Lichtenstein: Beachum's Return, Young CBs' Emergence Have Helped Transform Jets

Steve Lichtenstein
November 25, 2019 - 12:16 pm
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Looking for the proximate causes for the Jets’ turnaround in their last three games after a dreadful 1-7 start?

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Well, we can’t solely point to the quality of the opposition anymore, not after Gang Green followed up victories against the lowly Giants and Redskins by walloping Oakland 34-3 on Sunday. The Raiders may be using the cross-country travel and the rancid weather as excuses for a host of breaks (dropped passes and a missed field goal) that went New York’s way, but they did come into MetLife Stadium fighting for a playoff berth at 6-4. Unlike the two rookies the Jets previously faced, Derek Carr is a legitimate NFL quarterback right now. 

In their first three-game winning streak since October 2017, the Jets have been making every break, including a questionable Oakland roughing-the-passer penalty on Sunday, hurt. This is new. Four weeks ago, I didn’t believe they were capable of going on such a run. Now, who’s to say they can’t extend the streak by winning in Cincinnati and then beating Miami at home in the next two weeks? 

In a twist of logic, it took the return to action of a key injured offensive player (no, not quarterback Sam Darnold) and, counterintuitively, injuries to two defensive starters to make this possible: 

OFFENSE

Darnold returned from a three-game absence (mononucleosis) by beating Dallas. He then suffered a severe regression over the next three games, posting a three-touchdown-to-eight-interception ratio.

Darnold has since gone 58-of-89 (65%) for 838 yards with seven TDs and only one pick.

What gives?

Darnold’s resurgence can be traced to multiple factors, from his reported meeting with coach Adam Gase over what he did and didn’t like about the playbook to simply learning how to live another down instead of forcing throws into coverage.

The other common denominator that has boosted the entire offense, not just Darnold, is left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who has been plagued all season by ankle woes. In the five games that Beachum and Darnold have both played, the Jets have gone 4-1.

Jets offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum celebrates after the game against the Raiders on Nov. 24, 2019, at MetLife Stadium.
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Images

“(Beachum) is awesome,” Darnold said. “The way that everyone communicates when he’s in there, he’s a really good leader and a really good pass protector — a great offensive lineman.”

Per ProFootballFocus.com, Darnold has yet to be hit, never mind sacked, by Beachum’s assigned pass rusher in the aforementioned five games. Darnold was “hurried” four times by Beachum’s blocking assignment on 146 dropbacks going into Sunday. While the final PFF stats for Sunday haven’t been published as of this writing, Darnold was taken down once after stepping up into the pocket when Maxx Crosby pushed aside right guard Tom Compton. 

That’s it.

It wasn’t just the Jets’ passing game that has benefitted from Beachum’s return. Gang Green is last in the league with 39 rushing first downs in 11 games. Sixteen have come in the last three games.

Beachum, who tweaked his ankle again in Washington and was limited in practice all week, got rolled into while pass protecting late in the first quarter. It didn’t look good.

“It’s football,” Beachum, who returned at the start of the second quarter, said. “Late in the season, things happen — playing this game, it’s 100% injury risk. You just do all you can to try to be out and come back and be there for your teammates.”

Left guard Alex Lewis admired Beachum’s warrior mentality.

“He’s got heart,” Lewis said. “That’s something you can’t coach in a guy. There’s a reason why he’s a captain.” 

Beachum was lousy without Darnold. Darnold was lousy without Beachum. When they’ve played together, they’ve made magic.

DEFENSE

I mentioned this last week, but it bears repeating: It makes such a difference to a defense when everyone in the secondary knows the fundamentals of how to cover.

Slot corner Brian Poole and safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye have been holding up their ends all season. However, starting outside cornerbacks Trumaine Johnson and Daryl Roberts were ranked 69th and 72nd by PFF out of 108 cornerbacks with at least 150 coverage snaps in opposing QB rating when targeted. Nate Hairston, who was the initial “next man up,” is 107th.

In the run-up to Giants week, Johnson went on the injured reserve and Roberts suffered a calf injury. Hairston started, but then got benched midgame for his atrocious performance. 

It should have been curtains for a Jets defense that had been getting toasted by the forward pass all season.

Enter Bless Austin, the Jets’ sixth-round selection in this year’s draft who spent the first eight games of the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list, and Arthur Maulet, who went undrafted in 2017 and spent the next couple of seasons bouncing around practice squads.

The Dallas Carter High School coach from the movie “Friday Night Lights” could have been talking about Maulet and Austin when he said with appreciation, “They do know how to tackle.”

Though Maulet whiffed on a couple, he and Austin combined for 12 total tackles Sunday. When you add in Adams and Maye, the Jets laid the wood with big hits on the Raiders’ receivers all game, limiting their yards after the catch (with a handful of exceptions). Carr finished 15-of-27 for just 127 yards and a deflected pick that Poole ran back for a touchdown. Oakland coach Jon Gruden had seen enough after three quarters of Carr’s work. 

“I feel like as a corner with my stature (6-foot-1, 198 pounds), I should be able to come up and make tackles and be physical in run support,” said Austin, who, along with Maye, stymied Oakland fullback Alec Ingold on a crucial fourth down early in the third quarter. Four plays later, the Jets went up 27-3. 

With the new Jets secondary now able to cover for a few added seconds — wouldn’t you know it — a pass rush suddenly emerged. Half their 26 total sacks this season have come in the last three games. Adams in particular has been unleashed, a terror from all angles. 

“The big thing (the Jets) do is they do a great job with Adams and their disguise package,” Gruden said. “They got a good nucleus of players. They’re a lot better than people think on defense, let me tell you.”

No one really believed that before Austin and Maulet flew in from the shadows to transform the Jets’ defense.

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

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