Welcome to the inaugural Positive Sam Darnold Plays article, as we look to dissect the positive plays from the young QB, as he led the Jets to a victory against the Detroit Lions in Week 1 of the season.
Sam Darnold Positive Plays:
The first positive pass from Darnold in his career, and it’s an impressive third down conversion. He shows patience in the pocket as the play develops, with the Lions playing tight man coverage. The play call is somewhat interesting, but things don’t go according to plan. If I’m reading this right, there is a pick play in motion, with Neal Sterling as the aggressor. However, Sterling doesn’t get a clean release and is being held by the defender. Notice Enunwa on this play because he’s going to run a crossing route, but the defender over the top crosses over Sterling to get towards Enunwa, who is further slowed down by another Lions defender. If Sterling gets a free release, he has enough time to impede the path of the defender on Enunwa, but that option is taken away. The primary read on the play is Enunwa, but he’s well covered, so Darnold goes to his second read, which is Sterling. Notice the timing of this throw, because he starts his motion at the same time Sterling starts to make his turn, showing supreme confidence in his tight end to gain separation. During the draft, we hear about throwing into tight windows, and this is a great example of it. There is a minuscule window to throw this pass before the defender recovers, and Darnold hits it perfectly. He shows off great accuracy, as well as poise even when his first read wasn’t open.
This is a quick read option pass to Quincy Enunwa for 15 yards, and it’s very impressive to watch. The first thing is the pre-snap read in which Darnold realizes that the safety is playing back, at which point the quick pass to Enunwa is open. The danger to that quick pass is the middle linebacker cutting over into the passing lane. Notice how Darnold is looking straight at the middle linebacker as he’s performing the play action towards the running back, because he needs the linebacker to commit to the run. Once the linebacker bites, Darnold pulls back and fires a bullet to Enunwa. It’s also worth noting that the safety is lined up about 1-2 yards to the outside of the receiver, which means that Enunwa will establish inside leverage, thus limiting the chances of an interception.
Sam Darnold is not Lamar Jackson, but his ability to escape the pressure here is quite impressive. The Jets come out in an empty set on third down, and James Carpenter gets fooled on a defensive stunt, allowing a rusher to run right by him. However, Darnold does a great job in avoiding the rusher, and then escaping the pocket while keeping his eyes down field. The throw is technically behind him, as he releases it across his body, but it’s placed perfectly for Enunwa, and away from the defender. Now we can argue about the validity of the catch, but that’s a discussion for another day. After sitting through various rulings against Austin Seferian-Jenkins last year, I’m not sure what constitutes a catch.
I’m not sure if I should praise Darnold or Jeremy Bates for this play call. The design is efficient here on third down, as you notice Enunwa at the top of the screen. He’s facing press coverage, and once he moves, the defender doesn’t follow him, indicating zone coverage. Enunwa stays in the backfield, which is important for the route because he’s then initially engaged by the linebacker. Notice how the safety was starting to rotate over to the sideline as Enunwa was heading towards it. The positioning is important because the route combination against zone is going to create confusion. At the start of this play, the outside cornerback has Pryor, the linebacker has Enunwa, and the safety is over the top. However, Pryor cuts to the inside to engage the safety directly, while Enunwa runs his route to the outside, which cause the responsibilities to flip. The safety is no longer acting as the safety, and the outside corner-back is now caught in no man’s land. If he runs to the inside to cover Pryor, then a possible go route from Enunwa is wide open. The linebacker has outside contain on this play, because the design is supposed to funnel Enunwa to the middle of the field, where the safety is waiting, so he’s protecting against the out route. Enunwa runs outside, and then cuts inside to create separation, and Darnold hits him for the conversion. It’s a great play design, combined with Darnold making the right throw. I think this probably gets more credits for Bates than Darnold.
The first touchdown pass of his career, and it’s a beauty. The initial read seems to be a quick pass to Enunwa, based on the linebacker near the receiver. If the linebacker came on a blitz (which he seemed to indicate), then the pass is open to Enunwa. If the linebacker went back with the receiver, the dump off option to the running back exists, but the Lions play it fairly tight on 3rd and 2. The linebacker drops into coverage, but Darnold does a subtle shoulder pump to draw in the deep safety, and then hits Anderson wide open down the sideline. It’s a great read by Darnold, although the throw is a bit late and causes Anderson to slow down just a bit. You can chalk this up to a lack of chemistry between the QB and receiver as Darnold may not be used to the speed of Anderson, and didn’t want to overthrow him on a possible touchdown. The safety almost makes a play, but Anderson wrestles the ball away for a touchdown.
This is an extremely impressive throw on the run from Darnold, as he escapes the pocket to his right, and makes a beautiful throw to Terrelle Pryor down the field. Once we see Enunwa go in motion without a defender following him, we know it’s zone coverage, and Darnold knows Enunwa, Anderson, or Pryor will find a hole. The first option is Enunwa, if the outside cornerback drops too far back with Anderson. The second option is Pryor as he’s cutting across the field, and Darnold hits him perfectly for the pass. If the safety had come up towards Pryor, the third option would be a deep pass to Anderson, but the safety decided to fall back until Darnold started to throw towards Pryor.
The majority of the credit for this play needs to go towards Quincy Enunwa, although Darnold makes a good throw once again. The set up is simple, the Jets run a pick play with Neal Sterling, which causes the defender to slow down and allows Enunwa to be free to the outside. Darnold recognizes the receiver getting open, and hits him in stride. In years past, the Jets QB would throw this to the wrong shoulder and you would see receiver spin around to just make a catch. Once the ball is caught, Enunwa barrels down the sideline and carries two defenders into the end zone.
Truth be told, I did not see this play live because ESPN cut to the Raiders-Rams pre-game like I needed to see a montage on Jon Gruden walking around the field. I followed it on Game Cast and couldn’t believe they went for it on 4th down, and passed for it none the less. That’s usually a Bellichick move, so I was interested in why they wanted to run up the score. Apparently they didn’t, since Bowles decided to kneel afterwards. The play itself is simple, the first read is Jordan Leggett, while the second read is Charone Peake. However, both of those receivers are covered, so Darnold throws it deep to Terrelle Pryor down to the 2 yard line. It’s an impressive throw because Darnold is running to his left, yet still makes an accurate and powerful throw down the field.
Sam Darnold certainly made an impression on Jets fans, along with the media. In recent years, the media has ridiculed the Jets for any reason possible, so it’s a breath of fresh air to see folks actually praise the Jets for a roster move. Darnold showed uncanny poise in the pocket, along with an excellent ability to read the defense pre and post snap. As impressive as his numbers are, it could have been even better if a couple of passes weren’t dropped or if the Jets had more opportunities on offense. All in all, a great debut for the first-round pick.