Forget the Week 3 game in Foxborough, when the Patriots wiped the floor with the Jets, 30-14.
The Jets were historically bad under third-string quarterback Luke Falk that day, gaining just 105 total yards and going 0 for 12 on third down. The only points the Jets could muster were on return touchdowns by the defense and special teams.
But second-year starter Sam Darnold will be back under center for Monday night’s rematch at MetLife Stadium. Darnold returned to the lineup last week after missing three games with mono, and his impact was immediate. Darnold threw for 338 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Jets to a 24-22 victory over the Cowboys, their first win of the season. He was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week.
“It certainly makes a big difference having him on the field for them,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “There’s no question about that. Sam’s a very talented player. We know that.”
Darnold went 4-9 as a rookie starter in 2018, throwing for 220 yards per game with 17 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. He started one game against the Patriots last year, and it didn’t go well: 167 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions in a 38-3 loss at Gillette Stadium in Week 17.
But Darnold, just 22 years old, shows plenty of promise, and should give the Patriots a good challenge Monday night. An All-22 review of his performance over the Cowboys shows a player who has a strong arm, a good feel for pressure and moving around the pocket, and the athleticism to throw accurately on the run and from awkward positions.
“He’s big, he’s strong, he can make all the throws — short, intermediate, deep,” Belichick said. “He can extend plays with his legs. He’s also a strong player that’s hard to bring down in the pocket. He can shed tacklers and stay on his feet and throw the ball and still throw it accurately.
“He’s shown good toughness last year and this year. Going back to the opener against Buffalo, and then [Sunday] against Dallas, he shows good toughness in the pocket and he’s a quality player.”
Darnold’s numbers against the Cowboys were a bit inflated by a 92-yard touchdown to Robby Anderson, but he was still solid in his return, completing 23 of 32 passes and finishing with a 113.8 passer rating.
Most important, the Jets rediscovered a big-play ability with Darnold back under center, executing five plays of at least 24 yards.
Darnold was most impressive in his ability to throw from awkward positions. It probably drives his coaches crazy, because Darnold often doesn’t reset his feet before throwing. But he has excellent arm strength and the athleticism to pull it off.
Against Dallas, Darnold danced around the pocket to avoid defenders, threw off the wrong foot, and fired a perfect pass to Jamison Crowder streaking across the middle for 25 yards.
He made a similar throw late in the game to Crowder, going for 30 yards. And while Darnold isn’t an elite scrambler, he is certainly athletic enough to be a weapon with his feet.
The Jets’ run game has been stuck in neutral; Le’Veon Bell rushed for just 50 yards on 14 carries against the Cowboys. But the defense still has to respect Bell and the run, and it opens up big opportunities for Darnold with the play-action game.
Darnold hit big passes of 17 and 30 yards out of play-action, as well as the game-changing play, the 92-yard touchdown to Anderson.
The dangers of the Jets offense were all on display on this play. The Cowboys linebackers bit hard on the play-fake, and cornerback Chidobe Awuzie slipped and fell on Anderson’s double move.
Darnold avoided the rush to his left and threw against his body, unleashing a perfect 45-yard throw to Anderson in stride.
But like many young quarterbacks, Darnold occasionally will have miscommunications with his receivers, like the one that led to an interception in the red zone against the Cowboys. And what makes Darnold great can also hold him back. When he throws on the run, he occasionally will lose control of the pass, or throw into tight traffic, leading to tipped balls and potential interceptions.
But for a young quarterback, Darnold shows impressive game management, including a willingness to check down and take the easy 6-yard gain instead of forcing too much. Jets coach Adam Gase also takes the decisions out of Darnold’s hand a decent amount of the time; of the 34 passing plays against the Cowboys, Darnold threw seven designed screen passes for 39 yards. Most were bubble screens to the wide receivers, and he threw the majority of them in the second half when the Jets were trying to run out the clock but struggling to run the ball.
The Jets receivers are better than they get credit for. Anderson proved he can score from anywhere on the field, and also made a beautiful 18-yard back-shoulder catch. Crowder, the 5-foot-9-inch slot receiver, had catches of 24, 25, and 30 yards against the Cowboys.
The Jets run a lot of pick plays, wheel routes, and drags across the middle to create catch-and-run opportunities. The Patriots most likely will counter with man coverage, with Stephon Gilmore locking down Anderson, Jonathan Jones chasing Crowder, and Jason McCourty covering Demaryius Thomas.
The Patriots linebackers will be important in defending the middle of the field against crossers, and preventing Darnold from breaking open big runs.
I also would expect a lot of two-deep safety from the Patriots to prevent big plays. Make Darnold earn his way down the field, increasing the chances that, at some point, the Patriots can coax him into an ill-advised throw.
But if the Patriots aren’t careful, Darnold and his teammates are talented enough to pull off an upset.