The running game appeared to pick up for the New York Jets vs. the Carolina Panthers
If there was one question that appeared to be answered for the New York Jets against the Carolina Panthers, it was whether the running game could get it going. Against Cleveland in the Hall of Fame Game, other than one 10-yard touchdown scamper from Izzy Abanikanda, there was virtually no space all game. If that had been replicated with several starting offensive linemen and likely rostered running backs on the field, it might have been yet another reason for Jets fans to panic.
At least on the broadcast view and in the box score, it appeared that these fears were premature. The Jets’ top three backs rushed 20 times for 88 yards, a 4.4 yards per carry average that was worlds better than the 3.5 mark that both Michael Carter and Zonovan Knight recorded in 2022.
Still, the running game is difficult to evaluate with the naked eye. The TV cameras are not focused on the blocking or the split-second decisions that can make or break the play. To evaluate whether the back left meat on the bone, created on his own, or at least took the yards that were blocked for him, it takes some film study.
Assuming that Carter, Knight, and Abanikanda are the three backs who played in the game and could/will make the Jets’ roster, let’s evaluate their play against Carolina. How did they perform?
Carter has been a major question mark this offseason. If his 2022 level of play had been anywhere near what it was in 2021, Cook never would have been in the discussion. However, Carter’s performance was subpar even in games where Breece Hall thrived, and it only got worse from there. There was seemingly no way to know what to expect from him in 2023. Reports that he hasn’t stood out in camp made the uncertainty even more acute.
Carter’s showing against the Panthers provided the first concrete sign that maybe rookie Carter is back. Obviously, it’s one preseason game against many backups and a vanilla defense. Still, rather than just hoping that Carter can bounce back after inexplicably falling off a cliff, he has an actual performance indicating that he might be able to do so.
Here are Carter’s statistics from the preseason game:
- 4 carries, 19 yards (4.8 YPC)
- 12 yards after contact (3.00 per attempt)
- 2 targets, 2 receptions, 34 yards, 17.0 yards per reception
- 32 YAC, 16.0 YAC per reception
- 4 missed tackles forced, 0.667 per touch
- +1.00 rush yards over expected (RYOE) per attempt
Take from it what you will, as this is a small sample size of just six touches. However, I wanted to include the numbers beyond the box score to see if they match what’s on film. Here are Carter’s six touches and one pass-blocking rep (I skipped the play where he leaked out into the flat and was not targeted).
1st & 10: Carter 7-yard run
This looks like a classic 2021 Michael Carter run out of 21 personnel. He stays inside to hold the defenders before bouncing it outside behind blocks from Laken Tomlinson, Nick Bawden, and Allen Lazard. When it’s Carter one-on-one with a defensive back, advantage 2021 Carter. He notices Jaycee Horn (No. 8) leaning outside and jukes him out of his shoes.
2nd & 3: Carter 1-yard run
From an overloaded 12 personnel look, Carter runs right and reads Schweitzer’s man. While he’s initially leaning toward the B-gap, the flash of the defender’s helmet there causes Carter to hesitate and gear back inside. Tomlinson executes a good reach block and Connor McGovern appears to be in a good position to block linebacker Shaq Thompson (No. 7). However, Schweitzer’s man throws him aside like a ragged doll and clogs the gap, limiting Carter to a gain of one.
With Tyler Conklin’s whiff on the play, there is no real chance for a cutback. This is his best hole, and it’s sealed off.
The RYOE formula might have dinged Carter here because of his hesitation. However, I would contend that even if he had read the A-gap and hit the hole immediately, he would’ve been met in the hole by Schweitzer’s man.
3rd & 2: Carter pass protection
Pass-blocking is not Carter’s forte. At 5-foot-7⅞ and 201 pounds, he’s at a significant disadvantage against blitzing linebackers. Still, he is willing to stick his nose in and try despite less-than-adequate results. In 2022, Carter ranked dead last among 44 running backs (min. 35 pass protection reps) with a 19.6% pressure rate. He wasn’t quite as bad in 2021 (9.6%, 31/47) but was still below average.
In this case, Carter meets Thompson in the hole but gets run over. He comes in too high against a much bigger opponent. Fortunately for Carter, Zach Wilson releases the ball quickly.
(For those checking at home, Pro Football Focus gave Carter a 69.2 pass-blocking grade for that one rep.)
