HOW NEW YORK WILL TRY TO WIN::
The Jets played at a painfully slow pace in 2020, with Gase calling the shots and refusing to up the pace even when the game was clearly getting out of reach. They have significantly improved their personnel and scheme during the 2021 off-season, and with the #2 pick and noted gunslinger Zach Wilson behind center, they should look to turn the page with some excitement. Do not underestimate the impact Gase left on this franchise or the desire the staff and front office will have to emphatically turn the page to start this season. We should expect energetic HC Robert Saleh and OC Mike LaFleur, both Kyle Shanahan disciples, to have some creative things in store and play aggressively from the outset in Week 1.
The game plan for the Jets will likely be to attack the Panthers in their areas of weakness or uncertainty. While this shouldn’t come as a surprise, compared to the tendency of the prior regime to “do what we do”, this needs to be noted. The Panthers defense struggled last season, giving up 24 or more points in 10 of 16 games. While they did make some nice acquisitions this offseason, they will need to prove that they have taken the next step this season. The Panthers’ defensive strength is their front seven, with vulnerability in the secondary despite the additions of #8 overall pick Jaycee Horn and possibly over-the-hill AJ Bouye.
The Jets will use their outside-zone running scheme and some misdirection to stretch and stress the front seven of the Panthers. That will set Wilson up for play-action and let him use his athleticism and arm strength to push the ball down the field or get the ball quickly into the hands of his new weapons and let them try to make plays. The Jets will also look to use a good amount of early-down passing to give Wilson easy completions to set up shorter, more manageable 2nd and 3rd downs. The Panthers played Cover 3 at the highest rate in the league and blitzed at a rate well below the league average. The Panthers do not have any individual pass rushers to fear, so their low blitz rate should leave Wilson with plenty of time to throw. The seams and the flats are generally the areas of weakness for the Cover 3 defense — this should suit the Jets well as they can run quick hitters in the flats and let their WRs accumulate yards after catch (YAC) or let Wilson sit in a clean pocket and push the ball downfield in the seams.
Corey Davis was one of the top Yards-Per-Route-Run (YPRR) receivers in the NFL last year. Elijah Moore was tearing up camp before a quad injury kept him out for a couple of weeks, and Jamison Crowder/Tyler Kroft make for great security blankets for Wilson to start his career. Like the 49ers’ personnel (where LaFleur was previously the passing game coordinator), the Jets have stocked their receiving corps with athletes who have no trouble separating from their defenders and breaking tackles and making plays after the catch.
HOW CAROLINA WILL TRY TO WIN::
The Jets took a crushing blow in the preseason when they lost their best defensive player, Carl Lawson, to a ruptured achilles. Another key defensive player, LB CJ Mosley, has not played a regular-season game in almost two calendar years. The “strength” of the Jets’ defense is probably their interior defensive line, but that doesn’t do much for them against a Carolina team that is not trying to pound the ball up the middle. It would make sense for the Jets to be aggressive and to attack Darnold with blitzes and exotic fronts to try to force the same type of mistakes he made that pushed him out of New York. However, the Jets secondary has significant issues, as they were poor last year and appear to be in a similar spot this year. There is only so much you can take from the preseason, but the Jets played most of their starters the entire first half of their second preseason game and were torched by Kurt Benkert and the Packers 3rd-team offense for 14 points and almost 200 yards of total offense. Aggressiveness on the front end will leave the Jets’ shaky secondary in one-on-one situations against some explosive playmakers for the Panthers.
Rhule/Brady’s offense was dink and dunk last season, but it remains to be seen if that was their desired route or just what they had to do with Teddy Bridgewater as QB. The addition of Darnold at QB was initially thought to be a sign they would look to attack more downfield, but Rhule threw some cold water on that idea with comments stating:
“We really don’t want him holding the ball and letting it rip. We want him to play in progression, play in timing. So that’s new to him.”
