Will Ground and Pound Take Off in 2012?

The Jets regressed in several areas in 2011 but no area was more prominent than the running game. With the addition of Tony Sparano, the Jets expect to get back on track and reestablish the run-first identity that was successful in the team’s successive AFC Championship runs in 2009 and 2010. Following the jump, I’ll dig deeper into the decline the Jets saw in 2011 and whether or not the running game can be the platform for success in 2012. 

Analyzing the Decline

The Jets running game really fell off a cliff in 2011. In Rex Ryan’s first two years, the running game was the backbone of the offense – a way to move the ball, protect a young quarterback and control football games. But a quick look at some basic running statistics shows an obvious and periling decline this past season.

The Jets went from flying high in Rex Ryan’s first two seasons, 1st in rushing yards-per-game in 2009 and then 4th in that same category a year later, to plummeting to 22nd in the league and below the league average. The Jets have built themselves to be able to run the football and this past season it was something that the team was unable to accomplish with any type of consistency. Given that YPG is a cumulative statistic and doesn’t measure efficiency, let’s take a look at the Jets’ decline in yards-per-carry this past season.

The YPC comparison is even more eye-opening. The Jets’ per-carry efficiency in 2011 dropped considerably, way below league average and in fact was one of the lowest numbers in the league. Only the Browns and the Giants had a lower YPC average than the Jets did last season, a startling number for a team whose bread and butter was supposed to be running the football.

In searching for reasons for the decline, the simplest explanation is that the Jets were just not as talented on offense as a whole in 2011 as they were in previous seasons.  Tony Richardson had retired, Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery both left for different teams, and Damien Woody called it quits as well. Above all else, it was Woody who the Jets missed when it came to pounding teams on the ground. In the transition from Damien Woody to Wayne Hunter, the Jets not only lost one of the league’s best right tackles but had replaced him with a player who whose performances would be on the complete opposite of the spectrum. Hunter’s pass protection woes were obvious but he failed also to match Woody’s run blocking prowess, most notably when Nick Mangold was injured and the offense suffered for it.

It would be unfair to blame Hunter solely for the Jets’ inability to open up holes however, as it was a down year for the offensive line across the board outside of Nick Mangold. The Football Outsiders metric Adjusted Line Yards, designed to measure an offensive line’s contribution to the run game, shows the overall regression the Jets had as an offensive line from 2010 to 2011.

The graph illustrates the decline in all directions outside of right up the middle, where rushing success more or less remained constant and very effective. That’s a testament to the stellar play of Nick Mangold, given that the metric factors in the games where Colin Baxter was overwhelmed filling in due to injury. In 2010 the Jets were top five in three different directions and top ten in all but one, showing just how synchronized and in form the offensive line was. In 2011 though the Jets dropped to league average in three of those categories and plummeted to 31st in left tackle runs specifically. D’Brickashaw Ferguson was awarded a third straight Pro Bowl appearance, but he wasn’t really deserving with a down year in both phases of protection. Granted he was never known as a drive blocker, but last season was his worst since he established himself as one of the league’s premier left tackles in 2008.

The offensive line of course only contributed to a portion of the decline. The stable of running backs wasn’t very strong and in particular Ladainian Tomlinson was much less effective. In 2010 Tomlinson and Greene split carries and it worked very well, producing 1680 yards of rushing on a combined 404 carries. In 2011 it wasn’t much of a duo. Greene became the feature back and Tomlinson had more yards receiving than rushing, seeing his carries cut from 2010 by 64%. When Tomlinson was handed the ball he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry, poor for a feature back but very poor for a change of pace runner. Not alone in poor efficiency, every ball carrier for the Jets outside of Shonn Greene ranged from poor to embarrassing.

Category

Shonn Greene

All Other Carriers

Carries

253

190

Yards

1054

638

Yards Per Carry

4.2

3.4

Touchdowns

6

8

I’ll touch more on the specifics of Shonn Greene’s season in a moment, but without needing to go into detail this chart clearly illustrates that he was the team’s only viable running option, outproducing the rest of the roster by a significant margin. Even in terms of touchdowns where the rest of the team scored eight on the ground, all but two of those belonged to Mark Sanchez. Tomlinson scored one touchdown and Jon Conner added another. Not unlike Tomlinson, Joe McKnight in limited action looked more natural a receiver than a runner and Bilal Powell may have been the most useless player on the Jets active roster. The Jets lacked quality depth in the backfield and it showed.

