New York Jets – Future Of Running Game

Joe Belic on ways for the New York Jets to fix their running game in 2020

Running styles and scheme fits remained hot topics this season. Inevitably, with a failed run game, some obvious questions have been raised. Aside from the offensive line, what were the main issues, and what can the Jets do going forward?

Next Generation Stats developed a unique way of identifying the most efficient running backs in the league.  The calculation measures the total distance a player traveled (as a ball carrier), vertically and horizontally, per rushing yards gained.  This efficiency (EFF) number also helped shed light on running style; the lower the EFF mark, the more of a North/South runner. Simply put, the longer it takes to get from point A to B, the less efficient the player. 

In 2019, 13 of the 15 running backs to rush for 1,000 yards or more all had EFF marks below a 4.0, and the top four RBs (Henry, Chubb, CMC, and Elliot) averaged significantly less (EFF of 3.49).  Ultimately, the most productive running backs in the league are predominantly North/South runners. 

Where does Le’Veon Bell stand?  

First, I want to preface this by saying the Jets should keep Le’Veon Bell.  I mention this because the following paragraph might appear to be an argument for the contrary.  

Le’Veon Bell posted the second-highest efficiency number in the entire NFL (4.48) in 2019.  In other words, he was the antithesis of a North/South runner and one of the least efficient halfbacks in the league. While his running style may have worked in Pittsburgh with an all-star cast upfront (who purposely sustained blocks longer so Bell can utilize his skill set), it’s not the right approach when running behind a line as weak as the Jets fielded this past year. It’s also the complete opposite of what you’re looking for from a back in a zone-based system, which Gase mostly employs.  One of the principal tenets of said scheme is that the “running back takes what he can get—he should never dance around waiting for a hole to open.” Bell is unique, so maybe he’s an exception to the rule, but it is something to keep in mind as he left a lot of yards on the field this past season. 

Reasons to keep Bell: 

Firstly, it’s Le’Veon Bell, let’s not let one season tarnish what’s been an extraordinary career. Plus, the notion of paying him to play somewhere else makes no sense. 

Secondly, I expect Bell to learn from prior mistakes and acclimate to his new environment.  He has never experienced running behind anything other than an above-average to elite OL, and I presume he’ll grow from his experience.  Now, I’m not asking Bell to make a drastic change in style, it’s worked for him before, but he needs to clean up his approach and get more downhill if he wants to be successful outside of Pittsburgh.

Thirdly, In Joe Douglas, I trust. I wholeheartedly believe the issues with the OL will be addressed this offseason.  Hopefully, a revamped group of linemen can hold blocks a little longer and allow Bell to do his thing in the running game. 

Finally, Bell and Gase have more in common than most people think. Bell thrived in power/counter, inside zone, and blast runs while with Pittsburgh.  Gase is no stranger to those schemes; he employs a variety of run plays and has utilized inside-zone the vast majority of his career.  

OK, if that’s true, what’s the issue between Bell and Gase? 

Adam Gase and Dowell Loggains will continue to make use of multiple run concepts, mostly utilizing Bell in power and inside zone. Still, their primary mission is to alternate between an inside and outside zone and, simply put, Bell isn’t a good fit for the outside zone. Bell is more of a between the tackles runner and doesn’t have the requisite speed to get to the edge. This past season, the New York Giants, attuned to this, schemed their defense in a way to force Bell outside.  The Jets ultimately won, but Bell ran for only 34 yards on 18 carries.  

All three RBs in Kyle Shanahan’s zone based RBBC: Coleman (4.39), Breida (4.38), and Mostert (4.34) recorded a 40-yard dash below 4.40 seconds compared to Bell’s 4.60 at the combine. 

Why is Gase so bent on an outside zone? 

Loggains and Gase had unquestionable success incorporating the outside zone into their arsenals.  Gase was strictly an inside zone operator until he adjusted his scheme to accommodate Jay Ajai (who voiced his interest in an outside zone) in 2016.  Ajayi (1,272 rush yards) took off, and Gase reaped the rewards of blending the two-zone concepts.

Loggains, as offensive coordinator of the Bears in 2016 and 2017, had one of the most prolific rushing attacks in the league while alternating between inside and outside zone.  Jordan Howard flourished in that scheme and ranked top six in rushing his first two seasons in the league.  

