Sam Darnold may have escaped the AFC East but he seemingly cannot escape his arch-nemesis, the New England Patriots. After losing the first three meetings with the Patriots as a member of the New York Jets — completing only 53.2 percent of his passes along the way, for a combined 519 yards as well as a touchdown and six interceptions — Darnold had another bad day as the Carolina Panthers’ starting quarterback in Week 9.
The former first-round draft pick, who was traded from New York to Carolina this offseason, completed just 16 of 33 pass attempts for 172 yards as well as three interceptions. The Panthers went on to lose the game with a final score of 24-6.
New England’s defensive domination was nothing new against a Darnold-led opponent — something cornerback J.C. Jackson acknowledged after the game as well.
“Our defense disguises pretty good when we play Darnold every year. He has a hard time against us,” said the two-time recipient of a Darnold pass on Sunday.
Obviously, though, the 2021 Panthers are not the same team as the Jets of the last three years. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower made sure to point this out during his own postgame press conference.
“I couldn’t even try to compare the last couple of times we’ve played each other because I feel like the two teams are totally different,” he said. “I can say the last two times that we’ve played, as far as the game plan, I feel like we executed it from the front tier, to the second tier, to the back end. Today, we made it tough for them. Weren’t able to run the ball really well and put them in situations that they maybe weren’t used to.”
Throughout the game, the Patriots appeared to be one step ahead of Darnold and the Panthers. But how exactly did they make him “see ghosts” yet again?
As Hightower pointed out, all three levels of New England’s defense performed at a high level. With the entire unit playing as one, coverage and pass rush worked in unison to create some funky looks and never allow Carolina’s QB to find his rhythm.
3-4-CAR 26 (9:20) (Shotgun) S.Darnold pass incomplete short right to Dj.Moore (K.Van Noy).
The Panthers’ first third down of the game saw New England use seven players either on or very close to the line of scrimmage, disguising its pass rush intentions. In the backend, meanwhile, the team used a single-high safety look that would later reveal itself to be a two-deep zone.
The goal was simple: force Darnold to quickly diagnose and process what is happening in front of him, and to make the right decision based on the defense he is facing. He has not been able to do that consistently since joining the league, and the Patriots were banking on that to happen again.
They were right, and the tipped pass on this particular 3rd-and-4 already shows:
Carolina approached the play with a 3x1 set with 11-personnel — one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers — on the field. New England, playing a dime defense, rushed five at the snap: the front-line defenders on the field all attacked the pocket, with the defensive backs pulling out to cover their respective zones.
Among them were safeties Kyle Dugger (#23) and Adrian Phillips (#21), who were responsible for the underneath areas on the weak side of the formation. Two of the Panthers’ skill position players attacked those: wide receiver D.J. Moore (#2) and running back Ameer Abdullah (#20).
New England actually had some good coverage, but a quick strike to Moore between the two safeties might have been enough to move the sticks and keep the drive alive. Darnold actually reacted well: he saw Abdullah in an unfavorable position with Dugger hovering over the top, and instead moved off his initial target to go for Moore on a pivot route.
However, Darnold did not see linebacker Kyle Van Noy (#53).
Van Noy initially aligned in a two-point stance over Sam Tecklenburg (#68), but decided to scrape behind Christian Barmore (#90) and Matthew Judon (#9) after first contact with the Panthers’ backup center. Darnold never saw him come around the edge, and fired the football right at the veteran linebacker.
Van Noy reacted well to get his hands up quickly and tip the ball. It fell incomplete, but the play was already a sign of things to come: he had three passes tipped at the line of scrimmage, with a fourth ending up as an athletic interception by Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins. Darnold seemingly locking in on his downfield targets gave the front-line rushers an opportunity to go up for the football, and they took advantage.
3-6-CAR 30 (13:32) (Shotgun) S.Darnold pass incomplete short left to W.Snead.
