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Jets at Dolphins Week 9 preview: Sam Darnold, Todd Bowles, and Isaiah Crowell

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Miami Dolphins v New York Jets Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins and New York Jets are about 24 hours from their Week 9 AFC East showdown. Will the Dolphins sweep the Jets and move to 5-4 on the season? Will the Jets upset the Dolphins in Miami, split the season series, and move into a 4-5 tie with Miami? The Dolphins have been struggling lately, but what about the Jets?

To get a better idea of who the Jets are now, mid-way through the season, as compared to the team that Miami faced back in Week 2, we turned to SB Nation’s Jets team site, Gang Green Nation, and Michael Nania. You can check out my responses to his questions about the Dolphins over on their site.

1. Back in September, the Dolphins and Jets met directly after New York dismantled the Detroit Lions. At that time, you explained, “Darnold was very composed and poised in the pocket, staying patient,” and that Darnold “has passed every test up to this point.” Now, mid-way through his rookie year, what are your thoughts on quarterback Sam Darnold and his development?

I think that while the results on the statsheet have been highly volatile, Darnold has remained on a promising path towards becoming the consistent franchise passer the Jets drafted him to be. Things have not panned out as planned around him. The entire wide receiver core has crumbled to dust collecting in the medical room. The offensive line has not taken the step the team hoped it would, as big free agent acquisition Spencer Long has actually been a downgrade at a position that was already poor.

Darnold continues to be even-keeled as can be on the field, still not letting mistakes snowball. Back in the meeting between our two teams in Week 2, Darnold shook off a bad first half pick, a blown two-minute drill, and a scoreless first half to play a wonderful second half, nearly leading the Jets on a 20-point comeback (that very well might have happened if his receivers didn’t hang him out to dry). He passed for 346 yards on over 8 yards per attempt that game in spite of numerous drops.

His past game against the Bears was ghastly on the statsheet, as he threw for under 120 yards, but he did his best to maximize the circumstances. The battered Jets could not get receivers open *at all* - wide receivers won 1-on-1 matchups only about 3-4 times in the whole game - but Darnold didn’t panic. Many rookie quarterbacks in a situation like that implode. They press and try to do too much when the opportunities aren’t there, and they throw games away before they start. Instead, Darnold stayed safe, not turning the ball over or taking sacks and making a few plays outside of the pocket and as a scrambler when nothing else was open. The Jets never seemed to have a chance in the game as depleted as they were, but Darnold’s composed performance helped keep them within one score into the fourth quarter.

He’s been promising. As with most rookies, the spotlight will really be on at the start of year two, when (hopefully) he has a shiny new case of weapons to play with along with a full year of experience.

2. Isaiah Crowell started strong this season with a 102-yard performance against the Lions, then disappeared before bursting out again with a 219-yard performance against the Denver Broncos - only to apparently disappear again the last three weeks. What has caused this up-and-down performance and what should the Dolphins expect when it comes to the Jets’ ground attack?

In terms of Crowell specifically, he’s been who we thought he would be. He’s prototype boom-or-bust. As a Brown, he was consistently among the league leaders in big plays, but also among the league leaders in stuffs. That’s continued. When things are blocked well, he gets a strong full head of steam and hits an impressive breakaway speed, with the ability to make a lot of defenders miss in the open field. However, when things aren’t there, he struggles to make something out of nothing, rarely breaking tackles behind the line or grinding out extra yardage.

The offensive line is the real X-factor. I think the Jets have gotten adequate pass protection out of this group, but the run-blocking has been poor. Nobody on this front is an established strong run blocker in this zone running scheme. The Jets are capable of dominant run blocking performances now and then, but more often than not, they struggle mightily to gain traction and create holes on laterally blocked zone concepts. At their best, they look really great. They can dominate against light fronts with double teams on the interior. RT Brandon Shell, who has been the line’s best player with his strong pass protection, has some really clean games getting out in space in the run game where he can use his athleticism. However, it’s a line that simply lacks enough athleticism on the interior to run the scheme the coaching staff wants it to. Linebackers and defensive backs consistently plug up runs against the Jets.

Back in Week 2, the Dolphins defensive front had its way inside, specifically against the interior trio of LG James Carpenter, C Spencer Long, and RG Brian Winters. Long has had a terrible season and missed the previous game. His replacement, Jonotthan Harrison, was equally poor.

In the run game, the offensive line is a major liability for the Jets.

3. The Jets have been dealing with injuries at receiver, now adding Rishard Matthews. How will the former Dolphins receiver fit into the Jets’ offense, and how will the Jets attack Miami’s admittedly questionable secondary?

Matthews, despite his status as the most accomplished receiver on the entire roster, was a non-factor in his debut. He wasn’t targeted in 19 snaps as he looked just as lethargic trying to get open as every other fringe receiver on the field.

The statuses of Quincy Enunwa and Robby Anderson are still up in the air. If one or both of them return, Matthews’ role is probably almost completely diminished. If neither can play, perhaps he’ll see a bigger role having had more time to acclimate to the offense. The Jets could not generate any sort of passing attack against Chicago, so Matthews’ emergence would be welcomed in spite of his cold start. Giving him more looks would probably have more upside than giving those looks to returner Andre Roberts or special teamer Charone Peake, who both played a large portion of snaps at wide receiver last week. Those results were plain ugly - not even with drops, just with the lack of ability to get open.

Matthews is a big time wild card. He’s produced quite a bit over the past few years. But with only a week or so of experience with the team, can he prove to the Jets he can be productive for them while they wait for their starters to return?

