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How Geno Smith Can Curb Inconsistency, Lead Jets to Playoffs

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How Geno Smith Can Curb Inconsistency, Lead Jets to Playoffs
Al Bello/Getty Images

The New York Jets defeat of the New Orleans Saints was the second game in which Geno Smith generated no turnovers. However, it was also marked Smith's lowest productivity of the season. That raises serious questions about how Smith can become more consistent and lead the Jets to the playoffs.

Smith is supposed to represent an improvement over Mark Sanchez and be a quarterback who is able to physically make plays beyond his predecessor's capabilities. He is supposed to lead the Jets offense into the NFL's new era, in which rule changes favorable to the passing game make 4,000-yard and even 5,000-yard seasons more the rule than the exception.

However, that doesn't seem to be happening. More and more, Smith is assuming a game-manager role, as Sanchez did before him. He's not being asked to win games, he's being asked not to lose them. The spirit of 2009, when defense and "Ground and Pound" reigned supreme, is back. The problem is, it won't always work.

The formula that beat the Saints has the best chance of working when the opponent's run defense is significantly inferior to its pass defense or when they're simply both bad.

The Jets face six opponents (they play Miami twice). The defensive rankings of these teams are as follows (according to NFL.com):

  • Carolina (third overall, 10th against the pass, second against the run)
  • Cleveland (fourth, sixth, seventh)
  • Baltimore (10th, 14th, eighth)
  • Oakland (18th, 25th, sixth)
  • Buffalo (20th, 18th, 17th)
  • Miami (23rd, 22nd, 21st)

It looks like the Jets will face four top-10 run defenses in their last seven games. In other words, the Jets' rushing attack has the best chance of working against Buffalo and Miami. To defeat their other four opponents, Smith's arm must figure more prominently in the game plan.

It's up to Marty Mornhinweg to design game plans that give Smith a higher profile while reducing the likelihood of turnovers.

More importantly, it's up to Smith to learn how to handle confusion.

As a rookie, Smith isn't expected to recognize every coverage. What he should be expected to do is recognize his limitations. In other words, he must recognize the signs of his on-field confusion and react in a way that does the least harm to his team. The best news is that these responses won't hurt him statistically. In fact, fewer interceptions would help his passer rating. Fewer sacks would help his net passing yardage.

 

Signs of Confusion

None of us can see inside Smith's head. But we can see when he underthrows a pass, doesn't set his feet before throwing or tries to force a ball into coverage.

Ideally, Smith would identify his moments of confusion himself. Once he identifies such a moment, he'll be much more productive if he refuses to force the play and chooses a relatively safe alternative.

This realization could take place in two seconds or five. Holding onto the ball too long hasn't been the issue with Smith's turnovers. Bleacher Report's Erik Frenz documented that in his piece, "What Went Wrong on Each of Geno Smith's 10 Interceptions."

Nor, according to ProFootballFocus.com (paid subscription), is pressure, at least when it comes to interceptions. Smith has been under pressure on 42.3 percent of his pass attempts. But that pressure has resulted in only four of his 13 interceptions. That's 30.8 percent.

Maybe I'm getting too complicated here. Perhaps what is necessary is that Smith's coaches define for him the circumstances under which he should throw. In other words, set strict protocols for the amount of separation a receiver must attain before Smith is to pass to him. Should no one attain that separation within three or four seconds, Smith would choose the best alternative option.

 

Signs of Progress

Readers have opined that the regular season is not the time to effect behavioral change. That viewpoint maintains that game preparation is too demanding in and of itself, that the Jets must live with Smith's inconsistencies until he can address them in the offseason. This is not necessarily the case.

It's probably true that Smith won't be able to review his in-season performance in depth during the season. He won't be able to make every mechanical adjustment that would reduce the number of passes that sail or are underthrown. But he's already shown significant progress in one critical area: ball security.

Smith has not lost a fumble since the "ButtFumble 2.0" in Tennessee. Even better, he's avoided fumbles altogether in three of his last five games. In those three games he's taken 176 snaps, attempted 69 passes and run 11 times.

According to the New York Post's Brian Costello, that improvement results from Smith's work in ball-security drills designed by running backs coach Anthony Lynn.

