FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The Jets will ride the hot hand at running back.
Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur wouldn’t reveal who the starting tailback would be in Sunday’s opener at Carolina. The Jets don’t officially have a lead back and certainly don’t have a workhorse back. They’ll have a by-committee approach and let the game and the backs dictate what they decide to do.
“Whoever is in there, we have so much confidence in that they’re going to get the job done in their own way,” LaFleur said. “We always go into it with a plan, the plan can change based on the hot hand. If they’re getting it and producing, they’re going to stay out there.”
This approach worked so well for San Francisco, where LaFleur spent the previous four years mastering the West Coast offense with the outside zone blocking scheme.
LaFleur, a first-time coordinator, said he learned from 49ers running backs coach Bobby Turner that “if you got a hot hand, you keep him out there.”
Tevin Coleman is the most experienced back and knows the system better than anyone having played in it in Atlanta and San Francisco. But Ty Johnson had an impressive camp and preseason. They could split carries and reps early.
The Jets also have rookie Michael Carter and La’Mical Perine that they can turn to for a change of pace or to keep everyone fresh. Perine has been dealing with a foot issue, though.
This system is run heavy, but the ball is also spread around between the backs, receivers and tight ends. It features motions and shifts, and in the end could be very helpful for rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. Once the Jets establish the run, they can get explosive plays in play action.
“The offense fundamentally is just tailor-made for young quarterbacks because it leans so heavily on the run game,” said defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. “The fact that you can hand it off 30, 35, maybe 40 times is a huge source of relief for a young quarterback. It helps him gets into a rhythm, helps him feel he doesn’t have to do everything.”
The way this offense works, it’s hard to envision one of the Jets’ running backs breaking out for a 1,200-yard season. Only one has reached the 1,000-yard mark in LaFleur’s six years in the offense.
Former Falcons running back Davonta Freeman did it twice with Atlanta when LaFleur was there, working under then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. When Shanahan became the Niners’ coach, he brought LaFleur with him to San Francisco. The 49ers haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher in that time. LaFleur is all for one of the Jets’ backs doing that.
“We’d love it,” LaFleur said. “But I think naturally with the position, 17 games, and the wear and tear and how we do rotate, how we do try to spread the ball around to receivers, tight ends, backs … it’s not just the backs, so many people in this offense tend to touch the ball.
“We want to keep it balanced like that. It doesn’t always happen like that. But If someone breaks off for 12 or 1300 yards is probably pretty good for the Jets.”
LaFleur said the offensive line has shown improvement in their protections over the last couple of weeks. Wilson wasn’t sacked or knocked down once in two preseason games.
But the line is still learning the techniques and have been rotating players in and out due to injury. Rookie left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker missed all of the preseason with a pec injury, and left tackle Mekhi Becton returned Wednesday after spending two weeks in the concussion protocol. LaFleur said they still need time together.
“It’s just going to continue to be a process,” LaFleur said. “There’s going to be things on Sunday that they’re going to be learning from up front. It’s going to take all year and it’s going to go into next year. But I have seen improvements from them. They work well together.”