Lastly, the loss of Brad Smith hurt as the Jets lost an effective utility player and quarterback for option and wildcat packages. In 2010 Brad Smith was the team’s third leading rusher, picking up 299 yards on 38 carries for a team-high 7.9 YPC. The Jets compensated Smith’s loss in free agency by simply running less wildcat packages but the offense missed the added dynamic Smith brought. Jeremy Kerley saw some time in a similar role, but it wasn’t featured as often as when Smith was with the Jets nor was it as effective.

Shonn Greene – Underperforming or Underrated?

Greene’s career up until this point hasn’t been what most would have expected given his performances for the Jets in the 2009 playoffs. Expected to be the main man in 2010, he dropped the ball both literally and figuratively, failing to establish himself in front of Ladainian Tomlinson and continuing to have issues with fumbles and catching the ball out of the backfield. With his third season behind him and the first as a full time starter, he’s coming off undoubtedly his most productive season but there still appears to be just as many questions with Greene as there are answers.

Greene was limited for a feature back. He didn’t catch the ball well, and it meant Tomlinson often saw the field when the Jets wanted to have a pass catching option in the backfield. As a runner he’s a traditional power back, lacking breakaway speed or the ability to turn nothing plays into 4-5 yard gains with close quarter agility. His longest run of the season was for just 34 yards, the lowest of any running back in the league who had carried the ball at least 200 times.

On an offense that had a weak overall rushing output though, Greene’s numbers are respectable. There’s nothing out of the ordinary with his total output, just barely eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark and scoring in only four games, but his YPC average of 4.2 is solid and showed that he was able to find some success running even as the rest of the Jets ball carriers were not. In addition to finding some success on the ground, he was competent as a pass protector and improved significantly in terms of ball security. Greene fumbled just once last season in 253 carries, a great improvement over his prior career rate of once every 49 carries.

In looking at the Jets running struggles, in particular the Jets couldn’t run the ball in the slightest for the first quarter of the season. The Jets relied a lot on Mark Sanchez early on, his two biggest career games in terms of yardage happened in the first three weeks of the 2011 season. When Nick Mangold returned in week five after missing two and a half games due to injury, there was a noted improvement in Shonn Greene’s play and overall in the entire running game.

Shonn Greene’s 2011 Season

Category

Weeks 1-4

Weeks 5-17(w/o Wk. 11)

Carries per Game

12.8

18.1

Yards per Game

39.3

80.6

Yards per Carry

3.1

4.5

Carrys per Touchdown

51

39.8

The above chart does not factor in the game against Denver as he missed the majority of the game due to injury. What the table does show is that the Jets offense did take a little while to get into a rhythm, but eventually they did and Greene’s performance as a runner last season was very respectable. His overall season YPC, 4.2, is on level with Tomlinson in 2010 and Thomas Jones in 2009 meaning that when the Jets running game found it’s groove Greene was actually picking up more yards on average than the two in their year as feature backs under Rex Ryan.

Based on last season it’s still hard to say whether Greene can be a 300+ carry feature back of a successful running offense. What can be said though is that he’s definitely more part of the solution than part of the problem. He still needs to improve his game as a pass catcher and if he cannot his snaps to an extent will always be limited, but he was the only runner even close to competent on the Jets offense and frankly the only thing he could be guilty of at times was not seeing the ball enough(Christmas Eve against the Giants rings a bell).

The Tim Tebow Factor

Surprise! Here’s a written piece about Tim Tebow that does not involve a conspiracy theory regarding his destiny to be the Jets’ starter by week four. As I touched on earlier, in 2010 Brad Smith was often used as an option quarterback and added an effective wrinkle to the rush offense. When he left for Buffalo in free agency, the Jets chose not to run wildcat packages as frequently. With the March acquisition of Tim Tebow and the hiring of Tony Sparano to run the offense, an option package centering around Tebow is certainly in the cards and there is a lot Tebow can offer if the package is used in the right way.