Smith's coaches made time for him to address his ball-security issues, and he responded well. Their next challenge is to devise drills that reinforce the concept of when Smith should and should not throw. It's a more complex challenge to be sure. But establishing easy-to-follow protocols for attempting a pass is necessary for Smith to perform more consistently.

Along with those protocols must come alternative courses of action to follow when a receiver is unavailable.

 

Alternative 1: Run

Smith is one of the Jets' most effective rushers, averaging nearly five yards per carry. He averages four carries a game when you combine scripted plays with unscripted scrambles. It's time to use Smith's feet more often.

Marty Mornhinweg should script more quarterback carries, perhaps as many as five per game. Since Smith hasn't lost a fumble since Week 4 at Tennessee, so providing more running opportunities doesn't necessarily involve the risk that it did earlier in the season.

Smith must also "think run" during passing plays. If he doesn't find a receiver with clear separation from the defense and there's room to make a meaningful gain with his legs, Smith must take the running option. Doing that would have avoided at least one interception, the first of his three at Foxborough.

This strategy has risks. If Smith has not mastered ball security, running could replace one form of turnover with another. Plus, he would need to know when to trade a few extra yards for personal safety. He must slide or run out of bounds to avoid open-field hits whenever possible.

However, the benefits, even against a tough run defense, would be significant. More carries for Smith would lessen the wear and tear on the running backs, keeping them fresher for possible postseason play. What's more, the possibility of the quarterback carrying the ball out of any formation would keep defenses honest in passing situations. They'd have to use coverage schemes that considered Smith's potential as a ball-carrier, regardless of down and distance.

 

Alternative 2: Throw It Away

Smith has, according to ProFootballFocus.com, thrown away 16 passes (subscription required). That's fewer than two a game. Had he thrown away the 13 attempts that were intercepted, he'd have just over three passes thrown away per game. That wouldn't change his completion percentage and would improve his passer rating.

It would also combat one of the main causes of his interceptions: underthrowing the receiver.

There are situations when overthrowing the receiver is equally dangerous, such as when throwing into the middle of the field when defenders are behind the receiver as well as in front. But when trying to reach the sidelines or the end zone, it's far easier to make sure that throwing the ball away doesn't cause an interception.

Even the occasional intentional-grounding penalty would be preferable to a turnover. But the next alternative would at least prevent the loss of down such a penalty brings.

 

Alternative 3: Take the Sack

Using the first two alternatives should help Smith reduce sacks as well as turnovers. He wouldn't waste time trying to find a target when none were available. That would prevent him from loitering in the backfield too long.

But if Smith can't make a running play or get outside the tackles to throw away a pass, the loss from taking the sack is often preferable to the penalty yardage and loss of down that an intentional-grounding call brings.

 

Beyond Alternatives: Game-Planning

Clearly, using these options wouldn't eliminate sacks. Plus, even the most experienced NFL quarterback commits turnovers from time to time. However, the combination of a more stringent definition of an open receiver with a workable set of alternative options represents a more systematic way to manage the risks of a modern passing attack.

But the work shouldn't stop there. Smith has demonstrated a number of positive attributes that his coaches should accentuate in their game-planning. We've already discussed using more designed quarterback runs to exploit Smith's mobility. But his coaches shouldn't stop there.

The Jets should utilize Smith's arm, his ability to play well in late-game situations and his receivers' ability to generate yards after the catch and design an offense conducive to Smith's strengths. The following options should play a role.

 

Option 1: Use the Long Ball

Reducing risk does not mean ignoring one's gifts. One of Geno Smith's gifts is the ability to pick up huge chunks of yardage with his arm.

According to ProFootballFocus.com, Geno Smith ranks fourth among NFL quarterbacks in deep-passing accuracy, with an accuracy rate of 47.5 percent. That means he's among the best when it comes to completing passes of 20 yards or more.

He hasn't been able to use that gift as much as he might have wanted to in recent weeks. Deep threats Santonio Holmes and Jeff Cumberland have been injured. Stephen Hill has been available, but Smith has not targeted him often. Hill's most notable catch of recent weeks was a 33-yard touchdown against New England that his own offensive pass-interference penalty negated.

However, if Holmes and Cumberland return for the Week 11 game against Buffalo, the long pass should return as well. Holmes' return may open opportunities for Hill as well, who seems to function better as a No. 2 option than he did as the No. 1 wideout in Holmes' absence.

