Lichtenstein: Sam Darnold Makes All The Difference For Jets Offense

Steve Lichtenstein
October 14, 2019 - 1:23 pm
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What a difference having an NFL-caliber quarterback makes, huh?

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After four games of utter offensive ineptitude, the last three while starting QB Sam Darnold recovered from his bout with mononucleosis, the Jets escaped a divided MetLife Stadium with their first victory of the season on Sunday, 24-22, over the beleaguered Cowboys.

You could tell right from Gang Green’s first play from scrimmage that this wasn’t the same Jets from the last few weeks, according to wide receiver Jamison Crowder. 

“Shoot, (Darnold) hit DT on a crossing route,” Crowder said of Darnold’s 17-yard intermediate pitch-and-catch to Demaryius Thomas. “That’s a huge confidence builder in itself.”

That Jets’ drive stalled, the 29th consecutive game without producing a touchdown on their opening possession, the league’s longest active streak, but that was just a temporary blemish. 

Darnold led the Jets on three touchdown drives in the first half. Just a reminder: New York entered the contest with just two offensive touchdowns in four games. Darnold completed 13-of-18 passes for 218 yards in the opening 30 minutes. The Jets netted 233 total yards in their last two games combined.

Crowder, who finished with six receptions for 98 yards, and the other receivers neglected by practice squad-level replacement QB Luke Falk were the principal beneficiaries of Darnold’s renewed presence. The route trees opened up. Crowder, who typically darts to seams underneath, turned some up the field, including a beautiful 24-yard gain on a third down on the Jets’ second possession of the game that helped set up Le’Veon Bell’s 2-yard touchdown run. It appeared Darnold changed the play at the line based on Dallas’ alignment. On Crowder’s 25-yard reception in the third quarter, Darnold bought an extra second by juking Dallas defensive lineman Antwaun Woods.

New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold (14) celebrates a touchdown with Robby Anderson (11) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, in East Rutherford, N.J.
AP Photo/Adam Hunger

“(Darnold) has a great ability to escape the pocket and extend plays,” Crowder said when asked if having Darnold back allowed him to be more versatile. “So when he’s out there, you just have to be alert—sometimes the timing of the route may break down but he can escape and find you with off-schedule-type plays.”

On the flip side, deep threat Robby Anderson was catching balls on outs, screens and back-shoulder throws, something that coach Adam Gase planned on doing from the day he was hired in January but was apparently tabled in Darnold’s absence. With Falk under center, the Jets rarely threw the ball past the line of scrimmage.

Of course, Anderson also had the game’s biggest offensive play, taking advantage of Dallas’ single-high safety looks by catching a 92-yard bomb for a touchdown immediately after the Jets stopped QB Dak Prescott on a fourth down. The swing of events put New York up 14-3 late in the second quarter.

“I could see that (Anderson) was over there, giving me that look, like ‘You better call something deep to me pretty soon,’” Gase said.

It seemed Falk never had the time to explore the deep options. He was sacked 16 times in two-plus games and was under pressure on nearly half his 90 drop-backs, per ProFootballFocus.com.

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The Jets’ offensive line was in crisis mode. Gase replaced two starters before last week’s game in Philadelphia. Right tackle Brandon Shell was benched in favor of rookie Chuma Edoga and Alex Lewis subbed in at right guard for injured Kelechi Osemele. Midway through Sunday’s contest, left tackle Kelvin Beachum went out with an ankle injury, forcing Shell to step in on his opposite edge.

Yet Darnold was kept relatively clean, a good thing given the added padding he needed to wear around his midsection to protect his spleen. He was sacked twice, but Dallas was credited with just six pressures and no other QB hits on 34 dropbacks, per ESPN. Did the line really block better, or was Darnold just better at getting the ball out of his hand in time to beat the rush? That includes everything from his pre-snap recognition to evasive maneuvers when necessary to a ridiculously quick release no matter how his feet are set.

“Sam’s the captain for a reason,” Lewis said.

The Jets’ newfound ability to move the ball on Sunday was also a tremendous boost to the defense. Coordinator Gregg Williams’ bend-but-don’t-break philosophy wasn’t going to break the team when playing with a lead. Dallas had 398 yards of total offense, but they were kept out of the end zone for three quarters. Instead of completely collapsing from the exhaustion of constantly being on the field, the defense had just enough energy to stymie the Cowboys on a potential game-tying two-point conversion with 47 seconds remaining. Safety Jamal Adams rocketed up the middle on a blitz to force Prescott into a low throw into the end zone.

“I loved (Adams’ blitz),” defensive linemen Leonard Williams said. “He made the ball come out quick and Dak wasn’t able to get his read in time and that won us the game. It was a big-time play and we finished the game.”

On Darnold’s impact on the defense, Williams added, “It makes a big difference. Sometimes the defense will be out there for a long drive and if the offense is getting a three-and-out, we don’t have much time to recover. We were laughing today that sometimes they were having the ball so long, we were like, ‘Man, we’re getting cold.’ We had to warm up on the sideline a little bit.”

It was just one week, one win. A home date with unbeaten New England on Monday night is next. However, Darnold’s return sure seemed to cure a host of Jets’ ills. 

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