New York Jets Top Five – The Running Game Is Broken

Joe Belic on the New York Jets extended running game problems

The rekindled love affair with Adam Gase is back on the fritz.  Gase, who after a three-game winning streak was welcomed back by many with open arms, has once again been relegated to spending nights on the couch.  I can’t blame anybody for putting Gase in the dog house either. The rollercoaster ride, characteristic of many Jets seasons, has been tough to bear, and this latest precipitous plummet into the abyss—against an 0-11 Bengals team—had the fanbase sick and firmly clenching their vomit bags all the way down. 

However, Gase isn’t the only one to blame, and the responsibility of the 4-8 record lies primarily with the offensive line, a running back, and a coach who’s failed to adjust. 

Gase’s failure to modify his game plan remains challenging to watch, and it’s more than reasonable to question his play calling (especially against the Bengals). Why didn’t Gase bounce some runs to the edges—where the Bengals are one of the worst in the league? Why did Gase run plays up the middle and to the “strength” of the defense?

It’s perplexing, given the weakness which exists at stopping the run to the outside, that Gase didn’t attempt to exploit this flaw, but we should take a step back.  The Bengals allow approximately 4.2 yards per carry up the middle. That’s not exactly the Great Wall of China Gase was trying to penetrate. I’m not making excuses for Gase; his erratic play-calling has been well documented and, yes, he should have—at the very least—attempted to run in that direction, but the real issue, in that regard, is with the offensive line. 

The offensive line allowed only 0.7 yards before contact in this particular game, and Bell has averaged 1.1 through the first 12 games of the season. It’s hard to imagine anybody having success behind an OL that gets little to no push upfront, and the OL shares most of the burden when it comes to a horrid running game, but Bell himself isn’t fully absolved.

I touched on the woes of the running game and Bell’s role a couple of weeks back, but after this latest transgression, it needs to be readdressed to put things into perspective. I’ll preface this by acknowledging that Bell is a great running back; however, Bell’s failure to fully integrate into the system is as much his fault as it is Gase’s. 

Bell is a technician, and his unique skill set is only amplified with a dominant line and right scheme. Still, one could argue that anybody can run behind a good line, and although that very well may be true, that’s not the message I’m trying to convey.  Bell, above almost any running back in the league, is the player you want when your offensive line is of all-star caliber. Bell can do extraordinary things when given the time to execute his “patient” style of running. 

However, Bell is not the running back one covets with an inadequate line.  In fact, his method appears to be a detriment.  

Last season, the Jets were ranked dead last in adjusted line yards (3.59) but 6th in open field yards.  This season they are ranked 30th in adjusted line yards (3.63) and 31st in open field yards. What does this mean? 

In short, last season, the running backs (6th in open field yards) made the rushing game work, and this season the backs (31st in open field yards) are doing little to nothing to improve the situation.  

As mentioned in a previous article, I outlined Leonard Fournette’s 2019 season. I posed a practical question: why has Leonard Fournette (989 rushing yards and 4.5 Y/A) continued to have success despite an equally lousy offensive line? 

Efficiency (EFF) score can help explain: rushing efficiency is calculated by taking the total distance a player traveled on rushing plays as a ball carrier according to Next Gen Stats (measured in yards) per rushing yards gained. The lower the number, the more of a North/South Runner. 

Leonard Fournette, according to his EFF score of 3.76, is more of a north/south runner, and this particular style has helped mitigate the inefficiencies of the blockers upfront.  Fournette himself is only gaining 1.4 yards before contact this season, but his 3.1 yards after contact, and relentless pursuit of getting downhill has led to 4.5 yards per carry, and almost 1,000 yards rushing thus far. 

Fournette’s most significant attribute this season is the ability to modify his running style to meet the needs of the OL. Last season (8 games played), Fournette had an EFF score of 4.44 (higher than Bell’s 4.36 this season), averaged only 3.3 Y/A, and significantly fewer yards after contact (1.7) even though his offensive line provided more breathing room (1.6 yards before contact). 

This is where my concern lies with Bell.  Yes, I understand; the coach should adjust to his player’s strengths—and that’s definitely an issue with Gase—but there isn’t much Gase can do about this offensive line’s skill set and ability to run block—they are who they are. It’s on the thirteen-million-dollar man to adapt and conform to the scheme.    

And although it has been stated, “he’s changed his style and hit it more downhill…for the most part I feel like he has adjusted his running style to really benefit us to really keep us ahead of the sticks.”  Bell’s 2019 EFF score (4.36)—which is higher than in both 2016 (3.95) and 2017 (4.17)—tells a different tale.

At least for this season, there seems to be somewhat of an inverse correlation between EFF score and overall rushing yards gained (i.e. the higher the EFF score, the lower the overall rushing total).  

Five of the six backs that lead the league in rushing yards all have an EFF score below 4.00: Christian McCaffrey (3.38), Josh Jacobs (3.51), Derrick Henry (3.56), Nick Chubb (3.61), and Ezekiel Elliot (3.6). 

Derrick Henry (3.56 EFF), in particular, plays for an overall better run-blocking team, but they haven’t exactly made things easy for him.  Henry is averaging a mere 1.4 yards before contact, but he’s made up for that with 3.5 yards after contact and regularly getting upfield and moving the chains.  

Joe Mixon is having a subpar season and has a near-identical EFF score (4.37) to Bell. It’s not surprising to me that last year—when he led the AFC in rushing—Mixon had a significantly lower number (3.55). 

Unfortunately, if Douglas can’t completely rehaul this offensive line by the 2020 season, Bell is somebody the Jets should move. Don’t get me wrong, I want Bell to stay. He has the talent to make a good offensive line look great, but he’s not the kind of player that makes a bad offensive line appear good.  He’ll only continue to hinder the running game unless he adjusts, or they bring in offensive linemen that can actually run block. 

This article isn’t an indictment of Le’Veon Bell, even though it may seem so.  I just want to bring to the fanbase’s attention that everyone deserves a share of the blame. Gase, the offensive line, and Bell all remain part of the problem.  Innovation is the key to success, and that goes for coaches and players alike.  

*Sources-Pro Football focus, Football Outsiders, and Pro-football-refernce.com