Lichtenstein: Jets’ 3 Areas Of Hope After Back-To-Back Victories Over NFC East Patsies

Positive Signs From Darnold, O-Line, Rookie CB Sunday

Steve Lichtenstein
November 18, 2019 - 11:08 am
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If only the Jets played in the NFC East instead of the AFC East.

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Alas, Gang Green’s 34-17 demolition at sad-sack Washington on Sunday concluded its slate versus NFC opponents after three wins in four opportunities.

Since they have otherwise gone 0-6, the Jets, to put it kindly, have just a miniscule chance to make this season interesting. The Jets may talk about not giving up on a playoff dream, but they won’t be able to pave over the road ahead by dousing more dumpster fires like the Giants and Washington, the Jets’ victims in their first two-game winning streak since October 2018. Only two (at Cincinnati, home versus Miami) of their remaining six contests will be against teams that are also, in theory, tanking. 

So, as the Jets gear up to face visiting Oakland (6-4) next week, which strides that this team has made since the disastrous loss in Miami on Nov. 3 can be extrapolated? While the low level of their opposition obviously played a huge factor, we shouldn’t just dismiss all the positives from these two wins. 

Here are three areas in which I’m curious to see if the gains will carry over to more legitimate competition:

1) Sam The Man

Jets coach Adam Gase has made much of how quarterback Sam Darnold has taken ownership of the game plan in his second pro season.  Gase said Darnold has grown to the point where his input carries weight.

That’s nice, but the execution matters most.  And, after three consecutive ugly performances (totaling three TDs and eight interceptions) by Darnold leading up to Giants game, some fans were actually calling for it.

Outside of one relapse moment Sunday, when he threw a ghastly pick in the second quarter that could have turned the tide in Washington’s favor, Darnold, who many forget is still just 22, appears to have learned some hard lessons. He seems to understand that sometimes it’s OK to channel Eddie Martel, the striking QB in the 2000 football film “The Replacements” who crossed the picket line for the big game only to throw balls into the seats at the first sign of pressure. Darnold, whose best trait will always be the ability to make plays “off schedule,” has been better at living for the next down when nothing is open.   

Jets QB Sam Darnold passes against the Washington Redskins on Nov. 17, 2019.
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

As a result, Darnold has coincidentally gone 19-for-30 in each of the last two games, a below-average completion percentage in this league.  Still, the Jets will take Sunday’s ratio of four touchdown passes to one turnover every week.

The Raiders (6-4) were 26th in the league in points allowed per game prior to their victory 17-10 over the Bengals.  They were 28th in takeaways. For the Jets to succeed, they need the grown-up Darnold to show up every week, not just against the NFC East patsies.

2) A Fine Line

I’ve said it from the preseason: The Jets’ offensive line was going to be the proximate reason for any demise. For much of the season, it’s been a train wreck. Blame injuries, lack of continuity, whatever. This group has had a hard time adjusting to simple defensive line stunts, never mind accounting for extra rushers.

On Sunday, the Jets started four linemen who were backups or inactive on opening day. Washington, for all its misery, has a decent front seven. Yet the Jets rushed for over 100 yards for the first time this season while Darnold typically had time to run through all his options downfield.

While rookie right tackle Chuma Edoga got off to a rough start against Washington edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan, Darnold was only hit four times all game and sacked twice. Brandon Shell did a good job after Edoga was forced out with an ankle injury.

How much were the Jets hurt by having guards Kelechi Osemele and Brian Winters play through pain this season? Winters went on injured reserve this week while Osemele was waived on Oct. 26.  In their place, Alex Lewis and Tom Compton were not overwhelmed Sunday.

After going an astounding 30 straight games without scoring an opening-drive touchdown, the Jets have done so in each of the last four games. If the line can continue playing consistently — limiting penalties and other negative plays — New York won’t just look like they have a pro offense against minor-league competition.

3) Bless This Corner

No one was expecting much from sixth-round pick Blessuan Austin this season. The cornerback from Rutgers spent a good chunk of the season on the Jets’ physically-unable-to-perform list after undergoing his second surgery for torn ACLs. Activated for the Giants game with the Jets’ corners dropping like flies to the injury bug, Austin was called upon near the end of the second quarter to play in a game for the first time in 14 months. He replaced starter Nate Hairston, who was getting abused by the Giants’ rookie combination of quarterback Daniel Jones and wide receiver Darius Slayton. Per ProFootballFocus.com, Austin was subsequently targeted four times and allowed only one reception, a perfectly placed 14-yard hookup to Slayton in which Austin had decent coverage. Austin was also credited with a pass breakup and two tackles, including the forced fumble and recovery on the final play of the Jets’ 34-27 victory.

Sunday’s PFF stats haven’t been posted as of this writing, but Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins certainly wasn’t looking to expose his fellow rookie. The Jets were playing a ton of zone to confuse Haskins, so Austin was rarely tested. When he was, he made plays. He had back-to-back hard tackles to stifle short passes on Washington’s second possession and a third-quarter pass breakup of a third-and-17 throw to wide receiver Kelvin Harmon near the sticks.

Could it be? Have the Jets stumbled upon a corner who can actually cover?  

It's unknown how Austin will handle a receiver with game-breaking speed. Oakland’s Derek Carr has the league’s eighth-highest QB rating on passes over 20 yards downfield, per PFF. Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will obviously have to up his game next week.

However, I still found Austin’s technique to be very impressive, and a nice change from his predecessors at his position. He typically sees the ball arriving so he can make a play on it. Injured corner Daryl Roberts, for example, would drive fans nuts since he was so often close enough to deny his cover responsibility a reception, but he rarely turned his head around to make the play.

Maybe there is something at Rutgers that only certain defensive backs drink. For such a lousy program, they’ve produced an outsized number of NFL-caliber DBs.  

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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