EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Being forced to sit and watch for three games sure seems to have paid off for Jets quarterback Sam Darnold. He has been terrific in his two weeks back.
One week after his late, game-winning drive against the Buffalo Bills, Darnold gave one of his most impressive performances. Against a playoff-bound team with a strong defense and some Pro Bowl pass rushers, Darnold was sharp and efficient and kept the Jets in the game almost all by himself. He completed 24 of 38 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns and ran six times for 35 yards.
The Jets lost 29-22 and Darnold couldn't get the offense going on the final drive of the game, but overall he continues to show all the things the Jets had hoped they'd see -- poise in the pocket, good decision-making, and an ability to bounce back from adversity. He showed that on a tremendous drive late in the first half, when the Jets were trailing 16-3 and their offense looked stalled. Darnold marched them 88 yards down the field in nine plays and 4:05. Along the way, he threw a 12-yard pass to TE Chris Herndon when he rolled out, threw across his body and took a (late) hit from Texans LB Jadeveon Clowney.
The touchdown pass on that drive was a thing of beauty, too. Darnold moved up in the pocket and faked a run, which gave WR Robby Anderson time to get open in the end zone for a 5-yard score.
But all that was nothing compared to the 15-play, 73-yard drive (7:33) that gave the Jets the lead with five minutes remaining. Darnold ignited it by throwing a 27-yard pass to Herndon on a play where he rolled right and faked a run to draw in the defense. He then fired a bullet of a pass for six yards to Anderson on a 4th-and-1 from the Texans' 25. And he bootlegged his way to a 14-yard run all the way down to the Texans' 5, setting up Elijah McGuire's 2-yard touchdown run.
Darnold was good a week ago too, but he clearly built off that fourth-quarter comeback in Buffalo and he's shaken off the three-game slump that preceded his foot injury. In a season that is all about growth and development for the Jets' 21-year-old franchise quarterback, it's impossible not to see how Darnold is growing and developing into a good one.
If only he had a few offensive weapons to work with. When the Jets get him some -- presumably this offseason -- he's really going to be good.
Here are a few more takeaways from the Jets' loss to the Texans.
1. This team has decided it will fight for Todd Bowles until the end
Five weeks ago the Jets were absolutely humiliated in a 41-10 loss at home to Buffalo -- a game that likely sealed Bowles' fate. Two weeks ago the Jets suffered a 26-22 loss in Tennessee that was again embarrassing and left Bowles fuming mad.
The two weeks since then probably weren't enough to save Bowles' job, but it's nice to see the players not roll over and let this season die. If nothing else, they've played hard the last two weeks. If Bowles had lost the room or the respect of his players, that wouldn't have happened. The players know the deal. They know Bowles is likely to be fired. It's not easy to play for a lame-duck coach.
But against a playoff-bound team and a legit contender, they fought them every step of the way. That's a credit to Bowles, whether it helps him keep his job or not.
2. The Jets do have some pass rush pieces to keep for next year
They had six sacks in this game, which is great -- although it needs to be kept in perspective considering that Texans QB DeShaun Watson has now been sacked 52 times this season. But they have gotten some decent pressure this season out of LB Jordan Jenkins, who had a sack on Saturday, and DE Henry Anderson, who had three.
Anderson is the player the Jets got from the Colts in the offseason in what has been an absolute steal of a deal. He now has six sacks on the season. Anderson, incidentally, is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and the Jets would be wise to bring him back as part of a rotation. He's been a more productive pass rusher than Leonard Williams for most of this year.
3. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson is not living up to his contract
He signed a five-year, $72.5 million contract in the offseason with $34 million guaranteed because the Jets considered him to be a shut-down corner who could stop their opponents' best receivers. That just hasn't been happening, and that was clear in the first half when Houston's DeAndre Hopkins had five catches for 108 yards and a touchdown on his way to a huge, 10-catch, 170-yard, two-touchdown game.
Most of that wasn't on Johnson, but that's the point. The Jets gave him all that money and they won't have him at least try to lock down the other team's best receiver? What was the point of signing him then? It's not like he's even doing great against the other receivers either. For proof of that, look at the 27-yard gain he gave up to Demaryius Thomas, when he simply overran him and fanned on the tackle.
His contract is way too expensive for the Jets to get out of this early, so they can only hope that his play improves next year.
4. The Jets offensive line wasn't terrible, but it is in trouble
The line held up OK in pass blocking (two sacks, both by J.J. Watt) but wasn't great in run blocking (the Jets ran for 90 yards, but 35 of those were by Darnold). More importantly, they lost RT Brandon Shell to a knee injury that required him to be taken from the field on a cart. That's not good. And remember, they recently put left guard James Carpenter on injured reserve with a shoulder injury too.
So they're down two starters and they weren't great to begin with. Brent Qvale took over at right tackle for the rest of this game. This line is going to be almost completely overhauled in the offseason -- or at least it should be. If they're going to build their future around Darnold, they have to make sure he's protected.
5. Boy do the Jets need to sign Le'Veon Bell in the offseason
This was Elijah McGuire's big chance with Isaiah Crowell now on injured reserve, and he didn't do much at all. He rushed 18 times for 42 yards and caught three passes for 29 yards. Granted, the Texans have a terrific defensive front, but McGuire didn't have much explosion at all. He's also not much of a threat in the passing game.
With Bilal Powell not expected back next season and Crowell's status in doubt too, the Jets are expected to try and make a big splash in free agency by signing Bell, and they clearly need him. That said, McGuire can be a nice complementary piece. He certainly showed some nice power on his fourth-quarter touchdown run when he drove his way into the end zone almost in slow motion with what looked like the entire Texans team around him.