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In Sunday's win over the Broncos, the Jets controlled the game on the ground. As the running game racked up well over 300 yards, it opened up more things for Sam Darnold, and he was able to take advantage with a career-high three touchdown passes. Most importantly, the Jets won the game, putting a stop to a potential downward spiral that could have doomed their season.
Let's break down how Darnold performed...
2nd quarter, 1:17. Jets leading 14-10. 1st-and-10 at the Broncos' 35
The Jets run a bunch set with three wide receivers and one back in the backfield. The slot receiver and tight end each chip an edge rusher before leaking out and this slows down the Broncos' five-man rush enough that Darnold is able to get a clean throw off. Having initially looked to the right to keep the safety in the middle of the field, Darnold throws a deep touchdown to Robby Anderson, who makes an over-the-shoulder catch.
Darnold had already connected with Anderson for a long touchdown on a play where he used a double move to blow by Bradley Roby. However, this throw had to be perfect and Darnold dropped it right in the bucket. This was another anticipatory throw as Anderson was able to get a step on Roby on the corner route while the ball was in the air. The throw was timed perfectly so Roby never got a chance to turn his head.
If Darnold and Anderson can display chemistry like this on a more consistent basis going forward, that will lift the Jets' offense to another level.
3rd quarter, 13:32. Jets leading 21-10. 3rd-and-11 at the Denver 35
One negative from Darnold's performance was that he had at least four passes deflected at the line. One of these led to his only interception of the day, early in the second half.
On the play, the Jets lined up in another three-wide set, this time with the three receivers all on the left side. The play design calls for Darnold to make an immediate throw to the inside slot receiver, Andre Roberts in the flat, with the other two receivers blocking out in front. However, Shane Ray gets upfield and tips the pass up in the air. Derek Wolfe comes down with the carom.
There's always a danger that things like this can happen on tipped balls, so Darnold needs to do a better job of being aware of passing lanes and perhaps moving around or using pump fakes to freeze linemen as he waits for routes to develop.
3rd quarter, 9:43. Jets leading 21-10. 3rd-and-12 at the Jets' 27
Darnold's improved chemistry with Anderson was especially important on a day where he struggled to connect with Quincy Enunwa and Jermaine Kearse. Eight of his nine passes to the duo fell incomplete. However, the one connection he made to Kearse was arguably one of his best throws of the season so far. Operating out of the same formation as they used on the previous 3rd-and-long where he was intercepted, the tight end and running back stay in to block against the Broncos' five-man rush, once again giving Darnold a clean pocket to throw from. Enunwa runs down the seam and Anderson runs a short in-breaking route, so Darnold can hit Kearse on a long out, which is delivered with perfect accuracy and timing. Darnold releases the pass just as Kearse is making his break.
If Darnold can trust his receivers, he can start throwing the ball to a spot with good timing. Sunday's performance showed some signs that he is starting to do this. It's also encouraging that the Jets are starting to trust Darnold to throw past the sticks on 3rd-and-long.
3rd quarter, 6:30. Jets leading 21-10. 1st-and-10 at the Denver 44
The Jets run out of a pro set formation as the Broncos just send a four-man rush. Von Miller half-beats Kelvin Beachum around the edge but he's able to redirect him upfield and the spare man -- Brian Winters -- first helps the center and then helps the right tackle to ensure a clean pocket. Darnold is able to step up and check down to Isaiah Crowell underneath and then Crowell makes an open field move to pick up the first down.
It's just as important for Darnold to be able to trust his protection and this play was a good sign of what options can be available when everyone does their job. While it was just a dump-off, the fact that Darnold stepped up into the pocket rather than vacating prematurely is another good sign he's making progress. It's also a good sign that Darnold took what the defense gave him, coming off last week's game where he eschewed a few easy completions to take lower percentage shots down the field.
Last week, we noted that Darnold was starting to anticipate better, recognizing opportunities down the field and making anticipatory throws, but noted that he needed to improve his downfield accuracy. He did that this week with the two long completions to Anderson and also put the ball in a good spot for his third touchdown pass.
The next step for Darnold will be to improve his overall completion percentage. After being extremely efficient in his first two games, this was the third game in a row where he didn't complete more than 50 percent of his passes. In fact, other than the three touchdowns, he managed to complete just seven of 19 attempts. In his defense though, his receivers did let him down on a few catchable balls that would have made his completion percentage more respectable.
With the next two games also at home, Darnold should start to benefit from the stability of a conventional preparation schedule for the next few weeks following the disruption of the short and long weeks over the first month. Sunday's game gives the coaching staff a good platform to build from going forwards.