We’re just two days away from the Minnesota Vikings battling the New York Jets, and it’s time to gather some intel from the other side before this week’s game. I had the opportunity to exchange some questions with Michael Nania over at Gang Green Nation, SB Nation’s home for everything relating to the J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets. You can see the answers that I had for Michael’s questions right here, and the answers he sent over to my questions are below.
1. Of all the quarterbacks that were selected in the first round of this year’s NFL Draft, only Sam Darnold was given the keys from the very start of the season. What have you seen so far from Darnold that you like, and what are some things that still give you cause for concern?
Darnold’s intangibles and off-field acumen were always a big part of the package he brought to the table as a prospect, and that has translated from the beginning. He has brought a lunchpail mentality to the team, always football and team-first and never self-first. His leadership by example has been very apparent from the beginning, and it’s been obvious that even at his young age he is ready to lead an NFL offense and franchise both mentally with his on-field IQ and from a leadership standpoint.
On the field, you can’t help but love his poise and ability to bounce back. After making mistakes this year, he has usually bounced back in big ways, never letting one interception turn into another, and another. In the season opener at Detroit, he threw a game-opening pick six, then bounced back for an extremely efficient outing and a 31-point road win to open his career. He threw one interception each (one not his fault on a tip) in both of the past two games, and both times rebounded for very efficient outings.
It’s taken time for the playbook to open up, which is understandable, but Darnold is gradually starting to feast downfield, one of the biggest concerns of his game coming in. He is tied for the league lead with seven 20+ yard touchdown passes (already only 3 away from the rookie record) and is the only rookie quarterback in NFL history with three outings of 2+ passing TD and 9+ Y/A in his first six weeks in the league.
He also has yet to fumble the football, a tremendous sign considering his struggles with that in college.
He’s a rookie, and he makes rookie mistakes. He can lock on to receivers, stay too attached to what he sees pre-snap, and over the team’s three-game losing streak he both threw the ball very poorly downfield and failed to recognize a lot of open receivers downfield. Those issues have been corrected over the past two victories, but it’s two games. Can he keep that up?
All in all, Darnold is a rookie. The youngest rookie ever. He is going to make a lot of mistakes and have many more games this year like his outings in Cleveland and Jacksonville where he could not move the football downfield at all. That’s expected. However, he has flashed in a vast multitude of ways, even in areas we thought were his biggest holes. Darnold likely will not finish the year as an above-average quarterback in 2018, but that is 100% fine. He is very far from lost, and he is making NFL throws and reads on a weekly basis. He’s inspiring plenty of confidence that he will become the answer for a long time.
2. The Jets’ offense put up a huge number of points against Detroit in the season opener (thanks for that, by the way), but then had three games where they really struggled to get anything done offensively. Then, over the last two weeks, they’ve averaged 38 points a game. What changed over the past couple of weeks?
In the first game of that losing streak, the Jets put up 12 points on Miami. Darnold actually played a pretty great game, but the Jets failed to put points on the board due to a blip of a horrid receiving performance, as Darnold was mired with wide open drops and poor route running.
Over the next two, you saw a rookie quarterback doing rookie things on the road against great defenses. He was very poor against Cleveland, ditching the pocket early, playing ultra-conservative and not throwing to open receivers downfield, and opting for tightly contested short throws. Against Jacksonville, the offensive line was awful in pass protection and Darnold was under duress all game. A few opportunities did open up, though, but he was just a tad off on a bunch of deep throws.
Run-blocking was also nonexistent in those three games - and that has been the biggest X-Factor. In the Jets’ three wins, they have averaged 200 yards on the ground, in their three losses, 61. The offensive line worked beautifully against Denver and Detroit, attacking light fronts with doubles to near perfection for a combined total of 492 rushing yards in those first two wins.
The Colts win was the first time you could say Darnold was the *reason* the Jets won. He had been efficient in the first two wins, but he was thriving on the strength of great field position and running. The rush attack was mediocre, if not awful against Indianapolis, while the defense continuously allowed Andrew Luck to keep the game within reach despite a lot of drops from Colts receivers. Darnold had to keep answering back, and he did. The Jets tied a franchise record as they scored 10 times, while at one point Darnold led 8 consecutive scoring drives, another team record. Jason Myers went 7-7 on field goals to set a team record and place himself second in the league in scoring behind Todd Gurley.
Darnold was money all day, completing 80% of his passes for 9.3 yards per attempt. He was extremely clutch on 3rd down, threw the ball with near-perfect accuracy underneath, and looked the most patient and comfortable in the pocket he has all year.
The Jets’ red zone offense must improve, but the team has a groove going. They’re running the ball, the offensive line is playing above-average football, and the team is operating under a quarterback who is really hitting his stride.
3. Todd Bowles is in his fourth season as the coach of the Jets, and is coming off of consecutive 5-11 seasons. Even with the Jets off to a 3-3 start, do you think that he’s on the hot seat? If so, what does he need to do in order to lower the temperature a bit?
