In the wake of Sunday night's disheartening 34-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan promised at least one change in their offensive game plan — a recommitment to the running game. In other words, "Ground & Pound" is back.
While this change in offensive philosophy should make Shonn Greene and his fantasy owners smile, it remains to be seen if it will result in a more productive rushing attack. After rushing for a meager 38 yards on 19 carries against the Ravens, the Jets (2-2) are averaging 71 yards per game on the ground through the first four games, which puts them 30th in the NFL. Compare that to last year, when their average for the entire season was 148.4 yards per game, which ranked them fourth overall.
Some of the decline in production can be attributed to two factors — game plan and the play of the offensive line. Last year, the Jets' play-calling featured a 50/50 split between rushes and passes. This year through the first four games the split is 60/40 as quarterback Mark Sanchez has 147 pass attempts compared to a total of 92 rushes for the entire Jets team.
While Sanchez has been somewhat productive in the passing game (55 percent completion rate, 1,005 yards, six touchdowns), he's also thrown five interceptions and lost three fumbles. All three of his fumbles came against the Ravens, who returned two of them and an interception in that game for touchdowns.
A strength of last year's Jets team, this year the offensive line has struggled. All-Pro center Nick Mangold has missed the past two games, both Jets losses, after suffering a high-ankle sprain in Week 2, and his absence has been noticeable. In the Ravens game alone, there were numerous instances of miscommunication between Sanchez and Mangold's replacement, rookie Colin Baxter, which resulted in mishandled snaps. At one point, Baxter was benched in the second quarter meaning Sanchez had to acclimate himself with yet another center, Matt Slausson, who moved over from his usual left guard position.
Mangold has returned to practice and hopes to be able to play this Sunday against the New England Patriots, a development that certainly puts a smile on Sanchez's face. Without question, the center, especially one the caliber of Mangold, is a crucial piece of any offensive line. But the center is just one part of a five-man unit and the Jets' offensive lines struggles go beyond Mangold's extended absence. Especially when you consider there is just one new starter this year compared to last, right tackle Wayne Hunter, who was a backup last year.
Sanchez has already been sacked 11 times this season and been pressured or hurried countless more. For example, while the Ravens only sacked him twice on Sunday night, they also got a total of 10 hits on him, according to the game statistics.
This type of punishment has already taken its toll, as Sanchez has seemingly completed each game to this point with some sort of injury. He was tested for a concussion after the Jets' opening-season win over the Dallas Cowboys, he banged up his throwing arm and elbow the following week against the Jaguars and then suffered a minor break of his nose against the Raiders in Week 3. Outside of the running backs, no one is probably happier about a game plan that features more hand offs than Sanchez.
And speaking of the running backs, what can Jets' fans and fantasy owners alike expect from Greene or even LaDainian Tomlinson with more carries. Well, if early-season results have anything to say about it — not too much.
Last year, Tomlinson got more carries than Greene (219 to 185), and subsequently did a little more with them. Tomlinson finished the season with 914 yards and six touchdowns, while Greene had 766 yards and two scores on the ground. Not surprising, Tomlinson also received more opportunities through the air, catching 52 passes compared to Greene's 16 receptions. But when it came to per-carry and per-catch production, the two were basically dead-even. Tomlinson averaged 4.2 yards per carry and 7.1 yards per catch, while Greene averaged 4.1 and 7.5 respectively.
Headed into this season, the Jets decided to make Greene, 26, the feature back of the Jets' offense, with Tomlinson, 32 and in his 11th NFL season, relegated to a secondary role. For the second straight year, this made Greene a popular sleeper/upside pick among fantasy owners, who were just waiting for the third-year pro to finally break out.
Well to this point, they are still waiting. Greene has gotten the bulk of the carries, to the tune of 55 percent of the team's total, but he's averaging a meager 3.1 yards per carry and his season-long carry is 15 yards. His yards per carry average is the lowest among the NFL's top 40 rushers.
Greene has been more involved in the passing game with 10 receptions already, but he's averaging just 6 yards per catch and has scored a total of one touchdown. Add it all up and you get the 33rd-ranked running back in fantasy football, according to Athlon Sports' standard scoring.
In fact, Tomlinson has been more productive than Greene with far fewer touches. The future Hall of Famer is currently the 28th-ranked running back, thanks mainly to his ability as a receiver. Tomlinson is tied for second on the Jets with 13 receptions and his second in receiving yards with 200 and has two touchdown catches. On the ground, he has 59 yards in 20 attempts (3.0 ypc) with season-long carry of 20 yards.
If the Jets are to return to their running ways, they are picking a good time to do so. Last year against the Patriots, the Jets rushed for a total of 237 yards in two games. This year the Patriots are giving up an average of 108.8 yards per game and 4.8 yards per attempt on the ground.
With a run-centric game plan in place and the Patriots on tap, Greene should get plenty of opportunities this Sunday. But if the Jets' offensive line can't get their act together and open up a few more holes, Greene himself may be the one grounded — on either the bench or waiver wire — come Week 6.