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Dolphins at Jets preview: Sam Darnold knows ‘how to command a professional offense’

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NFL: New York Jets at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins and New York Jets will meet tomorrow for the first of two games during the 2018 NFL regular season. This will be the 105th all-time meeting between the two in the regular season (plus one playoff meeting), which means these teams know each other and know each other well. But, a new year does mean a few changes from the last time the teams met, especially when it comes to both teams starting quarterbacks who were not on the field last year.

For the Dolphins, the return of Ryan Tannehill after missing a year has been a big story. In New York, the story of the preseason and into the team’s Week 1 win has been Sam Darnold, the rookie quarterback out of USC for whom the Jets traded up to select with the third-overall pick. After one week of NFL experience, how are Jets fans viewing Darnold? What are the expectations of fans for this season?

We asked Michael Nania from SB Nation’s Gang Green Nation for a closer look at the Jets this season.

1. The Jets were able to dismantle the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football. What do you take from that game, and are the Jets that good, the Lions that bad, or was it just a matter of one great game to start the season, and you expect the Jets to come back to the norm some? What are your expectations for this season?

It was a mix of both in terms of the Lions playing poorly and the Jets dominating. After all, this was a 17-17 game early in the third quarter. Matthew Stafford played an absolutely terrible game, telegraphing throws and appearing on a completely different page as his receivers all night. The Detroit run game continued to be nonexistent, receivers dropped passes, and Matt Prater missed two field goals.

However, that shouldn’t take away from what was mostly a complete dismantling by the Jets following the first play of the game, a brutal Sam Darnold pick six. Darnold was very composed and poised in the pocket, staying patient against a Detroit defense that rarely brought pressure and moving the chains on 3rd down after 3rd down. The skill position group was tremendous, with Quincy Enunwa looking perfectly healthy, Isaiah Crowell showing the high-level big play ability that he had in Cleveland (he has one of the highest big play frequencies in the league since being drafted), Terrelle Pryor moving the chains a trio of times, and Robby Anderson proving he certainly can have a deep connection with Darnold, a question mark many had into the season. The offensive line was great after being doubted all season. LT Kelvin Beachum and LG James Carpenter had rocky games in pass protection, but new C Spencer Long, RG Brian Winters, and RT Brandon Shell were very impressive in both phases.

The defense seemingly knew what Detroit was throwing at them all game - and afterward, the Jets themselves said that was the case. Darron Lee, who has struggled in his first two years, looked like the player the Jets drafted him to be in the first round back in 2016, anticipating plays and using his tremendous speed to blow up plays and pick off two passes. Jamal Adams was a force in every phase. The pass rush is still a question, but the defensive line looks strong and did well with the heavy rotation the Jets figure to use throughout the year. Trumaine Johnson arguably had the rockiest game on defense, but Morris Claiborne made up for it with a phenomenal game in his new #2 role. The special teams was also fantastic in every phase, highlighted by Andre Roberts’ big TD return and a pair of other returns to set up scores.

Obviously, expectations must be tempered. The Jets are not going to play like this every week, not even close. This game shouldn’t even raise expectations to playoffs just yet, after most fans were content with 6-8 wins throughout the offseason. However, it was very pleasing to see so many question marks answered, from Darron Lee, to the offensive line, to the special teams, to Darnold’s ability to bounce back from struggles, and so on. We will see how sustainable those successes will turn out to be, but this was an extremely promising start to a new era.

2. Obviously, the Jets did everything they could this offseason to get their franchise quarterback. After one start (or maybe it is everything after the first play of that start), Sam Darnold has looked good. What did you see from him during training camp and the preseason? Is he the real thing?

I will not be the one to sit here and declare him the savior after one game, but he has passed every test up to this point. Facing a relatively tough path to the Week 1 starting job having to beat out veteran Josh McCown (a team favorite and a solid stopgap last year) and a healthy Teddy Bridgewater, Sam elevated himself to the unquestioned Week 1 starter by the end of the first preseason game. There are plenty of things he can still iron out, which would be the case with any 21-year old starting NFL quarterback. However, the primary reason optimism on him is so high is the way he has looked so ready mentally.

From his very first snap, Darnold seemed like he knew how to command a professional offense, make adjustments pre-snap, and moving through reads fluently post-snap. He’s done a great job maneuvering the pocket and using his mobility to buy extra time and make plays throwing on the move and moving the sticks with his legs. He just seems to get it, and have the mental wherewithal to succeed at a high-level as an NFL quarterback that previous Jets prospects just have not had. The way he bounced back from one of the worst interceptions you will ever see to post a near-perfect quarterback rating over the rest of the game and lead a 31-point victory on the road, on prime time in his NFL debut was very encouraging.

3. What can the Dolphins exploit on the Jets offense and defense? Where do the Jets have the advantage?

For the Dolphins defense to beat the Jets offense, you need to take a look at the way the Lions failed on Monday night. Facing a rookie quarterback in a west coast offense featuring a lot of 3 tight end sets, rollouts, and plays designed to scheme receivers open, the Lions only brought 5 rushers 4 times (prior to garbage time) and usually had only 3 defensive linemen on the field. Darnold sat back there all day, and receivers eventually found their way open in spite of the extra men in coverage. He had no problem reading and manipulating that secondary. The Dolphins cannot afford to be as conservative as Detroit was - especially now having a read on the Jets offense with Week 1 in the books. Don’t be overly aggressive with the blitz - but bring creative pressure every so often. Put pressure on the rookie. Put pressure on this offensive line. Don’t allow time for Jeremy Bates’ offense to produce open receivers and allow Darnold to work his magic moving around in the pocket and surveying the defense.

