Robert Saleh Provides Insight on Jets’ Pass Protection Struggles

Mekhi Becton

Getty New York Jets left tackle Mekhi Becton at training camp on July 28, 2021.

The New York Jets offensive line is always under immense scrutiny, mostly because it’s been so bad for so long.

Over the years, deficiencies in pass protection have hindered the development of quarterbacks, stifled the rushing attack, and submarined the entire offense as a whole. The franchise’s latest general manager Joe Douglas is well-liked by most, in part because he’s put an emphasis on addressing the blocking unit and rebuilding it piece by piece.

Two of the first bricks were left tackle Mekhi Becton and center Connor McGovern.

From there, we’ve seen a competent group form, including guards Greg Van Roten and Alijah Vera-Tucker, as well as right tackle duo Morgan Moses and George Fant. The depth has taken some hits due to injury but overall, the starting core looks solid on paper.

This offensive line has the most potential it’s seen in years, so why are we still hearing that our rookie quarterback Zach Wilson is getting sacked multiple times a practice?

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Coach Saleh Elaborates on Mike LaFleur’s Comments

Last week in Green Bay, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur provided very candid remarks about the O-line during a press conference.

“It’s been almost two weeks now where we haven’t had — I would say — the greatest pass protection,” the Jets OC admitted before clarifying that it is a “group effort” at the end of the day. By that, he meant running backs, tight ends, wide receivers and even the quarterbacks all share in some of the responsibility.

The more surprising comments came later, regarding Becton. “Mekhi’s going through some things right now,” LaFleur stated, “he’s not playing at his best and he knows that.” He did add that he has “all the confidence in the world” in his left tackle.

Becton in particular has struggled against some of the NFL’s best and brightest, including edge rusher Carl Lawson before his injury. Green Bay Packers star Za’Darius Smith also made the second-year player look slow, although Becton has yet to allow a sack in a preseason game.

In fact, the entire first-team offense has yet to give up a sack on Wilson — he’s hardly even been touched, to be honest. That’s how it should be, but why the difference in practice? What gives?

Head coach Robert Saleh did his best to clear things up during his August 24 press conference.

“There [are] a lot of things that you can do to mitigate a pass rush,” the Jets HC began, “we’re doing some third-down periods where [the] offense isn’t exactly trying to scheme up protection to create space and they’re not exactly trying to get rid of the ball, they’re working on things and there’s gonna be screen game, there’s gonna be different elements to help [pass] protection.”

In other words, LaFleur isn’t calling plays and scheming in a way that assists the pass protection, like what we’ve seen him do in games. The quick passing, screens, heavy run followed by play-action and more. It’s an intriguing explanation by Saleh but the Jets have also yet to face a starting defense during the preseason, especially at D-line and edge rusher, so that may have something to do with it too.

As for Becton, Saleh noted that he’s still adjusting to the new scheme after missing all of OTAs.

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Breaking Down Jets’ Preseason Performances at O-Line

During the first of two joint practices with the Philadelphia Eagles today, the pass protection was poor yet again. Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and a mix of veteran defensive linemen terrorized Wilson and this Jets’ front five, which led me to take a closer look at their in-game performance according to Pro Football Focus.

Moses got beat twice in practice today after missing last week against the Packers. The vet has been hit or miss so far in training camp, and much less of a sure thing than many fans believed him to be.

As for the players that started versus Green Bay, the interior actually dominated in pass protection from McGovern to replacement left guard Dan Feeney. Here were their pass-blocking grades from left to right; 82.7 (Feeney), 78.7 (McGovern), 81.6 (‘GVR’).

Becton was more average at 73.2, but the big bruiser bullied defenders on the run, scoring a team-leading 81.5 run-blocking grade for O-linemen. Fant pulled up the rear with a 54.5 pass-blocking grade and a 65.1 run-blocking one.

As for those interior linemen, they were much worse on the run, opposite of the tackles. McGovern ranked highest in this regard at 62.0, followed by Van Roten at 59.8 and Feeney at 54.5. The replacement left guard was even benched after a third-and-one rushing attempt that was blown up in the backfield.

My takeaways correspond with what we’ve seen in practice. The Jets’ tackles are getting beat around the edge by rushers, but they’re excelling with the outside-zone run scheme (especially Becton). On the flip side, the starting interior guys like McGovern and GVR seem to be doing well with pass protection, and not as great on the run.

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Becton Suffers Head Injury in Practice

As we mentioned earlier, Becton left practice today with a head injury. After a head-to-head collision, the left tackle appeared somewhat off and even threw up all over the field after excusing himself from team drills.

A common symptom of a concussion is nausea and vomiting, so the two could be related. Saleh told the media that ‘the Big Ticket’ was being “evaluated” after practice, so we’ll have to wait and see if one occurred.

An injury like this would be a setback more than anything. It would likely cause Becton to miss the third preseason game, as well as some valuable practices to work on cohesion with Vera-Tucker (who finally returned to individual drills today).

With almost three weeks before Week 1 in Carolina, Becton should have plenty of time to recover before the regular season, even in a concussion scenario. As for his weight, which is always a constant concern for our beat reporters, Saleh said this issue was totally unrelated.

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