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Revisiting Sam Darnold’s underrated performance in Cincinnati

Sam Darnold
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The New York Jets may have taken a 16-point loss to the winless Cincinnati Bengals, but Sam Darnold sneakily racked up a bunch of excellent throws in the defeat.

Following a disastrous 1-7 start to the 2019 season, the Jets salvaged their season with a three-game winning streak from Weeks 10-12.

While the victories themselves were a nice confidence-booster, the main reason that the hot stretch felt like a legitimately positive turning point for the franchise’s future was the phenomenal play of Sam Darnold, who posted a passer rating of 117.1 across the three games.

In Week 13, the Jets’ momentum came crashing down in ugly fashion as they took a 16-point loss to an 0-11 Bengals team.

Just as the win streak was promising because of Darnold’s strong play, the main cause for concern following the Cincinnati loss was Darnold’s subpar production against an awful defense. He completed 28-of-48 passes for 239 yards, no touchdowns, and no interceptions, posting a passer rating of 71.4 that wound up as his second-worst of the 2019 season. His average of 5.0 yards per attempt finished third-worst.

However, when you take a closer look at the game, it becomes clear that Darnold’s mediocre production actually had little to do with his own performance. The 10 players around him were brutal – sinking the offense to a measly six points and masking an outing by Darnold that was actually quite solid.

Here is a look at how the Jets supported Darnold that afternoon:

  • Average starting field position of own 18.6-yard line (worst of all 32 teams in Week 13)
  • Pressure allowed on 46.3% of dropbacks (4th-worst of Week 13)
  • 5 drops, 3 throwaways (tied for most combined drops/throwaways of Week 13)
  • 15 carries for 53 yards (3.5 per attempt) and 2 first downs by teammates
  • 8 penalties by the offense

That’s embarrassing. No quarterback is going to put up impressive stats when their teammates are playing that badly.

Regardless, Darnold fought through the adversity and put together a respectable performance that was loaded with eye-catching moments.

I went into great detail on the analytics behind Darnold’s trip to Cincinnati here, summing up a 0-to-100 grade for his performance.

Today, we will take a look at some of Darnold’s impressive plays against the Bengals that have gone overlooked due to the forgettable nature of the loss.

All afternoon, Darnold was avoiding pressure and cooking in the short-to-intermediate range. Off of this play action fake, Darnold is immediately forced to step up due to pressure allowed off the edge by Trevon Wesco. Darnold keeps his eyes downfield throughout the entire play, squares up his shoulders, sets his lower half, and delivers a strike with confidence to Ryan Griffin for a near-first down.

Darnold often struggles with throwing under pressure when the heat comes from the interior and into his face, but he typically can handle pressure that comes off the edge and forces him to step up, such as on the above play.

Braxton Berrios set the tone for the day with this 2nd & 7 play on the game’s opening drive. Darnold takes advantage of the vacated space to his right after the edge rusher to that side spins to the inside. He allows the play to develop and then finds a wide-open Berrios in stride for what should be an easy first down that sets the Jets up in the red zone. Berrios botches it.

Here, Darnold delivers a tremendous throw into a small window under heavy pressure. Alex Lewis is knocked into the pocket from the left, forcing Darnold right. Right guard Tom Compton and right tackle Brandon Shell mishandle a stunt that allows a clear lane into Darnold’s face for the defensive tackle. Darnold attempts to find Ryan Griffin on a corner route, who has a safety tightly attached to his back hip. With pillow-soft touch, Darnold lofts the ball over the defender and into Griffin’s outstretched hands, but Griffin drops it.

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Darnold scampers to the right on a designed rollout. Drifting towards the sideline and throwing with somewhat of a sidearm angle to lead Jamison Crowder, Darnold hits the fast-moving Crowder in stride, but Crowder fails to haul it in.

Darnold barely misses Demaryius Thomas on this potential 40-yard touchdown, but take a look at Thomas’ route. He slows up into a light jog at the top, only speeding up once he sees Darnold throw the ball. Had Thomas put more effort into his route, he probably would have been able to track the ball and get two hands on it.

This next play is essentially the Jets’ final chance to get back in the game. It’s 4th & 8 at the Bengals’ 36-yard line with 6:26 to go and the Bengals leading by 16.

The Jets send out all five of their eligible receivers, but the coverage is excellent and there is no viable option for Darnold to move the sticks. So, Darnold does the best he can with the play and somehow finds a way to give somebody a chance to convert. He notices the cornerback’s heavy inside leverage against Robby Anderson and places the ball low and outside where only Anderson can get it. Anderson makes a back-shoulder adjustment and gets two hands on the ball, but loses it.

Darnold did have some great throws in the game that were actually completed, most of them going to Robby Anderson in the intermediate area. With a clean pocket on this play, Darnold hits Anderson on a dig route for a 15-yard pickup on 3rd & 2. Darnold puts the ball up high to both loft it over the linebackers and to allow Anderson to go airborne and shield himself from the oncoming safety.

Darnold shows incredible touch on this throw as he places the ball just inches beyond the linebacker’s reach while still hitting Anderson in stride.

On 1st & 20, Darnold uses pure velocity to move the chains as he threads the needle to Anderson between the underneath corner and outside-half safety.

With pressure allowed by Kelvin Beachum (LT) and Jonotthan Harrison (C), Darnold spins left to scramble, where he is greeted by another defender that blocks his route to the sideline. Darnold gathers himself and knocks down the fadeaway jumper as he places the ball underneath so Anderson can come back to it.

Darnold was far from perfect in this game (some of his mistakes are shown here), but this was one of his better performances of the season when you add the necessary context. Separate him from his surroundings, and it becomes clear that he did his job fairly well in Cincinnati.

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