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In his final home game of the season, Sam Darnold wasn’t quite able to add out-dueling Aaron Rodgers to his résumé, but it was more down to defensive lapses than anything Darnold did wrong. Statistically, he had his best game of the year with 341 yards and three touchdowns, continuing to build momentum as we head to the end of the season.
A primary feature of this game was that Darnold didn’t really make any “wow” throws, as had been the case in every other game, even those when he’d played poorly. That’s not a knock on Darnold though. The good ones make the game look easy, stay on schedule and execute the game plan flawlessly. That’s what Darnold was able to achieve for most of Sunday’s game.
Let’s look at some specific examples before we draw conclusions:
2nd quarter, 9:09. Jets leading 7-0. 1st-and-10 at the Packers 33-yard line.
Darnold’s longest pass completion of the day was also the most impressive of his three touchdown passes because the other two simply saw him dump the ball to an open receiver in the flat. This saw the Jets revisiting an offensive concept from earlier this year, as the defense was fooled by what initially looked like it was going to be a receiver screen.
– New York Jets (@nyjets) December 23, 2018
On the play, the supposed blockers leaked downfield and, after selling the pump-fake, Darnold didn’t hesitate, hitting Robby Anderson for an easy 33-yard score. This play was essentially identical to the one on which Darnold hit Chris Herndon for a 32-yard score against the Colts earlier in the season.
4th quarter, 11:45. Jets leading 35-23. 1st-and-10 at the Jets’ 25-yard line.
Speaking of revisiting concepts from earlier in the year, the Jets went back to something they’d dabbled with early in the year, without much success, as they opened up a fourth quarter drive with a sail concept. Operating out of a conventional three-wide set, Darnold faked a hand-off and rolled right with three options – short, intermediate and downfield – breaking towards the right sideline. He quickly diagnosed the correct choice and hit the intermediate option (Anderson) for a first down.
After a penalty on the next snap, the Jets ran the same concept with Darnold this time rolling left. This time, they ran it out of a two-tight end formation and Anderson was the downfield option. Darnold could have had a safe chunk of yardage by going to a shorter option but threw accurately on the move and Anderson made a sideline catch for a gain of 20.
Seeing Darnold make the right read and two accurate throws on a concept he struggled with earlier in the season gives us a concrete sign of his in-season growth. It’s apparent that the game is starting to slow down for him. With a fourth quarter lead, it was also encouraging to see the Jets not go into a shell as they let Darnold continue to air it out.
4th quarter, 0:32. Jets trailing 38-35. 2nd-and-10 at the Packers’ 15.
After yet another great return by Andre Roberts, Darnold quickly moved the Jets into scoring range with consecutive completions to Herndon down the stretch. However, the Jets called time-out and ultimately had to settle for a field goal to send the game to overtime.
Darnold’s game unfortunately finished on a low note as he threw three incompletions and ultimately didn’t get a chance in overtime. On first and third down, Darnold basically didn’t have anyone open so he threw the ball away. However, he almost connected with Deontay Burnett in the back corner of the end zone on second down. This ended up looking like another sail concept, although it wasn’t necessarily designed that way.
Here was an example of Darnold going off script as he was flushed from the pocket but extended the play by rolling to his right and motioned for Burnett to head to the back pylon with the underneath options covered. However, he was just unable to squeeze it in, as Burnett made a diving catch but came down out of bounds.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Darnold’s rookie season has been his ability to go off-script. However, in putting together his third good performance in a row, Darnold didn’t need to do that much this week.
Darnold needed to follow up his good performances since his return to the lineup with another strong performance, but he’s doing more than just stringing together solid performances. Right now, he’s looking better and better every game. If he plays well again in New England next week, optimism will be high that he is capable of having an outstanding 2019 campaign.
However, as Rodgers’ late-game heroics showed, Darnold still has plenty of room for growth if he’s going to become one of the league’s great passers.