2nd & 8: Carter 5-yard run
Out of 11 personnel with C.J. Uzomah lined up as an H-back, Carter initially heads right (likely for the play-side B-gap) but cuts back left behind Uzomah’s block. He loops around a block from Lazard and then dives forward for an extra yard. Nice gain on second down to set up a third and short.
3rd & 3: Carter 25-yard reception
To me, this is Carter’s least important touch, even though it drove his 90.2 PFF receiving grade (showing the misleading nature of the grades). He leaks out into the flat for a quick pass from Wilson. One of the Carolina linebackers blows his assignment, leaving Carter wide open. With all the grass in front of him, he takes the pass down the sideline for a gain of 25. There’s not much to evaluate here.
1st & 10: Carter 9-yard reception
Carter leaks out of the backfield and takes the dump off from Wilson. He does a nice job turning it upfield. Not much else to say here; it’s an excellent first-down gain. This is the kind of play the Jets couldn’t get going in 2022. For all his lack of explosiveness, Carter has nice short-area quickness (he earned an elite agility score at the NFL Combine). In this case, it shows when he turns upfield away from the defender immediately after catching the ball.
2nd & 1: Carter 6-yard run
Carter has a one-on-one with the linebacker in the hole after Schweitzer whiffs on the block. This is 2021 Carter at his finest: he jump-cuts, then converts it into a spin move to pick up an extra few yards. (It appears that he and the rest of the Jets’ offense and defense have been taking a page out of Will McDonald’s book. In 2022, the only Jets who pulled off a spin move were Hall and Garrett Wilson.)
Overall, 4 RYOE (+1.00 per attempt) seems about right for Carter. He used his shiftiness to gain a few extra yards on two of his runs. The one rush where he might’ve been dinged was offset by three nice gains. One of Carter’s strengths as a rookie running back was his reliability: he ranked seventh among all running backs in total RYOE, and he ranked second in the rate of rushes with a positive RYOE.
One of my objections to Dalvin Cook is his boom-or-bust nature. Carter at his peak is precisely the opposite: he’s not going to rip off big chunks, but he’ll move the sticks and keep the down and distance favorable for the offense. That’s a skill that cannot be underestimated.
Again, this is one preseason game against a vanilla defense. I have been very vocally critical of Carter this offseason and questioned repeatedly whether he’ll ever regain his rookie form. Still, if he can stack such performances, the Jets will undoubtedly feel a lot better about their running back room even as Hall works his way back up to speed. 2021 Carter was good enough to be the head of a running back committee in the NFL. If he’s back, that’s a huge sign for the offense.
I have made no secret of the fact that I think Zonovan Knight is the Jets’ second-best back. However, I think it’s fair to say that he had the worst game of the team’s three primary backs who played. His weaknesses were on full display. Here were his numbers.
- 4 carries, 13 yards (3.3 YPC)
- 14 yards after contact (3.50 per attempt)
- 2 targets, 1 reception, 3 yards, 3.0 yards per reception, 1 drop
- 7 YAC, 7.0 YAC per reception
- 2 missed tackles forced, 0.4 per touch
- -0.25 RYOE per attempt
Knight grinds out yards after contact. Carter’s numbers in this area were not entirely fair because he made tacklers miss while completely avoiding contact. Knight is generally not elusive enough to do that, but he simply runs tacklers over.
Here is the film on all of Knight’s rushes and targets.
1st & 10: Knight 3-yard reception
Knight does not receive good blocking out in front of him on this play. Tomlinson blocks no one, while McGovern also whiffs on his block. However, Knight also takes the screen too far outside, which allows the tackler to easily close ground. Considering that McGovern and Tomlinson are both further inside, it’s likely wiser to stay closer to them and then cut based on where their blocks go. Still, it’s possible that he is expecting Conklin to block that defender. Hardman also doesn’t block anyone.
To add insult to injury, Knight nearly fumbles on the play. It was initially called a fumble on the field. This is undoubtedly an issue in Knight’s game; he had two fumbles on 98 touches in 2022, a 2.04% rate that would have been the worst among qualified running backs. Robert Saleh made reference to it in his press conference.
1st & 10: Knight 2-yard run
Knight takes too long to read the hole in the play-side A-gap. Perhaps he sees Shy Tuttle (No. 99) flash his helmet there, but there’s enough space for Knight to get skinny through the hole. Instead, he takes it too far outside and then has to cut back to the A-gap. Tomlinson actually does a fairly good job of riding Tuttle deeper to create space, but by the time Knight reads that hole, other defenders clogged it. As usual, Knight puts forth an effort to try to get past the first tackler, but he gains fewer yards than he could have with a better read.
