacks, quarterback hits and pressures are not created equally.
That being said, when a quarterback is sacked five times and pressured on over 50 percent of his dropbacks, like Geno Smith was in the New York Jets' 38-13 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, something has to change.
Sometimes, it's the result of poor protection from the offensive line. Sometimes, the quarterback hangs on to the ball too long. sSometimes, the coverage downfield is just too good and the quarterback has nowhere to throw the ball.
So, what needs to improve in order for the Jets offense to take off as it has already in spurts this season (12th in total yards, 16th in passing yards)?
Let's take a look at the bad, the ugly and the uglier of the Jets' protection woes.
Offensive Line Breakdowns
If the Jets are going to put together any kind of passing game, they can't allow defenders to get into the backfield as quickly as Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey did on the first sack of the day.
The Jets came out in the 11 personnel grouping (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) and the Titans matched with their 4-2-5 nickel defense.
Casey quickly batted away the arms of the blocker, Jets left guard Vladimir Ducasse, and rushed upfield toward Smith. The rookie quarterback was flushed out of the pocket and into the arms of defensive end Ropati Pitoitua.
Ducasse was much-maligned in his first three years in the NFL, as the Jets tried him out at several spots to no avail. He was platooning at guard last year with starter Matt Slauson, but former offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo was fervently against it—probably because Ducasse struggled so mightily whenever he was in the lineup.
He has shown some bright spots this year, but his development remains a work in progress.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ducasse is rated as the seventh-worst pass-blocking guard in the league, yielding 16 combined pressures (10 hurries, four hits, two sacks) in 161 snaps in pass protection.
The Jets' offensive line as a whole ranks 20th in the NFL in PFF's pass-blocking efficiency. On average, Smith is pressured on 41 percent of his dropbacks, which is the eighth-highest percentage in the NFL.
The starting unit up front has been retooled recently and named three new starters over the past two years. Left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold are the only players that remain from the talented offensive line that led the Jets from 2009-2011.
Quicker Release From Geno Smith
Blockers can't block forever. Sometimes, the quarterback just has to get rid of the ball.
According to PFF, Geno is one of the slowest quarterbacks in the league in that respect. He holds on to the ball for 3.27 seconds on average before either attempting a pass, scrambling or being sacked. That average is the fourth-longest of any starting quarterback.
His average of 2.94 seconds to attempt a pass is the second-longest in the NFL behind only Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.
His average of 4.69 seconds before being sacked is the longest, meaning that while he may be under pressure at times, he often has more than enough time to read a defense before he is ultimately sacked.
On the first sack of the day against the Titans, the coverage was excellent downfield and Smith had the opportunity to throw the ball away if he had just rolled out of the tackle box and thrown the ball out of bounds over everyone's head.
Heck, even intentional grounding here—half the distance to the goal and a loss of down—would have been preferable to the 14-yard sack from Pitoitua.
The play was meant to be a screen pass to running back Bilal Powell (circled in red), but the Titans had snuffed it out and the pressure got into the backfield before Smith could get the ball to his running back.
"We just have to get rid of the football in those situations, dirt the ball if you will, instead of taking the sacks," said head coach Rex Ryan. "I think that happened a couple of times on screen passes. The protection, overall, I think at times our protection was outstanding. It takes one guy to miss and all of a sudden, obviously we give up five sacks and that’s not good."
Ryan was right. The above example was not the only time Geno was sacked on a screen pass.
The fourth sack of the day came as a result of a similar circumstance. The Titans had sniffed out the screen pass and defensive tackle Karl Klug was bearing down on Smith.
In an effort to save the play, Smith tried to transfer the ball from his right to his left hand, but fumbled the ball behind his back in the process. Klug recovered, the Titans scored and the Jets had their 2013 rendition of the butt fumble.
On plays like screens, where the blockers will slip off their defender to get downfield, Smith has to know that there's only a short period of time for him to make a decision and either get the ball to his teammate in space or throw it away.
How To Fix It
It's really not that difficult.
Smith has to be smarter with the football, getting it out more quickly.
The Jets have to do a better job protecting him, letting plays develop so that the signal-caller can make use of his talented arm.
Perhaps the Jets need to call shorter passes. Smith has thrown 53 aimed passes of 10 or more yards and 70 shorter passes.
That's a fairly good balance, but perhaps the protection woes and Smith's struggles with decision-making should dictate more rhythm passes and predetermined reads to get the ball out of Smith's hands quicker.
The Jets can't completely get away from the vertical passing game, however. In fact, Smith is the second-most accurate deep passer in the NFL through four games, hitting his intended target in the hands on 57.1 percent of his throws traveling 20 or more yards.
In order to maximize that ability, the Jets must also maximize his protection.
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