It took one move from Joe Douglas to resuscitate the New York Jets’ run game
As we sit here on the fifth day of January with one week to go in the NFL’s 2021 regular season, the New York Jets boast one of the league’s better rushing attacks.
While the Jets rank 24th in total rushing yards (101.2 per game), that’s only because they rank 31st in attempts (22.7 per game). Their run game is excellent from an efficiency standpoint. The Jets are ninth in yards per rush attempt (4.5). Advanced metrics are also fond of New York’s run game, as the Jets are 10th in total EPA (estimated points added) via rushing attempts with a mark of +19.5.
This has not been a season-long endeavor for the Jets. At the start of the year, their run game was nonexistent.
Over their first nine games, the Jets averaged only 3.6 yards per rush attempt, ranking 29th in the NFL through Week 10. They ranked 30th in rushing yards per game (76.3).
Everything flipped on a dime starting in Week 11.
The Jets have rushed for 5.6 yards per carry over their past seven games, ranking second-best in the NFL since Week 11. That per-play efficiency has allowed them to rank eighth in rushing yards per game (133.1) despite only attempting the 26th-most rushes per game (24.6).
Week 11 is not some random point in the year where the Jets just happened to start rushing more effectively. There was a big change that occurred that week: the Jets benched starting right guard Greg Van Roten in favor of newly-acquired Laurent Duvernay-Tardif.
With Van Roten sputtering through a rough season, general manager Joe Douglas refused to remain complacent and instead scoured the market for an upgrade. Douglas pulled the trigger on a trade to acquire Duvernay-Tardif from Kansas City on the day of the 2021 NFL trade deadline, Nov. 2.
The “trade” could hardly be labeled as such: in exchange for the services of Duvernay-Tardif, all the Jets sent over to the Chiefs was fourth-string tight end Daniel Brown, who had played 13 offensive snaps all season.
As it turns out, the Chiefs would waive Brown 18 days after the trade, and the Jets would sign him to their practice squad 10 days later.
So, Douglas essentially got “LDT” for free.
Duvernay-Tardif was inactive for the Jets’ first game following the trade (Nov. 4 at Indianapolis). In the second game (Nov. 14 vs. Buffalo), Duvernay-Tardif did suit up, but he exclusively appeared on special teams.
Prior to the Jets’ Week 11 clash with Miami, Duvernay-Tardif got the call-up. He was the Jets’ new starting right guard. Van Roten had been accordingly benched for his woes throughout the year.
As suggested by the team’s noticeable improvement in rushing production, there was instantly a noticeable difference in the offensive line’s performance with Duvernay-Tardif in Van Roten’s spot. The unit was more cohesive in executing its assignments, leading to more dominant results when it came to creating movement in the run game.
In Duvernay-Tardif’s starting debut against the Dolphins, the Jets rushed for a season-high 5.7 yards per carry and mustered up their first 100-yard rushing game in nine weeks, picking up 102 yards on only 18 carries.
The following week, the Jets rushed for a season-best 157 yards against Houston. New York trusted the run game to carry the day in rookie quarterback Zach Wilson‘s first game back from injury, rushing a season-high 34 times and still maintaining great efficiency with 4.6 yards per carry.
Fast forward to today, and the momentum that began to accumulate with Duvernay-Tardif’s entrance has done nothing but continue to mount.
Even playing alongside a backup center in Dan Feeney against the Buccaneers this past week, Duvernay-Tardif shined.
NYJ iOL was ROLLING vs TB on Sunday!
Vera-Tucker ➕ Feeney ➕Duvernay-Tardif
…Impressive day vs tough front seven group in Tampa Bay. @BigDuke50 @BrandonThornNFL (not entirely sure why all 3 of these clips have the NT falling backside, but impressive play nonetheless) pic.twitter.com/66sSxCA3MZ
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) January 4, 2022
The improved camaraderie we have seen from the Jets’ offensive line since Duvenay-Tardif’s entrance extends all the way to the opposite guard spot, where rookie left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker has continuously thrown key blocks over the past few weeks despite spending time playing next to two backup left tackles (Conor McDermott and Chuma Edoga) and a backup center.
It’s often said that an offensive line is only as strong as its weakest link. Throughout the early portion of the Jets’ season, it felt like Van Roten was holding back an offensive line that was getting good contributions from its other four starters.
Once Van Roten was replaced with a solid starter, the Jets’ offensive line found its identity and got into a groove – a groove so strong that the unit’s productivity has persisted despite a rash of injuries to the starting lineup.
Every Jets running back has been more efficient since Week 11. Here is a look at the main trio’s yards-per-carry averages prior to Week 11 and since Week 11:
The first domino to fall in this rushing rejuvenation was Joe Douglas’ decision to be proactive in searching for an upgrade at a position where the current starter was holding back the rest of his unit. This is not something that happens often. Teams typically let things play out and refrain from being too active at patching holes mid-season.
But Douglas bucked the trend. He identified an opportunity to make his football team better and jumped on it. Not only did the move provide an upgrade at that player’s particular position, but it created a ripple effect that helped numerous other players on the offense get better, too.
The Duvernay-Tardif acquisition is looking like a major coup for Douglas.
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