This is an area of struggle for Knight. His vision is not ideal, and he misses holes at times. Considering his lack of explosiveness, this gives him a lower ceiling than a back like Abanikanda, who has far worse contact balance and also has vision issues but can use his speed at times to make up for it. Additionally, it makes him more boom-or-bust than a true-to-form Carter since he’s more likely to gain fewer yards than were blocked up for him.
2nd & 20: Knight 3-yard run
In an unfavorable down and distance, Knight nevertheless gains fewer yards than were drawn up for him. Instead of sticking to his first read on the play, Knight should have glanced to his left at the mesh point and noticed that the B-gap has more potential than the A-gap.
If he gears down and then cuts to the wide-open B-gap, his blocks from Irvin Charles and Billy Turner are set up nicely to his left. Although Tomlinson allows outside leverage to Tuttle, if Knight cuts a flatter angle, he could potentially outrun the defensive tackle.
1st & 10: Knight 7-yard run
Although this is a nice gain by Knight, it could have been a bigger one. He is simply not decisive enough in hitting the hole. Tomlinson does an excellent job sealing off the second level. Although Turner’s whiff is what directly causes the tackle, Knight is not up to full speed at that point because he’s still meandering through the hole. This is where a more explosive back picks up a big gain.
2nd & 3: Knight 1-yard run
The run is designed to go outside the double tight-end set, but Uzomah whiffs on his block and allows the linebacker to easily blow up the play. Even though Knight breaks the first tackle and picks up a couple of extra yards, there’s bad blocking here. Perhaps a shiftier back could quickly cut inside, but at the time Knight receives the ball, it looks like there will be space outside.
I assume that RYOE is not kind to Knight on this play because it is evaluated from the moment the ball hits the running back’s hands; however, that does not account for a blown block almost immediately afterward.
3rd & 2: Knight incompletion (drop?)
PFF labeled this a drop for Knight. It’s not a clear-cut call, although Knight undoubtedly hears the footsteps coming and gets nervous about a hit. That is more frustrating than the fact that he cannot catch a high pass from Wilson. One way or another, it’s unlikely that he could have kept his balance, broken the tackle, and picked up the first down.
Knight had a difficult game beyond just his box score stats. Sure, there were some poorly-blocked plays, but there were others where he did not maximize the space in front of him. For a player whose roster spot is not guaranteed, he definitely did not make an ideal case. A near-fumble and a questionable drop serve to highlight the poor showing he had.
Again, it’s one preseason game, but Carter looked like a far better back than Knight.
In his first NFL game action against the Browns, Abanikanda showed why he fell to the fifth round despite an unofficial 4.39 speed and home-run hitting potential. He scored a touchdown but struggled to remain upright and keep himself clean.
Still, in his second game, he showed some of that burst that made him an intriguing pick.
- 12 rushes, 56 yards (4.7 YPC)
- 53 yards after contact (4.42 per attempt)
- 3 targets, 3 receptions, 31 yards, 10.3 yards per reception
- 41 YAC, 13.7 YAC per reception
- 5 missed tackles forced, 0.333 per touch
- 0.08 RYOE per attempt
Here are all 12 of Abanikanda’s rush attempts and two of his targets from the All-22 angle (plus one reception from the broadcast angle). For Abanikanda, NFL Next Gen Stats actually lists the RYOE for each run, so we’ll break that down and see if it matches what’s on the film.
Note: xRY is expected rush yards; RYOE is calculated by subtracting xRY from yards gained.
2nd & 10: Abanikanda 1-yard run
xRY: 2, Actual: 1, RYOE: -1
This is what I view as a shortcoming of RYOE as a statistic. At the moment Abanikanda receives the ball, is there space for him to possibly get two yards before No. 36 hits his legs? Yes. But one frame later, No. 96 (Williams) is in the way and completely clogging up that gap. Should Abanikanda have really gained two yards in that hole?
My main quibble with Abanikanda on this rep comes from a different source, one that is not measured by RYOE. At the point that Williams comes diving through the hole, a back with more awareness likely could have at least tried to dance around him and picked up a couple of extra yards. Better vision might have even had Abanikanda cutting his run straight up the middle. Instead, Abanikanda runs right into Williams.
1st & 10: Abanikanda 2-yard run
xRY: 5, Actual: 2, RYOE: -3
This is not a good rep from Abanikanda. He strings the run outside rather than running inside of Becton either through the play-side A- or B-gaps. At the mesh point, Abanikanda has several options that are better than just running straight outside. First of all, Becton has the edge defender No. 90 (Amare Barno) on the ground, and Abanikanda runs straight into him. If he wants to avoid the B-gap due to the leg traffic from Becton, running straight into the defender is not the way to do it.
