Jets running back Bilal Powell runs the ball against the Denver Broncos on Oct. 7, 2018, at MetLife Stadium.

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Lichtenstein: Jets O-Line Surprisingly Bulldozes Broncos In 34-16 Win

Run Game Piles Up 300+ Yards, Darnold Finds Time To Throw

Steve Lichtenstein
October 08, 2018 - 8:56 am
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The Jets’ 34-16 dismantling of visiting Denver on Sunday was shocking on so many levels.

A week after stinking from head to toe in all phases (including coaching) while getting smoked, 31-12, at Jacksonville for a third consecutive defeat, Gang Green rebounded big time.

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From a defense that got torched for 503 yards last week, the Jets limited the Broncos to a short-field touchdown and a field goal until fourth-quarter garbage time. Denver quarterback Case Keenum was sacked four times, three of them on third downs. 

Some of those were coverage sacks, courtesy of a much-maligned secondary that played without No. 1 cornerback Trumaine Johnson (quad injury) and then lost slot corner Buster Skrine to a first-half concussion.

However, it was the Jets’ offense that had the raucous (due to a strong contingent of Broncos fans) MetLife Stadium crowd buzzing. Rookie quarterback Sam Darnold, who had been having difficulties connecting with his receivers on throws over the top of defenses, hit on three of them for touchdowns. The running game, led by the butt-wiping endorser Isaiah Crowell, reached yardage totals only seen in these parts by opponents of Rutgers. Crowell set a franchise record with 219 yards on just 15 attempts. Three carries surpassed 35 yards, including a 77-yarder in the second quarter that tied the game at 7-7 and woke the Jets up from their typical early slumber. In addition, 1-A back Bilal Powell overcame an early fumble (the first one he lost in 751 career rushing attempts over seven-plus seasons) to break 100 yards late in the fourth quarter, but then eventually settled at 99.

Let it be known that none of those pyrotechnics would have been possible without a masterful performance by the Jets’ offensive line.

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Denver’s defense is nowhere as good as Jacksonville’s, but it did enter Sunday in eighth place in rush defense (93.8 yards per game) and was the league leader in pass rush “pressure percentage” (34 percent), per ESPN’s Rich Cimini. Edge rusher Von Miller is clearly one of the NFL’s best.

Yet the Jets' line, a sieve during the losing streak, somehow managed to keep Darnold fairly clean. The unit had been mesmerized by opponents’ stunts in previous weeks. Whether those communication lapses were due to the five starters not playing a single snap together in the preseason or other reasons, there were no issues Sunday. Darnold was sacked just once, and that one was mostly due to a poor shotgun snap from center Spencer Long.

“We just stayed at third-and-short,” Jets right tackle Brandon Shell said of how the Jets neutralized Miller and his mates. “Run the ball -- just keeps the pass rushers at bay.”      

Crowell, who endured coach Todd Bowles’ wrath after an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for using the football to wipe his backside and then signed an endorsement deal last week with Dude Wipes, may have wiped his slate clean. He’s a tough runner, as evidenced by his third-and-1 carry late in the second quarter. Crowell seemed to be wrapped up behind the line of scrimmage, but he kept his feet moving and thrust his way forward to pick up the first down. The Jets finished that drive with a 35-yard Darnold-to-Robby Anderson touchdown pass to go into the locker room up 21-10.

On the 77-yarder, however, Crowell went the distance untouched.  He deserves credit for a couple of nifty cuts, but mostly he owed his blockers, including the receivers who cleared the path downfield, a huge thank you.

Darnold also clearly benefitted from the dominant road grading in the rushing attack. Whereas the Jets became one-dimensional in Jacksonville, allowing the Jaguars' defense to focus on playing the pass, the Broncos had no such luxury.

“The way that we were running the ball, you’ve got to play single-high (safety),” Darnold said. “You’ve got to have an extra guy there in the box, so that helps everything.”      

On both of Darnold’s bombs to Anderson, the Broncos sent extra rushers. The Jets countered by using tight end Eric Tomlinson and others to max protect. With a clean pocket, Darnold delivered his best balls of the season. Anderson’s second touchdown was a thing of beauty, fitted neatly into his basket amid tight coverage by Denver cornerback Bradley Roby as Anderson streaked into the left corner of the end zone and then down the tunnel.

Darnold was so enamored with the blocking in front of him that he deigned to get a piece of the action. On Powell’s 38-yard reverse-the-field scamper midway through the fourth quarter, there was Darnold leading the way, knocking Denver safety Will Parks to the ground.

“I was kind of winded after that play, but it was awesome to be able to get in front of (Powell) and lead block,” Darnold said. “I don’t know if I actually blocked (Parks), but I did my part. I got in the way.”

I mentioned to another media member before the game that the root of the Jets’ offensive woes this season could be directly linked to their poor blocking. It made their running game unreliable and was stunting Darnold’s growth by limiting him too often to safer pass plays.

Four of the Jets’ seven highest-paid starters (backup quarterback Josh McCown is earning $10 million to act as Darnold’s consiglieri) are offensive linemen, but the club wasn’t getting enough bangs for their bucks.

Out of general manager Mike Maccagnan’s four drafts, only Shell, a 2016 fifth-rounder, has emerged as a starter. Right guard Brian Winters, the only Jets lineman to be graded as above average by ProFootballFocus.com, was selected in the 2013 draft’s third round. Long, left tackle Kelvin Beachum and left guard James Carpenter were all signed by Maccagnan as expensive free agents. And they’ve all underperformed.

For one day, at least, the Jets line held.

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