The Jets offensive line is healthy going into Monday’s regular-season opener despite all of the hits it has taken. But most of those have come off the field.
The O-line is widely considered a weak link for the Jets, right up there with edge rusher. Can the line protect Sam Darnold and keep him healthy is one of the biggest questions heading into this season? The Jets’ line has an answer.
“We’re going to prove a lot of people wrong,” right guard Brian Winters said. “I’m excited for this group. We have great pieces.”
“I’ve been around really good lines and been a part of one, and I’m a part of one now,” center Spencer Long said. “I have all the faith in the world in those guys and what we’re doing. They have faith in me. We’re going to ball out.”
The Jets’ front five will get the opportunity to start proving themselves and disproving the doubters Monday night against disruptive pass-rusher Ezekial Ansah and the Lions.
All eyes will be on Darnold and how the youngest Week 1 starter since the 1970 merger does in his debut. But the Jets’ line will be under the microscope as well.
“We got proven veterans on this team, all across the board,” Long said. “Our youngest guy is Brandon Shell. He had a good year last year too. He just continues to get better and better. There’s no reason why we can’t be a great line in this league.”
Starting up front with Long and Winters are right tackle Brandon Shell, left tackle Kelvin Beachum and left guard James Carpenter. The backups are Brent Qvale, Dakota Dozier, Jonotthan Harrison and Ben Braden.
Long was with the Redskins before signing with the Jets this offseason. He’s an upgrade from last year, replacing Wesley Johnson at center. Johnson was cut by the Lions last weekend. Yet heading into training camp, the Jets’ offensive line was ranked 31 out of 32 teams by Pro Football Focus.
The preseason didn’t help the outlook.
Beachum didn’t play in any preseason games because of a sprained foot and Winters missed one game with a back issue. The Jets also lost backup left tackle Ben Ijalana for the season with a shoulder injury.
With Beachum and Ijalana out, Qvale, normally a right tackle, played on the left side and was beaten badly in the second preseason game against the Giants. Todd Bowles said he’s comfortable with Qvale at left tackle “if need be” and he “very much” has confidence in his starting line overall.
“We expect them to play together and we expect them to play well,” Bowles said.
The Jets allowed 47 sacks last season, which was tied for the seventh most in the NFL. Yet they didn’t make major personnel changes beyond adding Long.
The changes came on Bowles’ staff.
Offensive coordinator John Morton and offensive line coach/run game coordinator Steve Marshall were fired and replaced by Jeremy Bates and Rick Dennison, respectively. They worked together with the Broncos and brought some of Mike Shanahan’s philosophies with them, most notably a West Coast offense style passing game with an outside zone blocking scheme.
“It’s really hard to defend that zone style,” said Lions first-year coach Matt Patricia, the former Patriots defensive coordinator. “It’s a system that I’ve seen through the years. It’s one of the harder ones to have to try to defend.”
If the Jets are successful, it could lead to big years for running backs Bilal Powell or Isaiah Crowell. The quick passes could keep some of the pressure off Darnold, who has shown good mobility and athleticism.
Still, general manager Mike Maccagnan has received some criticism for not selecting more offensive lineman in his four drafts, or improving the unit overall and from a depth standpoint, particularly after taking Darnold. You have to protect The Franchise.
But they’re all healthy now and have been practicing together. They say they’re not building chemistry. They already had it, and they’re just growing stronger as a unit.
“We’ve been around each other quite a bit during this whole process,” Beachum said. “So we can’t get into this excuse making that people on the outside are trying to bring into the locker room right now.
“We’re professionals. Every one of us across the offensive line have played games in the National Football League and when our number is called upon we have to go out there and perform.”
A big part of that will be for the line that has taken a lot of shots to keep Darnold from getting hit, and they’re ready for the challenge.
“As an offensive line we have to stay steady and we have to stay consistent,” Beachum said. “When the play is called and our number is called we got to find a way to execute. There’s no different additives that we have to do.
“He’s done a great job of being able to communicate and understand what the defense is presenting him and putting us in a better position to either pick up a blitz or slide a different way. He’s done things the right way that put is in the right position. At the end of the day we have to make sure we protect him.”