There's another qualification here. Smith's success with the long pass doesn't extend to the whole field. He's actually best throwing deep right, where he's completed nine of 15 passes for 333 yards, two touchdowns and an interceptions. Throwing to the rest of the field, deep left and deep center, he's completed nine of 25 passes for 268 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.

His most consistent range is the intermediate zone between 10 yards and 19 yards. In that area, Smith has completed 30 of 55 passes for 493 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. His ProFootballFocus.com grades for this area are all at least 1.3, significantly above average.

Interestingly, Smith's Achilles heel is the shorter range within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. He's completed 78 of 115 passes for 701 yards, three touchdowns and seven interceptions. It's where he throws nearly half of his passes and where he has most of his trouble.

But he can't eliminate any part of the field entirely, especially that shorter-passing range. Doing so would stifle the Jets' red-zone options, meaning more field goals and fewer touchdowns.

In other words, the coaches will continue to design plays that target all parts of the field. But perhaps they should target Smith's areas of strength more often.

 

Option 2: Bring the Two-Minute Drill to the Rest of the Game

Smith has received praise for leading the Jets to four fourth-quarter or overtime wins. Is it worth using a no-huddle or two-minute drill more often?

Such an approach would force Smith to make decisions quickly. He'd have to hit his man or throw the ball away in a couple of seconds. There would be less time per play for doing multiple reads or, in the worst case, staring down one receiver.

In addition, a no-huddle offense would make it more difficult for the defense to change personnel.

However, it would be a challenge to incorporate the varieties of personnel packages that the Jets use in such a high-speed offense. Running plays, unusual in a two-minute drill, would need to be incorporated as well.

Plus, the no-huddle tends to tilt the time of possession battle in the opponent's favor. That's not advantageous when facing an elite quarterback like Brees or Brady. Granted, that part of the Jets schedule is over.

However, should the Jets make the playoffs, they'll see the likes of Brady, Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning. They'll need an offense that maintains possession. The no-huddle may work when time of possession isn't an issue, but it won't work against everyone.

 

Option 3: Make the Receivers Do the Work

According to ProFootballFocus.com's Steve Palazzolo, yards after the catch comprised the overwhelming majority of the Jets' passing yardage against the Saints. In his game review, Palazzolo writes, "Only 4 of QB Geno Smith’s 115 yards came through the air, with 111 yards after the catch. Only three of his eight completions traveled beyond the line of scrimmage."

That's unusual for Smith, who, according to ProFootballFocus.com, has gained 57.3 percent of his passing yardage in the air. But if the Jets want to reduce the riskiness of their passing game, maybe the receivers must do more.

According to ProFootballFocus.com, Smith has yet to throw an interception behind the line of scrimmage. He has completed 32 of 39 passes for 202 yards. Granted, that includes completing five of six passes for 70 yards in that area against New Orleans alone.

But that's one of the things we expected from the Jets when Marty Mornhinweg brought a West Coast system to New York. He was supposed to stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. It's surprising we haven't gotten as much from the horizontal component until now. But to keep the passing game safe, we may need to see more.

To wrap things up, for Geno Smith to become more consistent without being just a game manager, he and his coaches need to do some work during this bye. They must build upon the success they've had in improving Smith's ball security by helping him adjust his approach to passing. It will combine using stricter protocols about when to attempt a pass, applying alternatives when a pass is risky and recognizing his strengths in the game plan.

Come February, Smith will be able to address his performance in more detail. He'll be able to study the reads he missed, the mechanical issues that resulted from confusion and the bad decisions that he made. That's when expectations will truly start to rise.

But if Smith expects the Jets to avoid quarterback shopping in the April draft, he'd better show a willingness to play a more conservative role in the offense now. That will buy him the time he needs to apply the lessons learned from 2013 to 2014. Then, he'll have to show he's ready to be a quarterback who can fulfill the expectations of that position in today's NFL.

 

NOTE: Cumulative statistics are through Week 9 of the 2013 NFL season.

Source for Geno Smith's basic player statistics: NFL.com

Source for team statistics: NFL.com

Follow Philip Schawillie on Twitter: @digitaltechguid

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