A 6-2 finish to the 2019 season may have given the Jets and their fans a little more confidence about the direction of the organization. Much of that is centered around their franchise quarterback, Sam Darnold. After a rough start to the season, he played to a 93.3 passer rating in his final 8 games. During that stretch, he completed more than 61% of his passes and tossed 13 touchdowns with only 4 interceptions. Despite the good numbers, many of the same problems that plagued him earlier in the year didn’t really seem to go away. In fact, it’s tough to even argue that he was a better quarterback in year 2 under Adam Gase than he was during his rookie season.
For any passer, it all starts with the feet. This was an area where Darnold had improved during his rookie year. In 2019, however, he struggled to find consistency with his throwing base. Many of his issues came to a head in a Week 13 loss to the winless Bengals.
Darnold underthrew what should have been a touchdown on the below play because his feet didn’t move with his eyes as he worked through his progressions. He didn’t get enough on the ball as a result.
From the end zone angle, you can see that Darnold stepped towards the middle of the field on a throw to the pylon. This prevented him from getting enough power behind the throw.
Below, you can see that Darnold missed another touchdown later in the game. Here, he did not throw the ball across the field and let his receiver run away from the coverage. Again, his poor footwork led to the erratic pass. When Darnold moved in response to the rush, he didn’t completely reset and step in the direction of the throw. He stepped away from his target and the ball sailed as a result.
This game likely would have turned out much differently if Darnold had hit either of those throws.
There were also indicators throughout the season that Darnold wasn’t always recognizing what defenses were throwing at him. This is, again, a troubling sign when it comes to a quarterback’s development.
In Week 16 against the Steelers, Darnold faced lots of different coverages and disguises. Judging by where he looked post-snap, as well as the decisions he made, it was clear that he was having trouble deciphering the defense.
This particular 3rd-and-4 is a great example. Here, the Steelers rotated from a single-high safety look to Tampa-2. This meant the two deep safeties were responsible for the deep halves of the field and the “Mike” linebacker (who in this case was S/LB Mark Barron) was responsible for the inside vertical seam down the middle of the field.
In Tampa-2, that “Mike” linebacker opens to the passing strength of the formation. In this case, that was to Darnold’s left where the Jets had 3 receivers aligned. One of the best ways to attack Tampa-2, therefore, is to target the intermediate underneath zone to that “Mike” linebacker’s backside. Here, the Jets had Robby Anderson running a dig route right into that area.
Since Barron was running with Jamison Crowder’s seam route, Anderson was wide open. Except Darnold didn’t read the coverage correctly, and instead, locked onto Crowder’s seam route on what was a low-percentage pass into a tight window.
Darnold was lucky this was merely an incompletion.
The only explanation for his decision is that instead of reading and reacting to the defense, Darnold predetermined his throw. He failed to recognize the post-snap look the Steelers gave him.
Another concerning aspect to Darnold’s 2nd season was that he was frenetic in the face of pressure. He wasn’t calm sitting in the pocket and navigating the rush while keeping a downfield focus. He was too aware of pass rushers around him. There were times where he would breakdown immediately in response to any pressure, move to run instead of moving to throw, and lose his throwing base.
On the play below against the Bengals, he didn’t even set his feet at the top of his drop. Instead, he broke down and immediately tried to find an escape lane. He missed an open receiver to the top of the screen as a result.
Was that pocket entirely clean? No. But there was enough functional space to move, reset, and complete this pass.
The inability to respond effectively to pressure played out against the blitz as well. In fact, of the 32 quarterbacks that took the most snaps for their respective teams in 2019, no quarterback had a greater drop-off in passer rating against the blitz than Darnold (94.3 against a normal rush, 65.5 against the blitz).
To effectively deal with the blitz, a quarterback needs good feet, the ability to recognize the pressure and the coverage, and strong decision-making skills. All of these are areas where Darnold has struggled to this point in his career.
The Jets’ Week 7 loss to the Patriots had a number of examples of Darnold playing fast and struggling to deal with the blitz.
On the below interception, the mere appearance of a 5-man rush forced Darnold to lose his feet, rush his mechanics, and force a wild pass to a receiver who wasn’t anything close to open. This was a clean pocket, though.
That’s about as bad as it gets.
The below play illustrates more bad decision-making in response to the blitz. First, look at the alignment of the Patriots defense. New England was showing a blitz look inside. A safety was aligned over running back Le’Veon Bell on the perimeter. There was no deep safety in the middle of the field. Between these indicators as well as the Patriots’ tendencies to that point in the game and season, this appeared to be a blitz out of 0-man coverage.
Now look at the routes the Jets had called. To Darnold’s right, he had Robby Anderson in the slot running a fade against Stephon Gilmore (The NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year). Not exactly an advantageous matchup for the Jets. To his left, Darnold had Crowder running a quick out from the slot against a defender with inside leverage.
Based on the routes and the matchups, and the fact that the Jets could not pick up all blitzing defenders, the logical choice here would have been a quick throw to Crowder in the slot. Darnold didn’t even look his way, though.
The result was a sack-fumble.
Darnold clearly knew the pressure could not be picked up, judging by his slide to the left to buy a little extra time. Why not take the quick throw in that case?
This was first down, by the way. The move in this situation is to take the easy pass to Crowder, gain some yards, and live to play another down. Instead, Darnold targeted Anderson vs. Gilmore. This was a matchup that didn’t exactly favor the Jets. Anderson was also running a route that didn’t exactly attack the weakness of the defense (the deep middle of the field).
This play was a great illustration of how Darnold is still struggling to put together all of the necessary elements of playing the quarterback position – especially when under duress.
Not all of Darnold’s struggles against the blitz in 2019 were solely his fault. His offensive line offered little resistance to opposing pass rushers. His receivers couldn’t consistently create quick separation. Even when defenses weren’t blitzing, the Jets Offense as a whole didn’t really challenge opponents. They were one of the worst offenses in the NFL across the board, in fact. Just look at these stats and rankings if you don’t believe us:
At first glance, the second half of Darnold’s 2019 season seemed like a step in the right direction. If you take a closer look, though, it doesn’t seem quite as rosy. Darnold had a very good 3-game stretch against the Giants, Redskins, and Raiders. In his final 5 games, however, Darnold played to an 81.4 rating and the Jets scored just 15.6 points per game. 3 of those 5 games were against the winless Bengals, the Dolphins, and the Bills’ backups (13.7 points per game against those three teams).
2020 is obviously an important year in Darnold’s development, and the Jets desperately need to get him some help. He has all of the tools but can’t go through another year under constant duress with few options to throw to and no support in the running game.
If Darnold doesn’t show rapid improvement and the Jets don’t perform better as an offense, it is hard to imagine seeing Adam Gase return for a 3rd season. That would likely lead to a third offensive system for Darnold in 4 years. It would also mean yet another restart for the Jets. That’s not exactly what the organization envisioned when they drafted their QB of the future in 2018.
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