Jets Rushing Attack May Determine How Far This Offense Goes in 2021

Ty Johnson

Getty New York Jets running back Ty Johnson pushes into the end zone for a touchdown on December 6, 2020.

To succeed with a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback, you must execute on the pillars of this game.

One of those pillars is running the football, and the New York Jets plan to transform their rushing attack into a top 10 unit in 2021.

Last season, Gang Green ranked 22nd in rush yards per game with a 105.2 average. That was actually an improvement on the year before, where they finished 31st with 78.6 yards per game. In fact, the Jets have not manufactured a top 10 rushing attack since 2015, when they landed at 10th on the dot.

Enter offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur and offensive line coach/run-game coordinator John Benton, the repairmen. The tag team was very successful on the ground in San Francisco from 2017-20 under 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.

San Fran’s rushing attack was at its best during the 2019 NFC championship run, ranking second in the NFL. Although 2020 was a somewhat down year filled with injuries, the unit still finished 15th in rush yards per game.

LaFleur and Benton operated an outside-zone scheme and used a back-by-committee approach with the Niners rather than a lead back. Both methods are expected to be instituted at Florham Park.

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Understanding the Outside-Zone System

The first step in projecting this rushing attack is understanding how this scheme works.

Sam Fortier of The Washington Post gave a detailed description ahead of the 49ers Super Bowl appearance.

“Outside zone is a running play on which offensive linemen focus their blocks on zones, or spaces on the field, as opposed to specific defenders (which is referred to as man-to-man blocking). It calls upon linemen to caravan toward the sideline and push back whichever defenders are in the way. Running backs are asked to look for three options: ‘bounce’ outside, ‘bang’ a cut upfield between the linemen or ‘bend’ on a cutback across the formation.”

This system takes patience and is likely to fail on your average play more often than it succeeds, but when it hits, it hits big.

LaFleur told the media that the scheme fits all sorts of runners, but that “there’s definitely an element of being able to put your foot in the ground and go north and south.”

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Getting to Know the Personnel

Most fans know these names by now, but below are the Jets running backs heading into training camp.

  • Tevin Coleman is expected to get the first crack at the starting role due to his familiarity in this system with Atlanta and San Francisco.
  • Rookie Michael Carter is probably the favorite to lead the snap count eventually, if not right out of the gates. The North Carolina product was made for this scheme, with the perfect mix of vision, burst and elusiveness.
  • Fan-favorite Ty Johnson, who seized the day with productive numbers in 2020 after being released by the Detroit Lions.
  • Overshadowed 2020 draft pick La’Mical Perine, who is more of a power back that has a nose for the end zone.
  • Josh Adams, a Joe Douglas favorite who has followed the general manager from Philadelphia to New York, but is running out of time to make an impact.
  • Niners pick up Austin Walter, who was with LaFleur in San Francisco.

This has a committee approach written all over it unless Carter is so undeniably good his rookie campaign that the coaching staff decides to make it his backfield.

The group’s top four even draws some eerie comparisons to the 49ers running back room in 2019. I’ve mentioned in the past that Perine reminds me of Jeff Wilson Jr. because of their blend of power rushing and catching ability. They both score a lot of touchdowns too.

Carter would be Matt Breida, a stout runner with blazing speed in the open field who can double as a third-down back due to his blocking ability and hands.

Then you have Johnson, the Jets version of Raheem Mostert. Ty may not be as fast but both of these backs are early-down rushers who don’t excel in the passing game. They’re also both grinders who had to fight their way up the depth chart.

Lastly, Coleman is, well, Tevin Coleman. He was on both so I suppose that’s cheating.

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Jets Rushing Outlook in AFC East

New York Daily News Jets beat reporter DJ Bien-Aime ranked the NYJ rushing attack second in the AFC East on July 6, 2021, behind the New England Patriots.

Bien-Aime is a known Miami Dolphins fan despite his position with the Jets, so there’s definitely no bias in his take.

Similar to the Jets, the Pats tend to run a committee style and the Buffalo Bills like to keep the ball in quarterback Josh Allen’s hands. As the beat reporter notes, the Fins need to work on their offensive line play in order to improve in the run game.

Speaking of the offensive line, Gang Green’s new unit led by Benton will play a tremendous role in whether or not they can jump into the top half of the league, or better yet, the top 10.

Douglas has supplemented this group with first-round pick Alijah Vera-Tucker at left guard and top-tier free agent Morgan Moses at right tackle.

With a friendlier scheme fit for players like Connor McGovern and Greg Van Roten plus another year of development for left tackle Mekhi Becton, this O-line could flip the script and become a top-ranked unit in no time.

For a rookie quarterback like Zach Wilson, there is no better crutch in year one than a pulverizing run game that knocks the defense on its heels. If the Jets want to factor into the playoff conversation this season, they have to fix the rushing attack.

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