Sunday, September 12, will become an anniversary of many firsts for the New York Jets franchise.
It will be the first week of the 2021 regular season, head coach Robert Saleh’s first game that counts on his record, Zach Wilson’s first start (as well as many others), and hopefully the Jets first win under a brand new core.
One other person may also be feeling those day one butterflies though, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur. It will be the first time that the bright young offensive mind calls plays for a regular-season NFL game, and he announced that he will most likely be doing that from the sidelines during a press conference on September 9.
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Riding the ‘Hot Hand’
A major key for this west coast outside-zone offense is the run game. The coaching staff has made it clear that while they want to keep the opposing defense off-balance — meaning they may not always run on first down — they do intend to implement a heavy rushing attack.
This should provide Wilson with a decent amount of play-action passing opportunities, but it should also dish out plenty of touches for this deep running back rotation.
It’s kind of been a merry-go-round at half-back all summer for the Jets. Rookie Michael Carter was expected to steal the job from the first moment of OTAs based on his vision, agility and burst. The first-year rusher has probably displayed the most upside, but he still has much to learn.
The other clear favorite was always veteran Tevin Coleman, who’s played in this scheme his entire career. Then La’Mical Perine had a big preseason game against the New York Giants with Josh Adams flashing throughout — whenever he was given the reps.
Finally, Ty Johnson stole the show against the Philadelphia Eagles. Based on recency bias, he could end up being the RB1 against the Carolina Panthers, but LaFleur had a different explanation for his strategy at the position.
“We always have a plan with it but what’s cool about our backs in my opinion is they’re very very talented, a good group of backs, so whoever’s in there we have so much confidence in that they’re going to get the job done in their own way. But we’ll always go into it with a plan and the plan can change based on the hot hand.”
LaFleur elaborated by comparing his offensive weapons to NBA star Steph Curry, noting that the jump-shooter will keep getting the ball if he keeps hitting three-pointers. “If they’re getting [the ball] and they’re producing, they’re going to stay out there unless they need [a break],” the Jets OC added.
He did go on to explain that the weekly plan will determine “who’s going to be out there first and who’s going to be in there with the third-down backs,” among other situations.
At the end of the day, the hot-hand approach seems to be the way LaFleur wants to operate in 2021, crediting San Francisco 49ers running backs coach Bobby Turner with that philosophy. “You got the hot hand, you keep them out there,” LaFleur reiterated one last time.
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1,000-Yard Rusher Is Welcomed but Not Required
The offensive coordinator had one other interesting quote regarding the RB position that stood out during this presser. A reporter asked if LaFleur “would mind” if one back emerged as a 1,000-plus yardage rusher, in effect ending his rotational style.
He responded: “I would love it, but I think just naturally with the position — 16 games going on 17 games and the preseason and just kind of the wear and tear and how we do rotate, and how we do try to spread the ball around to receivers, tight ends, backs — I think that’s [the reason] why I think the last time we had a 1,000-yard rusher was probably Devonta Freeman… in 2016.”
“So many people in this offense tend to touch the ball,” LaFleur went on to say, “we want to keep it balanced like that… but if someone breaks off for 12 or 13-hundred yards it’s probably good for the Jets.”
The top candidates for a breakout campaign are definitely Johnson and Carter. Coleman has not played a full season since 2018 and he’s never hit the 1,000-yard mark during his six seasons in the league. Perine is expected to be utilized as a short-yardage back, Adams too if he sticks on the active roster after being recalled in place of Jamison Crowder.
That leaves the aforementioned ‘Ty’ and ‘M.C.’ The rookie is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns running within a split-backfield at North Carolina. Johnson has only completed the feat once during his collegiate career in 2016, with the Maryland Terrapins.
There are only four letters in their nicknames combined, but Jets fans are hoping for at least four digits worth of rushing yardage between the two ball carriers.