The running game in the NFL has evolved over the years, as save for a few teams, most have a running back-by-committee approach. Gone are the days of the primary ball carrier that rarely gets a rest, and the New York Jets are no different.
As they prepare for Sunday’s regular season opener at the Buffalo Bills — who ironically sport one of the league’s remaining bell-cows in LeSean McCoy — the Jets will split their running back touches between starter Matt Forte and the ever-underutilized Bilal Powell, who coaches swear will be a larger part of the offense this season.
Offensive coordinator John Morton loves what Powell can offer, and not just as a guy who can give Forte spot-rest. Morton plans on playing both at the same time, as they have similar skill sets that could make it difficult for opposing defenses to key on the primary back on any given play.
Both Forte and Powell are very strong runners, inside and out, can catch the ball out of the backfield, even in the slot, and are capable pass blockers against blitzes. And with a suspect offensive line, the backs will be doing their fair share of cleanup from blown assignments.
Pro Football Focus, a website that extensively ranks players and teams in numerous categories, ranked the line 20th entering the season
Forte, 31, is still listed as the number one running back on the depth chart, despite seeing his name in trade rumors, last week — rumors the back called “fake news.” And he’ll continue to be the starter.
But Powell, 28, is breathing down his neck for more playing time and touches.
Powell has been with the Jets since 2011 but has never been named the regular starter. Every year, the Jets seemingly bring in a new shiny toy at the position, leaving Powell gobbling up the scraps — until late last season, which gave head coach Todd Bowles and Morton the confidence to finally expand the former Louisville star’s role.
Forte missed time down the stretch of a lost season, so that’s where Powell picked up the slack. Other than the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell and the Chicago Bears’ Jordan Howard, no other back totaled more yards in the final four games of the regular season than Powell, who accrued 411 rushing yards on 5.1 yards per carry.
During his ascending 2016 campaign, Powell carried the ball 131 times for 722 yards and added 58 catches for 388 yards and two touchdowns as a receiver out of the backfield. That production made him the fifth-highest rated back, according to Pro Football Focus.
He also nearly bested Forte in explosive plays last season, in registering 14 plays of at least 15 yards or more. Forte had 16 such plays.
Powell, however, did that on 59 fewer touches than Forte.
Both running backs will be called upon to do more than just rush the football, as the very green receiving corps will need help as well.
Projected No. 1 wideout Quincy Enunwa (neck) is out for the season, so with no current wideout on the roster with big-game experience — other than the newly acquired Jermaine Kearse — both Forte and Powell will receive larger duties as receivers out of the backfield.
And as Morton noted, even some plays in the slot. Morton’s West Coast offense calls for versatile running backs, and he has two special ones at his disposal.