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How can the Jets cut their losses in the running game?

NFL: New York Jets-Training Camp Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

As we head into the offseason, it’s difficult to arrive at a consensus for the best approach to putting together the offensive line and which players should remain part of the current starting unit.

The Jets still have a reputation in some circles as having a terrible offensive line with upgrades required at nearly every position. However, others believe that the foundation isn’t that bad and a few tweaks and carrying over some continuity could be the best way forward. However, even among those who agree on that latter approach, opinions differ on which players should be replaced.

In many ways, pass protection seems easier to get a read on than the running game, especially now analysis sites provide us with easily comparable numbers for sacks and pressure surrendered.

However, while it may have seemed like Sam Darnold was under constant pressure at times, there could be reasons for this that were outside the starting offensive linemen’s control. Some of the pressure was due to hesitation or poor anticipation on the part of the quarterback and you can never be sure when a pass rusher was freed up because of the quarterback’s own failure in setting the protection correctly. There were also plenty of errors by backs and tight ends and any backups that were called into action also struggled and seemed to provide a clear downgrade.

Instead, let’s try to get a read on the running game. On the basis of the raw statistics, the Jets’ running game improved dramatically in 2020, as their average for yards per carry increased from a league-worst 3.3 to a much more respectable 4.1. It seems unreasonable to give all the credit to the team’s running backs so we can confidently say that this was, at least in part, a product of a re-tooled group of offensive linemen that better suited the offensive scheme.

While that offensive system is changing again with the new coaching staff in place, the incumbent starters should still be a good fit for any new blocking schemes.

Clearly Mekhi Becton is a difference maker who could continue to get better and better. When Ty Johnson ran for over 100 yards against the Raiders, he did a lot of the damage on one play in particular which saw Becton kick his man out and seal him outside on the edge. Our charting indicated the Jets ran this play successfully nine times, compared with just seven over the rest of the season to that point.

He’s not the only reason the running game improved, though. Connor McGovern got better and better as the season went along, with his athleticism enabling him to make some reach blocks that opened some big running lanes.

As for the other starters, they all made positive contributions too, although guards Greg Van Roten and Patrick Elflein - who took over from Alex Lewis down the stretch - had issues with letting their man get off their block or whiffing on their target at the second level. Neither struggled anywhere near as badly as some of the worst starters the Jets have had on their line over the past five years or so though.

One interesting statistic to review is how often a run was stuffed for a loss. This, perhaps surprisingly, didn’t happen as much as you might expect. It only happened 26 times all season, including just eight times over the last nine games.

This number seems low considering the Jets defense amassed 41 tackles for losses (not including sacks) in 2020 and an impressive 62 in 2019. That would include any screen passes that were stopped for a loss too, though.

To put these numbers into a little more context, you might expect a team that’s constantly losing in the second half to not run as much. Similarly, opposing teams might run more to keep the clock moving.

In addition, the Jets did operate a horizontal passing game which saw lots of plays stuffed for a loss that weren’t runs. This isn’t always the offensive line’s fault though.

McGovern’s improved second half consistency was clear from reviewing these 26 plays. We identified him as the main culprit on these run stuffs seven times in the first seven games, but not at all in the last nine.

Of those 26 plays, four saw a tight end as the main culprit and six were attributable to backups. None of the other starters were directly responsible for more than three tackles for loss.

On this basis, if we can make the assumption that McGovern eventually figured things out and will continue to play at a high level in the running game going forwards, then there’s no one player you could point towards as being someone you could upgrade from and expect it to make a big difference to the number of plays that got blown up behind the line of scrimmage.

Ultimately, the Jets have an offensive line that started to gel down the stretch despite injury problems over the course of the season and benefited from McGovern’s improved play from midseason onwards. They have opportunities to add players in free agency and the draft but perhaps ought to be careful not to shake things up too much and instead should look to improve upon the foundation already in place.