Coming out of halftime down 14-6, the Panthers were in dire need of some offensive momentum. However, they quickly found themselves fighting against a three-and-out: after a short scramble by Darnold and a 3-yard run by Christian McCaffrey, Carolina was facing a 3rd-and-6 on its own 30-yard line.
Just like on the previous play, New England had seven players aligned on the line of scrimmage to make it difficult to see who would attack the pocket and who would drop out. This time, four would rush with the other three moving back into their Cover 3 zones.
Among them was, yet again, Kyle Dugger (#23). The second-year safety, who has played multiple roles in the New England secondary, dropped back to help bracket wide receiver D.J. Moore (#2) on the boundary side of the play with J.C. Jackson (#27) as the deep man over the top.
This bracket zone took away Darnold’s first read, but he never seemed to consider a different target before eventually being flushed out of the pocket:
Once again, the pass rush and coverage were working hand-in-hand. While the zones were filled quickly by New England’s defenders, the rushers up front were closing in on Darnold — especially from his frontside: Matthew Judon (#9) and Christian Barmore (#90), collapsed the pocket against Carolina’s right guard and right tackle, with Josh Uche (#55) stunting behind Davon Godchaux (#92) to take on the center.
Judon and Barmore forced Darnold to start climbing forwards, but their presence inexplicably did not seem to speed up his clock. Instead of trying to hit tight end Ian Thomas (#80) over the middle to gain a few yards and move into manageable fourth down territory — or maybe even move the chains if Thomas broke a tackle attempt against safety Adrian Phillips (#21) — he held onto the ball.
This decision nearly resulted in a sack when Uche came free through the front-side A-gap, but Darnold was able to escape the pressure. He did buy a bit more time, but with Kyle Van Noy (#53) coming at him the fourth-year QB was again pressured into a quick decision and throw.
Regardless of whether or not he was actually tying to connect with one of his teammates — wide receiver Willie Snead (#83) and running back Christian McCaffrey (#22) were in the vicinity — or simply throwing the ball away, the play was more of the same for Darnold and the Panthers offense. The unit stalled because the pass rush and coverage worked well to force the quarterback into speeding up his decision-making process.
2-10-NE 20 (7:12) S.Darnold pass short left intended for I.Thomas INTERCEPTED by J.Jackson at NE 12. J.Jackson for 88 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
The biggest defensive play of the game for the Patriots started with a relatively straight-forward look out of the defense. New England showed a 3-4 bear front with three down-linemen, two off-the-ball box defenders, and with edge linebacker Jamie Collins (#58) aligning wide to the weak side over wide receiver Robby Anderson (#11).
Carolina, meanwhile, countered with its standard 11-personnel grouping running a bootleg play-action concept: the offensive line and running back would move to one side, with the quarterback faking the hand-off and moving to the other. In theory, the play is meant to buy the passer some time and create openings down the field off the play-action.
The Patriots, however, played the down perfectly — starting with second-round rookie Christian Barmore (#90):
Originally aligning as the strong-side 5-technique, Barmore quickly recognized the fake hand-off and went after the quarterback rollout. The defender chasing after him put Darnold in a difficult spot: he had no time to re-set his feet to attempt a deep pass downhill, but would rather make a play while on the move.
Making matters worse for Darnold was linebacker Matthew Judon (#9), who first engaged with tight end Ian Thomas (#80) before charging forward towards the QB. Darnold had to make a quick decision, and he actually did not make a bad one: toss the ball to Thomas to gain a few yards on second down in the red zone.
While the decision was fine, the play itself turned into a disaster for one simple reason: Darnold failed to hit his intended target, instead overshooting Thomas and firing right into the waiting arms of J.C. Jackson (#27).
Darnold apparently trusted himself to make the throw — he obviously should given that he is a starting NFL quarterback — but he failed to execute. Jackson was the beneficiary, and in the Panthers end zone 88 yards later.
While the defense itself was not designed around confusing Darnold on this particular play, it still forced him into a bad play by doing something he failed to do for much of the day: execute on a high level.