Fortunes in the National Football League can change in the blink of an eye. Just a few weeks ago the New York Jets were a struggling team. They were down to their third string quarterback with Sam Darnold sidelined with mononucleosis. Their defense was struggling. “Just get to the bye week” was perhaps the mantra of the team when they traveled to New England to take on the Patriots.
Now, in the wake of their victory over the Dallas Cowboys and Darnold being named AFC Offensive Player of the Week, things are suddenly looking up in Jets World. What can the Patriots expect on Monday night from a Mono-Free Sammy D?
Coming out of the University of Southern California one of the areas where Darnold stood out in the 2018 quarterback class was with his pocket movement. While in college Darnold displayed the ability to slide around in the pocket, avoid pressure and keep his eyes downfield to find targets in the passing game.
Late in the game last week against the Cowboys, the Jets faced a 1st and 10 in their own territory. Darnold (#14) retreated in the pocket and pressured pretty quickly in the play, but watch as he uses his feet to evade the pressure while keeping his eyes downfield before finding Jamison Crowder (#82) in the middle of the field:
Of the many things that stand out about this play, Darnold’s ability to make this throw off-platform is perhaps the most impressive. As you review this play from the end zone angle, you can see how the quarterback has his feet basically parallel to the line of scrimmage as he releases this pass, but still gets the ball out with enough velocity to hit Crowder before the coverage closes in:
Darnold’s ability to evade pressure with his feet and then make throws from a variety of platforms and arm angles makes him a dangerous quarterback to face. While the Patriots have been able to generate pressure on opposing passers this season, Darnold’s athleticism and footwork might give him the ability to neutralize the New England pass rush a bit.
Adam Gase is most known for his short and intermediate passing concepts, but last week against Dallas the vertical passing game was a big factor for the Jets’ offense. From schemed shot plays down the field to routes relying on pure athletic ability, the New York passing game was able to get vertical with Darnold back in the lineup.
Let’s start with this play, a 3rd and 4 from early in the first quarter. The Jets line up with Darnold in the shotgun and use what some teams call a “Trym” formation, a three receiver trips look to the left but with tight end Ryan Griffin (#84) as the middle, or number two, receiver:
The alignment here is critical to the route Gase calls:
New York runs a Peel/Rub combination here. The first element of this play is the Peel, or post/wheel combination. The outside receiver runs a post route while Crowder (#82) runs the wheel route from the inside alignment. Then comes the rub factor. Griffin “runs” a slant route, but he is really just creating a rub for Crowder. Since any contact with the defender over Crowder is within one yard of the line of scrimmage, this is a legal play.
Which works to perfection:
The defender tries to cut under the route, giving Crowder the ability to get separation as he accelerates vertically. One more note on this design, the Patriots have Rub in their playbook as well. In their playbook how the quarterback throws the wheel route is dependent upon how the defender handles the rub. If the defender goes behind the rub and “plays over the top” of it, then the quarterback throws this as a back shoulder. If the defender comes under the rub - as we see here - then the quarterback throws the wheel downfield:
If the Jets come out in this Trym alignment with the tight end in the middle of the trips, the Patriots need to be ready for this Peel/Rub combination.
Two of the biggest vertical plays for the Jets on Sunday came as a result of athleticism and execution, rather than schematic excellence. Prior to the halftime break the Jets hit on the game’s biggest play when Darnold found Robby Anderson (#11) behind the coverage on a tremendous stutter-and-go route:
This was a massive momentum swing in this contest. The Jets’ defense had just stopped the Cowboys on a 4th and 2 at the Jets’ 7-yard line, and on the very next play Darnold hits Anderson for a 92-yard score to extend New York’s lead to 14-3. A huge swing in this game, and it is due in large part to the route from Anderson, who sells the short route with great footwork and then separates well from the coverage with speed. Darnold drops in a perfect throw and the WR is off to the races. We have seen double-moves work against the Patriots before - most notably early in last year’s AFC Divisional Round game - so this is something to watch for Monday night.
Then late in the game Darnold found Anderson on a beautifully-placed back shoulder throw coming on a fade route out of the slot:
This play comes on a 2nd and 7 with just over five minutes remaining. The Jets have a 21-16 lead in this game, but they stay aggressive on this drive. We saw earlier the scramble drill throw to Crowder which kick-started this drive, and this play is also from that possession. On Episode 29 of The Scho Show Bleacher Report’s Connor Rogers told me just how important it was for Gase and the offense to stay aggressive on this drive, and this play is a perfect example of “playing to win” rather than “playing not to lose.”
The Drive Concept
Conceptually, an element to the Jets’ offense that stood out last week is a design that has its roots in Bill Walsh’s system: The drive concept. At its heart, this offensive passing design pairs a shallow route with a dig route over the top of it:
This is “Z Drive H Corner” from a Walsh playbook. As you can see the Z receiver - think Jerry Rice - runs the shallow route while the tight end runs a dig route over the top of that, perhaps Russ Francis. Then you get a corner route from running back Roger Craig out of the backfield.
Gase has incorporated this element into the Jets’ offense, albeit with a twist. On this play Crowder aligns as the middle trips receiver and runs the shallow element, while Demariyus Thomas (#18) is the inside trips receiver and runs the dig route:
Rather than targeting the underneath receiver, as the Walsh 49ers were want to do, Darnold likes to target the deeper dig as he does here:
This example, from the third quarter, shows a variation of the drive concept, sometimes called NCAA Mills. It pairs a Mills concept (post/dig) with a shallow crossing route underneath it:
Again, Darnold looks to the dig, this time targeting Crowder working right to left:
As Monday beckons, New England needs to be ready for these deeper dig routes.
From route designs to pure talent, Darnold was impressive Sunday against the Cowboys.
Whether he can continue that against the Patriots’ defense, however, is a different story.