It also appears that if Abanikanda starts toward that B-gap rather than immediately running outside, there are more options for him to continue reading. Will Colon’s man maintain outside leverage? Try to cut it upfield. If Colon pins him back inside, cut the play outside and lighten the leg to get over Becton. As it turns out, Chris Glaser (No. 64) and Joe Tippmann (No. 66) can’t seal the A-gap, but that was still a better read from where Abanikanda is standing.
It doesn’t help that Irv Charles whiffs on his block outside, but Abanikanda already sealed his fate by running straight into the defender.
1st & 10: Abanikanda 4-yard run
xRY: 7, Actual: 4, RYOE: -3
Abanikanda is one-on-one with the linebacker here, but it’s his own fault; he runs straight ahead toward the defender rather than cutting to his left. Had he run closer to Glaser (No. 64), who sealed the block, he might have been able to simply outrun No. 57. Another fine option would be just to cut left away from the linebacker for at least another few yards. Instead, Abanikanda runs straight ahead into the linebacker. That’s why you see Abanikanda seemingly fall flat on his face a lot; besides not having good contact balance, he comes into contact in the most absurd places.
Compare this rep to Carter’s earlier, when he was one-on-one with a linebacker in the hole. Carter successfully puts a move on his guy. Abanikanda doesn’t even try.
2nd & 6: Abanikanda 17-yard reception
This rep was reminiscent of Cook. Abanikanda takes a screen pass and gets a nice block from Colon in front of him, as well as a seal block from Joe Tippmann. He gains 17 yards but makes no move beyond the wide open space. Would he have gained more yardage? Maybe, maybe not. But instead, he runs directly into the defender. Not only is there no creativity or attempt to make a move, but Abanikanda has an uncanny knack for running straight into a tackle. (I’d be curious to see the xYAC on this play.)
2nd & 6: Abanikanda 2-yard reception
There are three defenders out in the flat against Abanikanda. Perhaps he could have turned it into a two-on-one by running further inside, but there isn’t all that much there.
2nd & 1: Abanikanda 5-yard run
xRY: 4, Actual: 5, RYOE: 1
Although Abanikanda might have had a wide-open C-gap if Tippmann hadn’t been beaten immediately, he has to contend with a defender in his lane very quickly. Rather than run straight into Williams, Abanikanda takes his track wide to avoid him. His initial thought is to continue to the B-gap to his right, but with the defender’s outside leverage, he lightens his leg and quickly cuts it back inside, finding some space and falling forward for an extra yard. Nice rep from Abanikanda.
1st & 10: Abanikanda 12-yard reception
Another Abanikanda screen with a very similar trajectory to the other one: good block in front (a little close for comfort from Tippmann but good enough to spring Abanikanda), a lot of free space, and Abanikanda can’t make the first defender miss. On this play, it appears that running further inside would have given him a chance to run further upfield and also set up a block from Glaser (No. 64). Instead, although it’s a nice gain, it’s capped at 12 yards.
3rd & 2: Abanikanda 26-yard run
xRY: 8, Actual: 26, RYOE: 18
This is the play that has Jets fans oohing and aahing. Abanikanda is expected to gain eight yards on the play, likely if he takes it through the gap between Glaser and Kenny Yeboah (No. 88); perhaps that’s the best decision considering the spacing. However, he decides to let Yeboah pass and then run through the gap, which then forces him to break an arm tackle from linebacker Brandon Smith (No. 40). He does a great job lightening his legs to avoid the tackle, then breaks another dive at his foot (primarily with his speed).
This time, seeing a defender come from up ahead, Abanikanda finds his move. He jukes inside and then uses an outside spin to get around the defender, freeing up space and coming oh-so-close to scoring a 27-yard touchdown. To nitpick, the one last move could have been to break it slightly more outside after the spin to avoid No. 36, the final tackler. Perhaps Abanikanda does not see No. 36, or he may just see the other defender coming from his left.
1st & Goal: Abanikanda -1 yard run
xRY: 0, Actual: -1, RYOE: -1
Bad goal line rep by most of the offensive line. No need to go into the details; there’s nowhere for Izzy to go. The xRY being zero on this play seems a bit preposterous to me.