When Tebow became the starter for the Broncos, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy changed the offense so it would more cater to Tebow’s unconventional skill set. Denver became the league’s most frequent runners of the ball and they did so by utilizing Tebow’s natural running ability, featuring a lot of option principles and direct snap quarterback runs. In bringing Tebow aboard expect the Jets to do something similar with a package specifically designed around him.  Whether this idea will bring success or be a flop will depend on the balance of snaps, and how it can be incorporated and work without interrupting the flow of the conventional offense. Fundamentally, the talent is there to have a nice niche package on offense.

Designed Runs from a Direct Snap

Category

2010 Jets

2011 Jets

2011 Tim Tebow

Carries

35

14

85

Yards

153

59

420

Yards per Carry

4.4

4.2

4.9

*Football Outsiders charting data 

Tim Tebow certainly polarizes opinion as a starting quarterback and most knowledgeable Jets fans rightly recognize Mark Sanchez as the team’s best chance for success as a starter, but Tebow’s ability as a runner cannot be doubted and the Jets can add a new facet to their running game by utilizing that running ability Tebow possesses. The wildcat as the league has known it the past few seasons has more or less fizzled out, but last season two teams in particular took the idea to the next level. Both Denver and Carolina last year recognized that their starting quarterbacks were both well-built, athletic duel threats that could add a new dimension to an offense with designed quarterback runs and options. When Sparano was hired as offensive coordinator, it was expected the wildcat could see a bit of resurgence and the addition of Tim Tebow all but confirms that. But given Tebow’s unique skill set and experience as a starter, his role as a Jet is almost certainly going to transcend a simple wildcat formation and other gadget plays. Expect Tebow’s role on offense to be like Denver-lite, coming onto the field as a change of pace and running an option based offense and the occasional throw.

A Look at 2012

The Jets on a basic level have a successful formula for running the football. Up the middle Nick Mangold and company pave the way as good as anyone in the league and Shonn Greene has proven to be at least a competent power runner. Tony Sparano is a no-frills, run first coordinator that will reinvigorate the Jets offense with a simple and understood identity. There are also aspects of the rush offense the Jets will have to replace even from a disappointing 2011 campaign, notably Ladainian Tomlinson’s role as a third down back. There’s a lot to keep an eye on as camp approaches – Shonn Greene’s progress, the rest of the crop of running backs, Tim Tebow and making his role work, the passing game and developing a deep threat, and the addition of newly acquired tackle Jeff Otah.

If the Jets are to have a consistent rushing attack, it can’t sit on purely Shonn Greene’s shoulders. As it stands the Jets have a group behind Greene that has very little to their name. In particular Bilal Powell and rookie Terrance Ganaway are large unknowns and the former could be a camp cut if he doesn’t show anything after being drafted in the fourth round just a year ago. It’s a big year for Joe McKnight, who will be looked at to replace the production Tomlinson gave the team last season and it’ll be a big step up in role. He’s bulked up for the role though, putting on some weight in order to prepare his body for more snaps. McKnight has always been a natural receiver and replacing Tomlinson’s production out of the backfield as a pass catcher shouldn’t be too difficult. It’ll be more as a runner where McKnight will need to prove he’s more prepared to handle the rigors of being an NFL caliber running back. If nobody in camp distinguishes themselves behind Greene, perhaps at that point the Jets would once more explore their Cedric Benson interest as Benson would add a sturdy if unspectacular option to the stable of backs.

Yesterday’s acquisition of Jeff Otah is potentially a very significant upgrade, but should be accepted with a wait-and-see approach. Otah is a very talented player who when on the field compares favorably with most of the league’s right tackles, but being available to play has been a major issue as he’s started just four games the past two seasons and has yet to start a full sixteen games in his career. At the very least, the Jets have acquired a player that can legitimately push Wayne Hunter and that’s better than Hunter going practically unchallenged for a position he hasn’t earned.

Fundamentally, the pieces are there for the Jets to run the ball successfully and that’s pivotal to the team’s overall success. Under Rex Ryan the Jets have always played quality defense and this year that will be no exception, and so the biggest factor between success and failure this season will be more consistent performances on offense. Unlike the current league trend, the Jets are not built to spread teams out and pass the ball over 35 times a game but are more built to control the clock and let the running game be the foundation for offensive success. In being able to successfully establish a running game the Jets can not only move the ball on the ground effectively but also open up passing lanes downfield and work off play action which will make things easier for Mark Sanchez.