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Lichtenstein: Marty Mornhinweg Runs Away From Running Game

... And Jets Can't Catch Up To Pats
Running back Chris Ivory of the New York Jets carries the ball as he is hit by outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower of the New England Patriots in the second quarter at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2013. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Running back Chris Ivory of the New York Jets carries the ball as he is hit by outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower of the New England Patriots in the second quarter at Gillette Stadium on September 12, 2013. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

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By Steve Lichtenstein
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In his seven years coordinating the offense in Philadelphia, Marty Mornhinweg drove fans crazy with his under-utilization of the running game.  Despite the Eagles being blessed with elite backs like Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy, a large majority of Mornhinweg’s game plans didn’t deign to call on them more than 20 times per game.

Now that he’s moved on to call the shots for the Jets offense, Mornhinweg has not adjusted his bias even while saddled with a rookie quarterback.

And that bias was a contributing factor as to why the Jets failed to bring back a rare winnable game in New England last night. The Patriots, decimated by injuries to key offensive weapons, hung on for a 13-10 victory. Now I know how Eagles fans felt all those years.

Geno Smith, the aforementioned rookie, chucked it up 35 times last night.  He was also sacked four times and took off to avoid the rush on three other occasions. That’s 42 dropbacks.

This on a night when both teams were afflicted with Stone Hands Syndrome, whose symptoms were apparent even before the heavy rains wrecked further havoc in the second half.  If not for dropped balls, Smith’s stat line would have included about a half-dozen more completions than the tallied 15.

Clyde Gates had an especially dubious outing, catching only two of the eight balls sent his way. (Anyone still have Braylon Edwards’ number?) His most egregious drop occurred in the end zone off a third-down dart from Smith from the New England 9-yard line with four minutes left in the first quarter.  The Jets were forced to settle for a field goal that cut New England’s lead to 10-3.

On that 10-play 71-yard drive, the Jets ran it seven times.  They also called runs on four of the nine plays during their sole touchdown drive in the third quarter.  Bilal Powell finished it with a three-yard smash up the middle.  The tailback tandem of Powell and Chris Ivory averaged 4.0 yards per rush.

So why did they only get called on a mere 25 times all night?

Yes the running game was pretty much invisible in the Jets’ week 1 win over Tampa Bay.  But that had a lot to do with the Bucs’ strong interior defense.

The Patriots, on the other hand, were having difficulties with the Jets offensive line.  Either Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is getting old, or Jets guard Vladimir Ducasse, a risky second-round draft pick in 2010, is finally ready to discard the bust label.  I’ve never seen a Jets lineman stand the hefty Wilfork up like that so often at the point of attack.

There were several points where I felt the Jets should have tried to run the ball down New England’s throat until they proved they could stop it.  Instead, they usually went the other way, like during the three consecutive second-quarter three-and-outs.  The Jets called seven pass plays during that stretch to give Tom Brady extra shots at augmenting his lead before halftime.  Only a terrific performance by the Jets defense (and some timely drops by New England’s young receivers) kept the score manageable.

I was especially looking to see more of Ivory in the second half, as he can be a bear for a tired defense to bring down.  He got just one more carry after Powell’s touchdown.

Instead, Mornhinweg put the game in Smith’s hands and arm.  Three fourth-quarter interceptions later, the Jets were going home at 1-1.

Though Smith has exhibited some admirable qualities in his first two starts, I suspect those picks will be a common occurrence as he learns to adapt to the speed of the NFL.  All three interceptions were underthrown behind his receiver.  New England took good notes from the Tampa Bay game and limited Smith’s damage when he escaped the pocket.  And it’s not like Smith has a ton of weapons running routes out there.

So it was up to Mornhinweg to do a better job of keeping the offense balanced when that opportunity presented itself.  I’m not asking for a return of the prehistorical Tony Sparano “Ground-and-Pound” attack from last season.  I’m glad the Jets scrapped the Wildcat last night—it hasn’t fooled anyone since the Jets let Brad Smith escape as a free agent a few years ago.

But maybe having Smith throw it 40 times a game is not always a recipe for success either.  Not yet, anyway.  Once a game or a season is lost, then by all means, let Smith air it out.  It will speed up the learning curve and evaluation process.

Mornhinweg came to New York with a proven track record of developing quarterbacks through the West Coast offense.  It’s too early to tell whether it will work with the Jets current crop of personnel.

So far we’ve seen the Jets become a lot more pass-happy than in recent years, but not so much in the traditional West Coast sense, where short drops and crossing patterns are the staple.  Smith seemed to be channeling Daryle Lamonica rather than Joe Montana last night.

All I know is that last night was a missed opportunity for this franchise to get the better of their hated rivals in a meaningful game.  It would have been interesting to see how New England, whose top running back, wide receiver and tight end were all out with various injuries, would have reacted had the Jets, for example, played it safer when they got in range for a potential game-tying field goal early in the fourth quarter instead of having Smith throw downfield on third-and-five.

We’ll never know.

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

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