FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - The last time the Jets had Bilal Powell in the lineup, at full strength, he ran all over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Forced into the lead back role with Matt Forte sidelined, he ran for 163 yards on 7.8 yards per carry, including a 75-yard touchdown run.
He's back this week in time for the Jets game in Miami on Sunday, and so is Forte, with both apparently as close to full strength as they're going to be. But the Jets can't revert to their old habit of splitting their backfield duties.
They need Powell to carry the load.
He is, right now, the best, most powerful and most explosive running back they have, which he proved with his dynamic performance against the Jaguars. He also proved it late last season, when he averaged 103 yards and 5 yards per carry over the last four games of the season. It's been obvious for several years, in fact, that the Jets need to expand his role in the offense.
And the last two weeks it sure seemed like he was missed.
"I wouldn't say we missed him," Todd Bowles said. "The other two (including rookie Elijah McGuire) can play. We miss the dynamic of him. And it's nice to have all three."
Having all three is good, but the Jets really need to quit being so stubborn and make Powell their clear No. 1, now that he insists the strained calf he suffered two weeks ago in Cleveland is "100 percent." And that's not to diminish the importance of the 31-year-old Forte, who can still have an important role. But even he knows how effective and impactful Powell can be.
"You see what he can do out there," Forte said. "(Not just) in the passing game, but in the running game, too. He has a different style of running, with great vision and explosiveness. So it brings another threat to our running game."
Forte once had a similar explosiveness, but even he can't escape the effect of age on NFL running backs. He seems much more valuable now as a receiver out of the backfield, which he showed in the Jets' near-miss against the New England Patriots last Sunday when he caught eight passes for 59 yards.
He only ran for 22 yards on nine carries in that game, but the way the Jets used Forte out of the backfield (and short passes to tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins) was brilliant. The two of them combined for 16 catches, which forced the Patriots to commit more players to the "box" near the line of scrimmage and left them often with only one safety deep. The result of that was that the Jets were able to take more deep shots than usual.
Not surprisingly, with the defense having been lured in by short passes, the Jets receivers -- Robby Andreson, Jermaine Kearse, and Jeremy Kerley -- averaged more than 20 yards per catch.
Now imagine if the defense had been lured in even further by an effective rushing attack. Powell missed that game with his strained call, and without him the Jets' running game reverted to it's previous struggles.
They averaged just 3.1 yards per carry against the Patriots. That's the fourth time in six games that they've averaged less than 4.
"That's not good," Forte said. "Four yards is the baseline. You've got to at least average four yards a carry. Because say you run it twice, you get in a third-and-short. You can open up the playbook there. You can either run or pass."
Offensive coordinator John Morton knows that, but he's shown no inclination to really lean on Powell more than Forte. Through the first three weeks of the season, when both were healthy, Powell carried 28 times (for 72 yards) and Forte carried 23 times (for 94 yards). Forte was out with a toe injury when Powell had his breakthrough game against the Jaguars.
Morton does want to rely somewhat on the rushing attack, though. He said he ideally strives for a "60-40" pass-run split, though he admits "It becomes a chess match at times" as the game changes. Part of the reason the Jets ran so much on the Jaguars (36 pass attempts, 32 runs) was because the runs worked.
The runs can work with Forte too, but he's had two 100-yard rushing games since the start of last season (both at exactly 100). Powell has topped three in his last nine games -- including two in a row when he was clearly the Jets' No. 1 back. His upside is higher, and Forte works better now as a complement to him.
If the Jets want to keep winning, they have to let their rushing attack lead the way the rest of the season. And their best bet to do that is to run behind Powell.