While this offensive line looked good on Monday night, they were facing a less than imposing Detroit front. It’s a line that was not good in the run game last year and returns 4/5 players. You absolutely want to stop this run game, led by Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell, but ideally you want your defensive line and linebackers to be able to do it by beating this offensive line individually without putting all your eggs in the run-stopping basket. It’s a team that will run the ball a good deal, but isn’t the grounding and pounding 2017 Bills. The offensive line is the unit to take advantage of until they prove otherwise. The strength of this offense is the speed and size of the WR group and you want to alleviate the pressure on the back end by minimizing their time to get open in Bates’ offense predicated on presnap motion and designed openings (rubs, zone-beaters) and by keeping the offense out of favorable 3rd & shorts that Darnold thrived with. Don’t let Quincy Enunwa get the ball in space and make sure you give help over the top to Robby Anderson. Make Darnold and this offensive line beat you. Force Darnold to prove he can push the ball deep down the field, and take away his intermediate and short game. In terms of the O-Line, focus your pressure on the left side - LT Kelvin Beachum and LG James Carpenter. As previously mentioned, they struggled more so than the rest of the line last week.

All in all, you’ve got to put pressure on the rookie and make him respond, and trust your defensive line to stop the run. It’s going to be tough to stop Darnold and this skill group if they continuously have favorable 2nd/3rd & short situations and the defensive front cannot stop the run without extra help. The Dolphins have secondary talent but the challenge lies in stopping these wide receivers - including tight end Neal Sterling (a converted WR). Make the secondary’s job easier by applying additional pressure and shutting down the run.

For the Miami O against the Jets D, I would honestly say to not be afraid to attack Trumaine Johnson. While stout in the red zone and great at taking away the sideline, he has proven susceptible to speedy receivers running routes towards the middle of the field.

Go after Buster Skrine. He can tackle and is highly athletic, but is very spotty in coverage as a slot corner. If you remember, he single handedly gave Miami the comeback win over the Jets last year with one of the worst games from a corner you’ll ever see. He’s equally capable of a phenomenal game, but target him early and often, especially with the talent the Dolphins have with their inside receivers.

Marcus Maye will likely miss this game, meaning Doug Middleton will start as the deep safety once again. He had a decent, but shaky Week 1. Test him out deep.

Darron Lee had an absolutely phenomenal Week 1 in coverage (1 first down allowed on 13 targets), picking off 2 passes and holding Theo Riddick to 8 yards on 5 targets, but over the last two years he has been terrible covering running backs. Go after him early, and see if his Week 1 progression was for real or if he is due to revert back to the mean and return to being a punching back for receiving backs.

I’d say the Jets’ advantage on offense is this wide receiver group, and that should be the case every week. It’s an extremely diverse and deep core, and the best combination of size and speed among any wide receiver group in the league. These guys compliment each other so well. Defensively, I think the Jets could have a big advantage up front, especially with Josh Sitton now out. The Jets won’t beat you on the edge, but between the tackles they have some high motor matchup-winners, from Leonard Williams, to Henry Anderson, to Steve McLendon, to rookie Nathan Shepherd.

4. This early in the season, there are always names on a roster that fans of the opposing team just do not know. Who will surprise Dolphins fans, simply because they do not know his name yet?

Offensively, I’ll go with right tackle Brandon Shell. I know- a lineman? But Shell has progressed extremely well for this team. You might remember him being taken by Cameron Wake over the past couple years, but Shell looks like a different player. He’s highly athletic and the Jets have taken advantage by putting him in space and running in his direction - and it’s paid dividends. Defensively, tackle/end Henry Anderson. He was a rotation piece in Indianapolis and the Jets scooped him up for a 7th rounder due to a throat injury, but he has really impressed. He has a high motor and is a good technician as an interior pass rusher. He created the Darron Lee pick six by finessing first round left guard Frank Ragnow with an impressive swipe.

5. Todd Bowles will always be someone Dolphins fans remember. How is he doing now heading into his fourth season as the Jets head coach? How do fans view him?

It’s very up in the air, but I’d say entering this season fans are more down on Bowles than up. His game management has been consistently spotty, the defensive had failed to dominate or develop, and after all the team went 10-22 over the past two seasons. They have also been brutal on the road, never beating a winning team outside of MetLife Stadium and only winning two away games against teams other than the Browns over the past two seasons.

However, he’s had a dearth of talent, especially at quarterback, and now with a somewhat replenished talent pool, it should be easier and more fair to evaluate him. Detroit was a phenomenal start. The Jets had a great gameplan on both sides of the ball and completely outfoxed Matt Patricia from a playcalling stand point. It wasn’t perfect, there were spotty calls on both sides and the Jets again burned three timeouts in the first half before the two minute warning. Over the course of the season, though, if Bowles and his staff to come even close to their performance in Detroit, it will be a big boost to the success of this team in 2018 and win Bowles a lot of points among fans, and management towards securing the position even beyond 2019.

With Darnold, it seems Bowles is safe for 2019 unless the team completely drops the ball. There does not seem to be a playoff mandate. This year, Bowles needs to prove he can win on the road, develop the defense in his image now that he has a unit entirely of his making, and obviously develop Sam Darnold. All three boxes were checked at Ford Field - now he needs to keep it up for 16 more weeks (and hopefully a couple more).