1st & 10: Abanikanda 6-yard run
xRY: 7, Actual: 6, RYOE: -1
The one-yard-less reps are starting to pile up, likely a product of Abanikanda’s general inability to fall forward after contact. Once again, Abanikanda does not put a move on when one-on-one with a defender, though he has space to the outside to attempt a juke. Instead, he sort of gears down for contact from No. 42 and ends up tackled by No. 56. That lack of finish is part of what will likely keep Izzy on the bench for much of his rookie season.
2nd & 4: Abanikanda no gain
xRY: 4, Actual: 0, RYOE: -4
By the numbers, this is Abanikanda’s worst rush attempt of the day. It’s because of his vision; if he hits the hole set up by Yeboah, he gains the four expected yards. Instead, he ends up too far outside first before dancing back to the hole. He needs to see the hole and hit the hole. Yeboah has the block set up there, but it’s wasted. This is the kind of thing that is hard to see on TV but is the difference between bad blocking and a flawed running back.
1st & 10: Abanikanda 4-yard run
xRY: 5, Actual: 4, RYOE: -1
Another negative RYOE run. In this case, once again, Abanikanda is slow to the hole. Yes, Colon misses his block, but Abanikanda has the extra yard if he gets there quicker.
1st & 10: Abanikanda 4-yard run
xRY: 6, Actual: 4, RYOE: -2
Another play where Abanikanda somehow just looks slower than he is. When Yeboah seals off that edge, Abanikanda meanders to the spot. He could try to stay somewhat inside to keep the defender pinned. Instead, not only does he come out slowly, but his outside commitment allows No. 40 to blow by Senat (No. 68) for the tackle. Sure, Senat blows the block, but the RYOE seems accurate here.
2nd & 6: Abanikanda 5-yard run
xRY: 5, Actual: 5, RYOE: 0
Here, Abanikanda finally gets exactly what he’s expected to. He tries a little juke inside to get the defender to sit inside, and it leaves the defender just flat-footed enough to get that extra yard that he didn’t gain on so many other plays.
3rd & 1: Abanikanda no gain
xRY: 2, Actual: 0, RYOE: -2
The negative RYOE raises the question of what Abanikanda does wrong here. It’s hard to figure out how the conclusion was -2 RYOE. Although there’s seemingly some space in the backside B-gap when Abanikanda receives the ball, that gap quickly closes. Perhaps he could try to get into the play-side B-gap, but with the defender leveraged heavily outside in that gap, it would’ve been hit-or-miss. Abanikanda likely doesn’t see or anticipate the defender coming free from the back-side C-gap and figures he can push the pile forward.
Although Abanikanda’s best shot might be in the play-side B-gap, it’s hard to fault him for a poorly blocked third-down play.
Abanikanda’s day was far more of a mixed bag than it appeared on TV. He had some nice reps, most noticeably his 26-yard near-touchdown. However, his vision was once again spotty, and he demonstrated the same poor contact balance and inability to make moves consistently that were all over his college tape. The fact that nine of his 12 runs (75%) had a negative RYOE value is an indicator that a closer look at the film is warranted than his 4.7 YPC average would make it appear.
The main conclusion from Abanikanda’s tape is that the Jets’ run-blocking was better than it was against Cleveland in the Hall of Fame Game. Jets running backs coach Taylor Embree has some work to do with his raw, speedy rookie to get him up to NFL speed. I still suspect that we will see Abanikanda as a healthy scratch on gameday once Hall is reintegrated into the lineup.
Of the three backs, Carter had the best day compared to what was expected, both statistically and on film. Although it was a small sample size, he had two runs that looked like rookie-year Carter. After that, Abanikanda’s explosive run was a nice play on an otherwise uneven day.
I am not espousing RYOE as the be-all and end-all statistic. In fact, I believe that it has many flaws. Some of its conclusions are wildly inaccurate. Still, in Knight’s and Abanikanda’s cases, they did miss out on yardage due to a lack of vision, hesitation, and/or an inability to beat one man in space.
Outside of Carter, I think the most encouraging sign is that the Jets were able to run the ball and make some good blocks. In the joint practice, there was very little running room, which was somewhat concerning. Although the Panthers’ starting edge rushers did not play, Brian Burns is one of the worst run defenders at his position in the league, and Justin Houston’s role is virtually a pass-rush specialist at this point. Many of their top run defenders, including Derrick Brown, Shaq Thompson, and Frankie Luvu, did play some snaps early on.
The Jets want to run the football in 2023. This was a decent baby step in showing that maybe they can.