If you saw a play on Friday night where New York Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was getting ready to throw, there was a good chance he was getting ready to dump it off over the middle.
Dropback after dropback resulted in checkdown after checkdown in the first half of the Jets' 30-22 home victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
Even with New York running mostly three- or four-receiver sets, Fitzpatrick threw to his running backs more often than not. In the first half, Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell each caught three passes; Ivory took his for 20 yards and Powell gained nine.
There was, however, one receiver who provided Fitzpatrick an out.
That receiver was Brandon Marshall.
In just north of 30 minutes of football against the Falcons, Marshall led all Jets receivers by catching four of five passes for 62 yards—five of six passes for 64 yards if you count a two-point conversion in the second quarter. The only noncompletion of the bunch was a late throw by Fitzpatrick that was broken up.
But it wasn't just the numbers Marshall put up; it was the security blanket he provided for Fitzpatrick—something the Jets hope to have happen going forward.
Fitzpatrick said of Marshall's presence after the game, via Dom Cosentino of NJ.com:
I think that's important in these preseason games. Getting him some targets, and get him going against different corners, and different looks. That's important for everybody across the board, but especially him. We'll obviously lean on him a lot this year, so it was good to get some throws to him.
Friday night was a prime example of what Jets fans will see over the next four-plus months with Chan Gailey as the offensive coordinator. Time after time, New York spread out the field with three- and four-receiver sets. There were running backs split out wide, tight ends in the slot and just about any combination of pass-catchers that would stretch out the defense horizontally.
Marshall's role as a boundary receiver will be key in the implementation of that offense.
As the main outside-the-numbers threat, it will be up to Marshall to force the respect of safeties and open things up for the slot receivers and running backs to find soft spots in zone coverage underneath. Marshall has elicited that kind of respect in the past, and in winning almost every time the Falcons gave him single coverage, he proved that he's still worth that respect.
It wasn't simply that he made the catches, it was that he outmuscled every cornerback put in his path along the way.
That's the kind of pass-catching threat that will be useful for the Jets offense no matter who its triggerman is. The question is whether Marshall can keep his head on straight if the quarterback's play falters.
Fitzpatrick was efficient Friday but far from deadly. He went 13-of-19 for 118 yards (6.2 yards per attempt). The Jets offense was 2-of-7 on third down with Fitzpatrick at quarterback. One of those conversions was to Marshall, and the other was a penalty by the Falcons defense.
Between Marshall, Eric Decker, Quincy Enunwa and Jeremy Kerley, the Jets have enough receivers to run the spread offense. Marshall's presence in that group is a huge key because it not only opens things up for other receivers but also provides the helping hand that the Jets quarterback could be reaching for the most often.