It will be interesting to see how the Panthers approach this Week 1 game philosophically — will they hold to Rhule’s comments and have Darnold gain confidence on short and intermediate passes? Or will they allow him to attack the vulnerabilities in a Jets secondary that gives him nothing to fear? Most likely, they will enter the game trying to get the ball in the hands of their many playmakers with quick strikes and short-area work. DJ Moore was used significantly as a downfield receiver last year due to the presence/role of Curtis Samuel. With Samuel now in Washington, Brady should have some creative ways to use Moore ready to go. In his only preseason appearance, Moore had a 6-48 line on six targets over two possessions — signaling a new, high volume role is likely in the cards.
In any regard, the Panthers will ride their offensive engine — Christian McCaffery — as far as possible. He is a QB’s best friend, and the Panthers should be able to get the ball in his hands early and often while mixing in their other weapons and keeping Darnold clean. As long as Darnold can avoid boneheaded mistakes, the Panthers should have no trouble moving the ball against the Jets in whatever manner they choose.
LIKELIEST GAME FLOW::
This game has a much higher likelihood of turning into a track meet than the current 44.5 over/under would imply. Neither team has a defense to fear. The Panthers boast a clear offensive identity and a plethora of high-level playmakers. The Jets significantly upgraded their scheme and personnel and have the element of surprise on their side given all the changes and limited preseason.
Carolina should have no trouble moving the ball down the field behind CMC and their mismatches against the Jets’ secondary. The biggest roadblock from this game truly taking off would be Carolina’s red-zone struggles last season that carried into this preseason. If the Panthers can convert their drives into early touchdowns, it could elevate the tempo of this game in a hurry. In that scenario, the Jets should have no issue with turning up the pace and letting Wilson try to keep them in it. He has the talent and an aggressive mindset to cut it loose if they fall behind.
The Jets backfield remains clouded and may be best avoided until some clarity emerges. Rookie Michael Carter was hyped through the summer but appears to be the clear third option. Ty Johnson and Tevin Coleman appear to be the 1a and 1b options for this backfield, with Coleman being kept on ice during the preseason — which seems to indicate he would be the top dog to start the year. However, Coleman has not looked good recently as he has gone 17 games without surpassing 40 yards rushing despite playing in the 49ers’ typically high octane running game. Johnson is likely the best of the bunch at this point, but inserting him in a lineup would take a giant leap of faith with so much uncertainty around 3rd down and goal-line roles.
Zach Wilson is priced at $5k on DraftKings and could easily go overlooked. He provides salary relief that lets you load up the rest of the lineup. Wilson is also sneaky athletic, and given the bootleg nature of the Shanahan-style offense and uncertainty in the backfield (without a true goal-line back), his rushing equity could be massively undervalued early in the season. Corey Davis was Wilson’s clear favorite target in the preseason, but that was without Moore (who is reportedly full strength and ready for Week 1) on the field. Davis’ target share and Moore’s stone-minimum ($3,000) price on DK should draw some attention to both, and rightfully so. Tyler Kroft is also intriguing at the minimum TE price ($2,500) after showing out in the preseason and being the only TE on the roster one week before kick-off. Kroft should play almost every snap and run a ton of routes in a solid matchup. All three of those players are worthy of consideration in team and game stacks or as salary relief standalone plays in a game with sneaky shootout potential.
The Panthers should have a consolidated attack with most of the volume going to 3 players (CMC, DJ Moore, and Robby Anderson). CMC is always in play, and the Jets provide no reason to shy away from him at possibly his lowest price of the season. There is a good chance Moore emerges as one of the top WR’s in the NFL this season. Moore already has two 1,100+ yard seasons before his 24th birthday, elite athleticism, versatility, and pristine route running. It would be wise to get ahead of the curve before the field and pricing catch up. He has a good matchup, a good floor and ceiling of expected targets, and a great “bet on talent/get ahead of the field” play.
Robby Anderson could garner some attention as well, but is probably priced too close to Moore given the appearance of new roles. Also, stud rookie Terrace Marshall Jr. has been wildly impressive so far and could cut into Anderson’s receiving volume.