According to Adam Stenavich (Packers’ OL coach), “the outside zone sets up everything. All the different blocking combinations and schemes, everything is tied to it. If you can make that go, then everything else opens up off of it.”  

“It’s harder on the defense, it forces the secondary to start their run-support roles faster than if it’s just a downhill run inside. That’s probably one of the biggest things people like about the outside zone,” noted an assistant coach for the 49ers.

One of the reasons the Jets brought in—well regarded—OL coach Frank Pollack was his expertise in an outside zone.  Unfortunately, the Jets didn’t have the tools (especially at RB and OL) to execute the scheme successfully, and according to the New York Post, as of week 16, the Jets ran outside zone only 18% of the time, 5% less than the league average. 

What’s the solution?

The Jets should bring in a RB who can complement Bell.  Perhaps, a change of pace back with the potential to take over starting duties if need be.  Bell should be back in 2020, but regardless of what happens, I expect him to be gone in 2021. 

The Draft:

Look for the Jets to acquire a RB made for a zone (inside and outside) based system.  A “one cut back” with good vision, instincts, patience, speed, and efficiency at the point of attack. In this week’s Joe Jet 5, I list four draft day prospects Joe D. could target (from rounds 3-7) and one potential free agent the Jets would be wise to bring in if available on the cheap.

1) Clyde Edwards-Helaire (5’8” 209lbs, LSU) Projected Round: 2-3

Edwards-Helaire has the potential to be a lead back in the NFL and the ability to play in both a gap and zone-based system. Don’t let his height fool you (5′ 9″), Edwards-Helaire will punch you in the mouth if you’re not careful, and it would be prudent to go low on this bowling ball of a runner. He’s extremely physical, with good vision, lateral quickness, and great in the passing game. Although he doesn’t seem to have that long speed you crave when looking to hit a home run in an outside zone, and struggles in pass pro, he’s one of my favorite RBs in the draft, and I look forward to watching him at the combine.

2) Anthony McFarland (5’9” 198 lbs, Maryland) Projected round: 3-5

McFarland is an explosive player with the long-striding speed necessary to take-it-to-the-house on any given play. Tailor-made for the outside zone, McFarland would fit perfectly with the Jets.  He’s elusive, has good instincts, a feel for cutback lanes, and superior acceleration. McFarland would be best utilized in a RBBC, but I firmly believe he possesses the skill set to be the lead back in that committee eventually. He needs to work on his pass protection, but this prospects stock is rising. According to Tony Pauline, Joe Douglas and company have already expressed interest in the young ball carrier.  

3) Ke’Shawn Vaughn (5’10” 205 lbs, Vanderbilt) Projected round: 3-5

Vaughn has excellent vision for cut back lanes, a good burst off his plant foot, and the acceleration to get to the second level.  He doesn’t have the long speed of Anthony McFarland, but his second gear is fun to watch, and steady hands make him reliable in the passing game.  Vaughn is one the more underrated backs in the draft and will most likely have a better pro career than collegiate. After reaching out to Trevor Sikkema of the NFL Draft Network, he described “McFarland and Vaughn as the pure zone guys he likes the most.”  

4) Darius Anderson (5’11” 195 lbs, TCU) Projected round: 5-7

Dynamic athleticism and top-flight speed allow Anderson to flourish in a wide zone. His bread and butter is running to the outside, but he does of a good job of working between the tackles when it’s necessary. Anderson is dangerous whenever he gets the ball in his hands (especially in space) but wasn’t utilized nearly enough in the passing game, and I expect that’ll change at the next level.  Anderson has the potential to be a three-down player but is best suited to start his career as a change of pace back.

Free Agency:

5) Jordan Howard

Joe Douglas was director of college scouting when the Bears drafted Howard in 2016, and he thrived in Loggains’ zone-based system while with Chicago (2016 and 2017); he made the pro bowl and looked to be one of the most exciting young players in the league.  Once John Fox was replaced by Matt Nagy, Howard struggled in the Bears’ new power scheme and was jettisoned to the Eagles. Howard isn’t the sexiest acquisition, but for the right price, it makes a lot of sense to bring this guy aboard. Howard has good vision, and his running style is perfect for this offense.