Look, we’re big believers in Sam Darnold here at Football Film Room. In fact, we think the Jets finally nailed a quarterback draft pick. But everyone, please settle down about his performance on Monday night. He did not have the greatest debut in NFL history. He did not carry the Jets to victory. Instead, he was provided with the best possible support a rookie quarterback making his first start could have hoped for. And he did everything he was asked to do. Well, almost everything.
So, about that first play? It looked like Offensive Coordinator Jeremy Bates was trying to put Darnold in a safe position by calling a play-action bootleg. The benefit of getting your quarterback on the perimeter is that the reads are limited, easily defined, and if there is no one open he can run or simply throw the ball away. Darnold wanted more than that, though. When he didn’t see his first reads open, he stepped up and threw back across the field to what looked like a wide-open Bilal Powell. Instead, safety Quandre Diggs was waiting there for the easy pick-6. That’s not what you want to start your NFL career.
To Darnold’s credit, he settled down after the disastrous start, completing 16 of 20 passes for 198 yards and 2 touchdowns.
It was clear, even on the first play, that Jeremy Bates was conscious of putting Darnold in situations where he did not have to do too much. He mixed in bootlegs, lots of play-action, a few screens, and a couple of RPOs (run-pass-options). These types of passes limit the decisions that the quarterback has to make. That’s exactly what you want with a young QB. Take away the opportunity for paralysis by analysis and let the kid rip it.
Take Darnold’s 2nd touchdown pass as an example. Here, the Jets came out in “13” personnel (1 RB, 3 TE). They aligned with a tight end on the perimeter.
We absolutely love this. A tight end or running back on the perimeter is a great way to help define the coverage for the quarterback pre-snap. They do this a ton in New England. The read basically works like this: If a corner aligns over the tight end on the perimeter, it is likely zone coverage. Normally, cornerbacks do not align on tight ends if they are playing man-to-man. If a safety or linebacker aligns on the perimeter over the tight end, it is very likely man coverage. Safeties and linebackers almost never align on the perimeter in zone. There are, of course, variations and exceptions to these rules based on how versatile a team’s defenders are. But by and large, this is how it works. Let’s see how the Lions matched up:
Boom! Two corners in the slot and a safety on the edge over the tight end. This was man coverage.
The Jets had a “Pick” or “Natural Rub” play called here. This type of play is great for man coverage, which is why it was important for Darnold to be able to have the defense defined pre-snap. Below, you can see the play design.
Both Christopher Herndon (#89) and Neal Sterling (#85) were not really running routes. Instead, they had every intention of blocking defenders. Sterling’s “pick” created the initial separation for Quincy Enunwa. Herndon’s blocking paved the way for the touchdown.
This play, for all intents and purposes, was a type of slot-receiver screen.
Throughout the night, Darnold did what he was asked to do, but he also got plenty of help from his friends. Robby Anderson made a tremendous catch on an underthrown ball for Darnold’s first touchdown pass. Not to mention, the Jets had their running game going early and often. Bates did a great job of mixing up the types of runs used. We even saw him call a couple of read-options.
In the first half, when the game was still in doubt, Darnold was aided by 69 yards rushing on 13 attempts from his two running backs, Bilal Powell and Isaiah Crowell. The offensive line, especially on the right side behind guard Brian Winters and tackle Brandon Shell, created big lanes for Jets ball carriers. As much as we liked what Bates was doing from a play-calling perspective, you can call pretty much whatever the hell you want when your running game is clicking. Crowell eventually broke the game open with a 62-yard touchdown run in the 3rd quarter.
A rookie quarterback’s best friends are a good running game and smart play-calling. But a pick-6 on defense and a punt-return TD aren’t too bad either. Between Crowell’s 62-yard run and those two scores, Darnold had 21 points from plays where he didn’t have to do a thing.
It also helped that Matt Patricia’s team looked completely unprepared. Their performance was the last thing we would have expected from a Belichick-disciple-coached team. Mistakes were made all over the place. We saw several occurrences of defenders jumping out of their gaps and abandoning their responsibilities vs. the run. There were also a few times in pass coverage where defenders looked lost or out of place. Smart football was nowhere to be found.
This was especially true on Darnold’s first touchdown pass. The Lions were playing cover-2 to the side of the throw, meaning the deep safety, Tavon Wilson, was responsible for the deep half of the field to that side. The Lions rushed 3 on this play and dropped 6 defenders into the underneath zone areas. Still, Wilson tried to jump a route in one of those already accounted for underneath zones. This enabled Robby Anderson to easily run past him downfield. Wilson’s decision made no sense.
All in all, there weren’t too many negatives from the Jets offense on Monday night. We’ll see if they can ride that momentum into a Week 2 AFC East showdown against Miami.