Ty Johnson came out of nowhere and had an efficient 2020 season for the New York Jets, thanks mostly to his impressive vision.
A 2019 sixth-round pick of the Lions out of Maryland, Ty Johnson had a promising rookie season in which he accumulated 382 yards from scrimmage in a backup role, but he was waived by Detroit in October of his second season after receiving no carries over just two appearances. One day later, Johnson was claimed by the New York Jets, and he would go on to enjoy an intriguing finish to the season.
Over 11 games with the Jets, Johnson rushed for 254 yards on 54 carries, a sterling average of 4.7 yards per carry that ranked 17th-best out of the 76 running backs with at least 50 carries (79th percentile).
Johnson achieved his small-sample success in a unique fashion. He averaged only 2.26 yards after contact per carry, which ranked 71st out of 76 players, but he averaged 2.44 yards before contact per carry, which ranked third-best.
Yardage before contact can largely be attributed to the offensive line, but it also is a product of a running back’s vision. If a back is frequently making the correct decisions and finding the best available lane, he will rack up a lot of plays in which he gets through the first level untouched. Conversely, backs with tunnel vision will often run into defenders when there is an open lane available elsewhere, hurting their yards-before-contact total on plays where the offensive line did its job.
Johnson’s excellent before-contact production is a healthy combination of both the play of the Jets’ offensive line and his superb vision. The Jets gave him a lot of well-blocked reps and Johnson routinely took full advantage of them. That’s something Johnson’s teammates did not do, as La’Mical Perine ranked 57th with 1.14 yards before contact while Frank Gore ranked 66th with a mark of 0.99.
The Jets did not randomly happen to block better when Johnson ran the ball. He was just much better at maximizing what was presented to him than his teammates were. The Jets’ run blocking was far from terrible throughout the 2020 season, as they ranked 17th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards per carry (4.34) and 10th in the lowest percentage of runs that were stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage (15.2%). Johnson met and even outperformed that quality of blocking, while Gore and Perine fell far below it.
Poor before-contact numbers are often the offensive line’s fault (as was the case with Le’Veon Bell and the 2019 Jets), but when you turn on the film of the Jets’ run game in 2020, you see that in this case, the running backs deserve a greater portion of the blame for their own lack of rushing success. Gore and Perine ran with poor vision, leaving a good amount of opportunities on the table. When Johnson and his superior vision trotted onto the field, it became clear that the offensive line was doing a decent job all along.
Let’s take a look at some examples of how Johnson was able to run the ball at an efficient level on the strength of his before-contact proficiency.
Johnson ran for 34 yards on his second carry as a Jet, which turned out to be the team’s longest rush of the season by a running back.
This hole defines itself pretty quickly, and Johnson wastes no time. The play-side linebacker aggressively shoots through the A-gap, Alex Lewis engages the 3-tech and establishes control to keep him from getting to the play-side B-gap, and George Fant kicks out to the wide-9 edge defender to seal him outside. Johnson flattens his angle to avoid the linebacker and charges straight through the open B-gap without the slightest bit of hesitation. At the second level, he takes advantage of a good open-field block by Perine, cutting back inside.
Nothing crazy – just a running back doing his job by making every good block count.
Nice work by Johnson here as bounces the ball outside.
The Jets run Duo, which sends Johnson to the tight end side and calls for double-teams on the defensive tackles. Kansas City’s defense collapses on the interior to shut down any potential inside run. The key becomes the play-side linebacker, No. 50, a guy named Darron Lee that Jets fans might know. If Lee can keep the edge protected, the Chiefs should have a stuff here, but Lee fails to do so. Johnson hesitates for just a beat after taking the handoff, sucking Lee inside and compromising the edge. Johnson bolts to the edge and outruns Lee to pick up eight yards.
Inside zone with Ryan Griffin at fullback. Johnson does a really nice job of staying patient and setting up Griffin’s block. After securing the handoff, Johnson takes a slight hop to pace himself as he waits for Griffin to pick up the play-side linebacker. He also subtly presses inside to help lure the linebacker inside and into Griffin. Once Johnson sees the linebacker commit to taking on Griffin, he breaks off of his inside foot and slices outside.
Great cutback by Johnson as he quickly processes his reads. The front-side B-gap is shut down by a blitzing defensive back who gets by Pat Elflein, as Elflein has to help out Connor McGovern with the 1-tech and cannot get out in time. Johnson slams the brake (no gas, all brake – sorry Robert Saleh) and turns his eyes to the back side. Noticing the defense’s heavy flow to the play side, Johnson quickly identifies the open C-gap on the back side and darts through it.
Johnson faces some trouble here as Clelin Ferrell penetrates the play-side B-gap against Mekhi Becton, quickly getting an angle on Johnson. Becton recovers well as he flips his hips to pin Ferrell inside (possibly getting away with a hold). Johnson watches the battle play out and makes the correct reads as he flattens out and hits the edge, gaining five yards on first down.
Taking the handoff from Sam Darnold on a read option, Johnson doesn’t have much room upon getting the football but he stays patient to let things develop. Noticing Pat Elflein (LG) and Connor McGovern (C) working a successful double-team on the left-side 2i-tech, sealing him outside, Johnson turns his attention to the linebacker. Johnson hops outside to pull the linebacker away from the middle, which the linebacker bites on. Johnson then cuts inside, running behind the backs of Elflein and McGovern for a healthy pickup.
Johnson aims for the edge but doesn’t like what he sees, so he turns his head back inside – only to find the 3-tech defensive tackle crashing down directly in his face (atrocious job by Elflein). Johnson makes a fantastic instinctive decision at this point, immediately turning his head back outside and jolting for the edge. He shows enough speed to beat the edge defender around the corner and get upfield for seven yards and a first down.
That is a really impressive display of instincts. Johnson went to his Plan B and it was instantly foiled. He could have easily gotten indecisive at that point and allowed himself to be stuffed in the backfield, but instead, he knew exactly how to respond to the situation he was presented with.
Johnson isn’t the most elusive or powerful runner in the world, but he doesn’t have to break tackles to be effective.
With his vision and speed, Johnson is capable of producing at a high-quality level while gaining most of his yardage before he is touched. He consistently identifies the best available option and does so at a rapid pace. When he makes his decision, Johnson is decisive and shows no hesitation in hitting the hole. To top it off, his one-cut burst is excellent, as he is able to hit his top speed in a hurry.
Johnson gained 52.0% of his yards before contact in 2020, the second-highest portion among qualifiers behind only Atlanta’s Ito Smith (55.6%) and one spot ahead of a man who has a similar skill-set to Johnson and thrived in the offense that new OC Mike LaFleur hails from – San Francisco’s Raheem Mostert (52.0%). Boasting many of the same positive traits as Johnson, Mostert became a feared home-run threat in the 49ers’ wide-zone running scheme.
Vision is crucial for a running back in any system, but it is an especially important skill in a wide-zone scheme where the reads tend to be more complex. Johnson’s talent in this area should immensely help his odds of not only making the roster, but emerging as the Jets’ go-to rusher earlier in the 2021 season.
Look for Johnson’s abilities to land him a prominent role in Mike LaFleur’s offense. The compatibility between his strengths and the needs of LaFleur’s scheme should give him strong odds of having success.