I think he is on the brink of the hot seat. Going into the year, it seemed he would get a pass considering he was playing a rookie quarterback. However, when the team was 1-3, just about every fan, me included, was done with him. His game management and failures to adjust were becoming atrocious to watch - as these were issues he had back in 2015.
With defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers out the past couple of games due to an illness (he’ll return this week), Bowles took over the defensive playcalling and the team looked improved.
I think Bowles is back as long as the Jets win 7 games. Is that the right move? Maybe, maybe not. But he has a long rope with a rookie quarterback and his respect from ownership. From an outsider’s standpoint, you want to see his young defense continue to develop, and you want to see him continue to prove he can adjust in-game and make smart decisions on game day to prove he can be the leader of a championship team down the road.
4. The Jets will enter this game without wide receiver Quincy Enunwa, who leads the Jets in receptions but will be out for a few weeks with a high ankle sprain. How will the Jets shuffle their wide receiver depth chart and how much of an effect will this have on the offense?
The Jets had actually caught fire offensively over the past two games without the help of Enunwa, as he looked to be playing hurt and had his two least productive games of the year.
They were able to do that for a few reasons. The depth of this receiver group finally showed up. This depth chart entered the year as the only one in the league featuring four players with an 800-yard receiving season under the belt, and you’re starting to see those effects. Sam Darnold has looked for Robby Anderson more, and he has finally started to get going. Jermaine Kearse was banged up to start the year but he had a tremendous game against the Colts, bringing his classic chain-moving skillset back to the table that we saw last year. Terrelle Pryor has been the ultimate wild card, sometimes dropping passes in key spots and once bailing on a route to cause a red zone interception, but he has also racked up a lot of big-yardage catches in key situations. He and Anderson both currently rank top-10 in yards per reception.
Pryor is also banged up, so if he can’t go, the Jets might need to call somebody else up. Deontay Burnett, teammate of Sam Darnold at USC, is an option from the practice squad. Charone Peake, a special teamer, could also step up there. The Jets also worked out Rishard Matthews and Corey Coleman.
Regardless, Anderson and Kearse is still a solid duo - it’s what the Jets worked with last year when Josh McCown smashed his career highs across the board at nearly 40 years old. Darnold needs to continue to spread the ball around. The tight end position is interesting. Rookie Chris Herndon had a poor start with his route-running and drops, but has made a bunch of huge plays over the past few weeks and is becoming a part of the pass game. Neal Sterling has also returned, a favorite checkdown option of Darnold’s.
After over-relying on Enunwa early, Sam is improving at making sure everybody has gotten a chance to eat. It’ll be even more important that he does that on Sunday.
5. If you look at the Jets’ roster, they appear to have some pretty solid talent at all of the levels of the defense, yet seem to be below average in a lot of defensive categories (22nd against the pass, 17th against the run). What’s the key to being successful against the New York defense?
I think it’s pretty misleading to look at team yardage totals in any situation. The Jets have played like a top-half defense. They’ve allowed some maddening long drives, but at the end of the day they have made plays in key spots, forcing lots of turnovers and locking up in the red zone. They are allowing the 7th-fewest points per drive (1.67), forcing turnovers at the 4th-highest rate in the league (19.0% of drives), and have the league’s 9th-best red zone defense (45.0% touchdown rate). In this increasingly offense-friendly NFL, it’s become more and more important to win in the red zone and force turnovers, and less and less important to prevent yards. For the most part, the Jets are executing to that tune well.
If you want to be successful against the Jets defense, you couldn’t have picked a better time to do it. The Jets are hurting in the back end, as they’ll probably be without big-money (but struggling) CB Trumaine Johnson, slot CB Buster Skrine, and FS Marcus Maye. The Jets got the red zone stops and turnovers against the Colts, but they also gave up 34 points to a team whose top wide receivers were Chester Rogers and Marcus Johnson. At home, against a very, very banged-up Colts team that ended up dropping a ton of passes, the Jets still yielded 34 points. Andrew Luck tossed the ball where he wanted with ease against this weak secondary. If the Jets play like they did against the Colts defense, Kirk Cousins should have a chance to put up huge numbers.
Attack rookie slot corner Parry Nickerson and backup outside corner Darryl Roberts in man coverage, where both have been very exploitable. In the run game, find Darron Lee and run the ball outside in his direction. He’s been great in coverage but very spotty against the run. Pinpoint Jamal Adams and try to move away from him. He’s been tremendous defending the run off the edge and has done a very nice job in coverage overall in a variety of situations - but he can be exposed by a big receiving tight end like Kyle Rudolph 1-on-1. Morris Claiborne has had a great season and will likely be the outside corner. He’s making a lot of plays on the ball (2nd in pass deflections), preventing the deep pass, and tackling well, but he’ll give you the 10-15 yard out route. Up front, the Jets are weak on the edge and need to blitz to create pressure. Be ready for as many rushers as possible from a variety of spots, and especially be on the look out for the slot DB blitz and defensive linemen standing up behind the front and blitzing.
Thanks again to Michael for taking the time to answer our questions. We will continue to have more coverage of this week’s game as we get closer to kickoff.