Lichtenstein: For Bell And The Jets, Less Is More

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Le’Veon Bell has done all the Jets have asked of him.

Now they should ask for less.

Jets coach Adam Gase had his superstar running back, who in March signed a 4-year, $52.5 million ($27 million guaranteed) contract as a free agent, exceed 20 touches in each of the first four games.  The Jets lost them all. In last Sunday’s contest against Dallas, which marked the return of starting quarterback Sam Darnold after missing the previous three games while recovering from mononucleosis, Bell was called on for 14 carries and one pass reception.

Darnold, however, completed passes to seven other targets.  He attacked all layers of Dallas’ defense. That’s how an offense that had produced a total of two touchdowns in the season’s first four games crossed the goal line three times in the first half en route to a 24-22 victory over the Cowboys.

That’s a winning formula, as opposed to the prior, “Bell-left, Bell-right, and throw a screen to Bell on third down” scheme that wasn’t entirely borne out of necessity following Darnold’s diagnosis.  Let’s not forget that Darnold was also calling signals in the opener, a 17-16 home defeat to Buffalo. Even in that affair, Bell was force-fed so often that he might as well have carried an actual bell around his neck since everyone on the field knew who was getting the ball.

If the Jets are going to have any shot at staying within range of the unbeaten Patriots when they invade Met Life Stadium Monday night, they can’t play that way.   

Forget the old Rex Ryan/Todd Bowles theories that you must milk the clock with a running game to keep Tom Brady and the Pats’ offense off the field.  Gase’s game plan has to call for the Jets to be multi-dimensional. The Patriots are well-known for their defense’s ability to take away their opponents’ best weapons.  In the first matchup between the teams in Week 3, Bell was held to 35 yards rushing on 18 carries in New England’s 30-14 victory. His 1.9 average yards per carry was his lowest since October 2013, his rookie season.

Le'Veon Bell #26 of the New York Jets warms up before their preseason game against the New Orleans Saints at MetLife Stadium on August 24, 2019Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The New England game was one of the three with third-stringer Luke Falk, a practice squad call-up, under center.  Barely able to throw the ball past the line of scrimmage, the Jets’ offense then couldn’t even be called one-dimensional, since, despite Bell’s presence, the running game was also stifled against loaded boxes.

Yet Bell, who sat out the entire 2018 season in a contract dispute with Pittsburgh, played through those three blowouts with a ton of heart.  He aggregated a mere 146 yards on 54 carries, but 134 of them came after contact, per ProFootballFocus.com. Only Tennessee’s bruising back Derrick Henry accounted for a greater percentage of his yards after contact in that span.  

Despite the hopelessness of the situation, Bell wasn’t the headache some predicted he’d be.  No public pouting. No Antonio Brown-type nonsense. 

Bell told The Athletic on Thursday that he’s happy now that he’s been paid.  He isn’t concerned about the Jets’ slow start or being overused.   

Bell played all 50 offensive snaps in New England in a game that saw the Jets fall behind, 30-0, late in the third quarter.  That wasn’t an anomaly. This season, Bell’s 92% snap percentage is the second-highest among NFL running backs behind Carolina’s Christian McCaffery, per Lineup.com.  Gase talks on one side of his mouth about not wanting to run Bell into the ground, and on the other admits that he needs Bell on the field all the time because of his versatility as a runner, receiver, and blocker (Per PFF, Bell has yet to allow a pressure this season when he’s stayed in to block).  It sent shockwaves through the press box when Gase rested Bell for two possessions on Sunday, including one in the fourth quarter.

In addition to continuing to use Ty Montgomery and/or Bilal Powell in spots to spare Bell, Gase has to take more shots downfield against the Patriots.  Several reporters on Sunday wondered why it took Gase so long to notice the Cowboys had at most one safety deep before he finally dialed one up to Robby Anderson late in the second quarter for a 92-yard touchdown.  Darnold attempted only one other pass that travelled more than 20 yards downfield, per NFL Next Gen Stats. 

Since Anderson has historically been smothered by New England’s All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore, other Jets receivers will have to test the Patriots’ defensive elasticity.  Maybe even send Bell out on a wheel route the way New England uses James White against overmatched linebackers.

It’s a shame that Bell’s numbers through five games suggest he’s having an off year, that his sabbatical from football somehow diminished his skills.  It’s not true.

“(Bell) is a hell of an athlete,” Jets guard Alex Lewis said after Sunday’s victory.  “He knows how to read blocks, set up blocks. He knows how to push it outside and get the linebacker over the top and cut up underneath.  A guy like that—it’s awesome having him in the backfield.”

No matter how talented Bell is, though, I’ll still argue that the Jets would have been better off investing their salary cap space on what the modern, pass-happy NFL considers premium positions.  Because the bottom line is that the Jets had one of the best backs in the game, healthy, spry, and playing with maximum effort, and still looked inept. Today’s offenses shine when those guys are complementary pieces, not featured players. 

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.