It’s going to be tough for this Jets offense to pass on any secondary right now. The output they put forth against Chicago will not break 20 points against any defense. Without both Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa on the field, the offense has been lethargic as can be. I would like to see rookie TE Chris Herndon more involved. He’s scored a TD in three straight games and is become a matchup-winner who can win 1-on-1s with his route running downfield, specifically with posts and corners.

4. We have spent a lot of time focused on the offense so far, so let’s turn to the defense. You gave us an amazing breakdown of the defense back in Week 2, so I will basically tee up the same questions. What can the Dolphins exploit on the Jets defense and where do the Jets have the advantage?

The Jets’ broken secondary has been surprisingly decent the past couple of weeks. The key has been Trumaine Johnson’s replacement, Darryl Roberts. The backup who struggled mightily early in the year has thrived in the starting role, breaking up a tremendous rate of passes thrown his way on a huge diet of targets. He shut down Stefon Diggs against the Vikings.

One weakness the Jets have had this year defensively is stopping quarterbacks from running. Mitch Trubisky killed the Jets on the ground last week and Ryan Tannehill beat them up back in Week 2. Unfortunately for Miami, Brock Osweiler is probably not the kind of guy who is going to run wild on the Jets.

I would be aggressive in the run game. This is an inconsistent unit up front. Tackles Steve McLendon and Leonard Williams and inside linebacker Avery Williamson are all very good run defenders, but everyone else is shaky. Rotational lineman Henry Anderson is a strong pass rusher but is lightweight for the position and can be a sieve in run defense. Williamson’s runningmate Darron Lee is still struggling in run defense despite his vast improvement in coverage this year.

The Jets have allowed the third most first downs (24) and sixth most yards per carry (5.0) on 1st down rushing attempts. Back in Week 2, I thought Miami’s ability to consistently pick up quality gains on first down was a huge reason they won the game, as they were able to churn out solid drives consistently and avoid punting from deep in their own territory without milking much time off the clock. The Dolphins gained at least 4 yards on 12 of their 16 first down rushes against the Jets, and had just as many 8+ yard gains (8) as stuffs. Be aggressive and committed to the run game to help out Brock Osweiler and give him some favorable 2nd/3rd & short opportunities. The Jets have only completely locked down the run in one game, and that was back in Week 1 against the Lions. In every other game, they allowed at least 3.7 yards per carry, including three games of allowing over 5 yards per carry.

So, be committed to the run. It’s a cliche, but this is a team that can be beaten by that approach. Keep testing Darryl Roberts. He’s hot and a good playmaker, but susceptible to toastings over the top. Morris Claiborne has had a very, very good season but has cooled down a bit. He loves to prevent the deep ball and guard the sideline, channeling the ball inside. If you attack that outside leverage, he is very susceptible to 10-15 yard outs. Also go after slot corner Buster Skrine. Albert Wilson toasted him for a touchdown in September. He’s another athletic guy who is aggressive and can make rangy plays, but has shoddy technique and will be beaten by quick, efficient route-runners.

5. Finally, like in Week 2, I will end this with a look at Todd Bowles. You said back then that fans were down on Bowles, but that Darnold’s selection should buy Bowles the 2019 season. Now at 3-5 on the season, is there feeling that Bowles could be in trouble?

I did have the feeling going into the year that Darnold should keep Bowles safe. However, he has not had himself a good audition and the heat is on from the fanbase. There are no rumblings of any fire under his seat from the organization, but this is a franchise that has kept relatively quiet with its leaks in recent years, so nobody really knows what the feeling is.

I thought 7 wins was the magic number. That would be a 2-win improvement over 2017 and a respectable total for a team led by a rookie QB. However, the thing with Bowles is that he is just not improving individually. He still punts with the team down two scores with enough time to come back in the fourth quarter. He still rarely adjusts in game. His team still is atrocious on the road. His defense still hasn’t made major progress. His clock management is a joke. There was a sequence against Chicago where instead of taking a knee deep in their own territory and heading to the half, the Jets ran a trio of plays, one of them a hopeless deep heave and two of them runs, and then punted the ball back to the Bears. They risked injury and gave the team extra chances at a takeaway and/or score in exchange for almost zero upside. That kind of stuff is just really face-palm inducing.

If you ask me, I don’t think Bowles should be back next year unless he leads the Jets to a magical playoff berth, and any other fan would agree (actually most fans might tell you they don’t even want him back unless he wins a Super Bowl). He has not progressed personally and does not seem like he can be the leader of a championship team. Sure, he’s gotten the short end of the stick with the talent he’s been coaching and he’s done a nice job cleaning up the off-field circus act he inherited. The only thing that matters is wins, though. His Jets have not been able to win on the road or generate consistency. The team’s 12 losing streaks since he took over leads the league, a mark of that failure to avoid dipping into cold spells.

Again, Bowles just does not seem like a Super Bowl coach. He’s had 3.5 years to make a true franchise-changing impact and he has gone 23-33, 13-27 over the past two and a half seasons. I think the Jets need to follow the Bears and Rams mold and give their franchise quarterback an innovative young offensive mind to grow under.

Will the Jets decide to move on? I think it’s highly unlikely in-season; though losing back-to-back games against division rivals led by Osweiler and Nathan Peterman to fall to 3-7 entering the bye might do the trick. Should the Jets straddle the line of mediocrity and finish the season with 6-8 wins and no playoff berth, I think it’s a coin toss. The organization seems to like him and has given him numerous votes of confidence. However, simple self-evaluation should lead them to the conclusion that they can do a lot better by moving on.

Whichever way they lean, I simply hope the franchise does sufficient self-scouting before making this call, looking deeper than just the win column and their personal relationships, ensuring the decision they make in regards to Bowles is the one that gives them the best chance at winning a Super Bowl in the Sam Darnold era.