Bent, theJetsBlog.com Follow on Twitter
Until the final drive, Sam Darnold's performance in his return to the starting lineup would be defined by his best and worst play. However, Darnold's composure in leading the team downfield for the late game-winning score in Sunday's 27-23 win over the Buffalo Bills was exactly the kind of thing the Jets and their fans had been hoping to see from him this year.
Let's look at some specific examples before we draw conclusions:
3rd quarter, 8.18. Jets trailing 20-13. third-and-9 at the Bills 33
After a first half which saw Darnold throw just six passes, the Jets continued to be conservative at the start of the second half, but moved into field goal range on their opening drive with Darnold completing three short passes. However, faced with a third-and-9, Darnold made a poor decision on the move and was intercepted by Tremaine Edmunds.
The Jets were operating out of an empty set on the play but Darnold was immediately flushed from the pocket as both tackles were beaten on the play. That was a rare breakdown in pass protection from a unit that didn't give up a sack or quarterback hit all day. As he rolled right, Darnold signalled to his receiver to get open down the field but then committed the cardinal sin of throwing back across his body.
Chris Herndon had uncovered momentarily, but Darnold forced the throw and the pass was picked off. Although he leads the league in interceptions, Darnold has been avoiding mistakes as egregious as that one, so this should serve as a reminder of the importance of looking after the football.
4th quarter, 12:17. Jets trailing 20-13. third-and-5 at the Bills 7
Darnold bounced back immediately from his mistake by authoring an 85-yard drive on the next possession. This culminated in perhaps his signature play of the season so far. Once again, the Jets were operating out of a five-wide formation and this time the pocket collapsed with Kyle Williams stunting around the left side to flush Darnold from the pocket. Having eluded Williams, Darnold reversed his field and rolled back to the left, kept his eyes up and fired a strike to Robby Anderson on the move.
This is the kind of play that demonstrates Darnold's elite potential. The throw alone, moving to his left, was special, but his athleticism to avoid the rush, composure to reset himself as he reversed course back toward the line of scrimmage and his vision to anticipate Anderson uncovering in the end zone showcase his elite tools.
Despite making the earlier mistake on the interception, it was encouraging to see Darnold make an anticipatory throw on the move this time.
4th quarter, 1:54. Jets trailing 23-20. second-and-4 at the Bills 42
This was the key play of the game as Darnold's pinpoint deep pass to Anderson set the Jets up at the 5-yard line, moving them into range for at least the tying field goal or -- as it transpired -- the game-winning touchdown.
Having moved the Jets to the fringes of field range, Darnold exploited a defense that was playing to prevent any short gains by dropping a deep ball right in over Anderson's shoulder. Darnold launched the deep ball after having faked a hand-off to the back in a four-wide formation.
Rather than an anticipatory throw, this was more a case of throwing it to a spot and trusting his receiver to go and get it. This is also a good sign, especially if Anderson returns to the team next year and continues to build his chemistry with Darnold.
After another conservative start, offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates allowed Darnold to air it out a bit more in the second half and, although he ended up with modest numbers, Darnold made enough big plays to lead the come-from-behind win.
Darnold completed 16 of 24 passes for his third-highest completion percentage of the season. In fact, this was only the second time he had completed over 60 percent of his passes since Week 2. It's unlikely he's going to have any games where he puts up big numbers with the Jets' offense having struggled for most of the season. However, while he only ended up with 170 passing yards, a respectable 129 of those came after halftime.
It should also be noted that Darnold achieved this against one of the league's better defenses. The Bills entered Sunday's action as the No. 1 pass defense. If Darnold is going to follow this up with another good game on Saturday, he's going to have to do so against a Texans team that isn't ranked as highly from a statistical standpoint but possesses plenty of talent and is sure to look to put Darnold under heavy pressure.