New England Patriots Gameplan: How to Stop the Improved Sam Darnold

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EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - NOVEMBER 25: Trenton Cannon #40 of the New York Jets is tackled by Patrick Chung #23 of the New England Patriots during the fourth quarter at MetLife Stadium on November 25, 2018 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

The New England Patriots face a familiar foe in Week 17 filled with unfamiliar faces. Despite their 4-11 record, the New York Jets are actually a fairly dangerous offense. Rookie quarterback Sam Darnold is coming off the best two-game stretch of his career and is looking like a player worthy of his third-overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. Darnold missed Week 12’s matchup with the Patriots, so New England will see the rookie up close and personal for the first time. How should the Patriots defend the rookie and his talented arsenal of weapons?

New England Patriots Gameplan: How to Stop Sam Darnold and the Jets

Prior to Week 15’s action, Darnold didn’t look that dangerous on the field. He flashed his natural ability in short bursts, but by and large, he wasn’t quite ready for the big stage. Through his first ten games, Darnold completed 55.9% of his passes for 2,104 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions.

However, something clicked over his past two games. Facing off against the Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers, Darnold completed 65.8% of his passes for 594 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions. Per Pro Football Focus, Darnold has been the best quarterback in the league since Week 15. So what’s made Darnold such a better quarterback?

In short, he’s gotten better all across the board. The first image below shows Darnold’s directional passer rating throughout the season. The second image shows Darnold’s directional passer rating over the past two weeks.

Sam Darnold Season

Sam Darnold’s Directional Passer Rating, Season – via Sharp Football Stats

Sam Darnold Week 15 Week 16

Sam Darnold’s Directional Passer Rating, Weeks 15 and 16 – via Sharp Football Stats

As you can see, Darnold has gotten better at everything, although his relative weaknesses are the same as before. Darnold is at his best when he’s targeting the shorter part of the field. This is to be expected and is the case with most quarterbacks. However, he’s borderline unstoppable on throws in the short middle, as evidenced by his 150 directional passer rating.

Additionally, when he goes deep, he likes to go to go down the left sideline. For whatever reason, he’s still below average when he has to target the deep right portion of the field, although he is better than he used to be.

Unfortunately, there’s no one reason for Darnold’s sudden growth. If he improved at just one or two things, the Patriots could focus on taking away those things to make Darnold uncomfortable. For example, last week I wrote that containing Josh Allen in the pocket would significantly hinder his effectiveness. The Patriots did that, and it worked. It’s not that simple this time around. Darnold is a better all-around quarterback than Allen, and taking away one area won’t drastically affect his play.

Stopping Darnold’s Best Weapons

Just because Darnold’s success is legit doesn’t mean that the Patriots cannot stop him. For every throw Darnold makes, somebody needs to be there to catch it. In the case of the Jets offense, those players have been wide receiver Robby Anderson and tight end Chris Herndon.

The Patriots should be pretty familiar with what Anderson brings to the table. One of the better deep threats in the league, Anderson has 16 receptions for 236 yards and two touchdowns over the past two weeks. He’s accounted for nearly 40% of Darnold’s passing yards, so stopping him should be New England’s top priority.

As previously mentioned, Darnold’s deep passes are most successful when targeting the left side of the field. It should come as no surprise that Anderson has seen 17 targets in the deep left portion of the field and turned those opportunities into 148 yards and two touchdowns. Over the past two weeks, Anderson caught four passes in the deep left for 91 yards and a touchdown.

When Darnold isn’t looking for Anderson, he’s looking for tight end Chris Herndon. So far on the season, the rookie tight end has 38 receptions for 494 yards and four touchdowns. Since Week 15, he’s had nine receptions for 135 yards and one touchdown.

As expected from a tight end, just about all of his production comes in the short portion of the field. However, the rookie has an 81.8% success rate on all targets over the past two weeks. All three of his downfield targets over this span ended up in big gains, so he is capable of doing damage all over the field. Basically, the Jets offense is always on the move when Darnold targets Herndon.

Stopping these two is paramount to the Patriots’ success. Combined, this duo accounts for over 62% of Darnold’s passing yards and 39% of his completions over the past two weeks. If New England can force Darnold to go somewhere else with the football, then they should be able to considerably slow the Jets’ offense.

How To Stop It

Fortunately, the Patriots are equipped to take out just about any opposing wide receiver in the league. The cornerback duo of Stephon Gilmore and JC Jackson is one of the best in football. Gilmore is currently the NFL’s best cornerback, per Pro Football Focus, and is capable of covering any receiver he faces. He’s one of the true lock-down cornerbacks in the league and should be a First-Team All-Pro come seasons’ end.

Even if the Patriots don’t decide to shadow Anderson with Gilmore, JC Jackson should be up to the job. Per The Athletic’s Jeff Howe, Jackson has allowed just 16 completions on 37 targets for just 181 yards and three interceptions on the season. His passer rating when targeted is actually lower than that of Gilmore.

Stopping Herndon is a different story. Per Football Outsiders, the Patriots are the 10th-best team at defending tights ends in the passing game. Normally, New England uses safety Patrick Chung on an opponent’s best tight end. He’s not as good in coverage as Gilmore and Jackson, but he’s more than capable of getting the job done. However, this strategy might not work in Week 17.

Chung has battled through a shoulder and leg injury in recent weeks. While it’s yet to keep him out of a game, he’s clearly playing through a lot of pain. Chung’s one of the toughest players on the team, so he’ll certainly suit up for the regular season finale. However, he might struggle to defend a player as good as Herndon.

If he’s not up for the task, the Patriots might be in trouble. New England doesn’t have a linebacker capable of matching Herndon in coverage, so they’d probably need to employ bracket coverage on Herndon. Another idea would be to use the hyper-athletic Obi Melifonwu to trail Herndon. Obi’s athleticism hasn’t translated to the field yet, but he’s one of the most gifted athletes on the field. It probably won’t happen, but he has the raw ability to cover a player like Herndon.

Last Word on Stopping Sam Darnold and the New York Jets

Unlike Josh Allen a week ago, Sam Darnold has genuinely improved across the board as a quarterback. There’s no magic trick to stopping Darnold, as the third-overall pick finally seems to have figured out the NFL game in the past few weeks. However, that doesn’t mean there’s no way to stop the Jets passing attack.

This passing attack lives and dies with the duo of Robby Anderson and Chris Herndon. The Jets don’t have many playmakers outside of these two, so taking them away should slow the entire Jets offense. New England is more than equipped to handle Anderson with the elite cornerback duo of Stephon Gilmore and Jackson.

Herndon, however, will be the big challenge. Chung isn’t fully healthy and hasn’t played up to his normal standard over the past two or three weeks. When healthy, he’s capable of limiting Herndon’s production. If Chung’s various ailments cause a mismatch, the Patriots should still be able to limit Herndon by employing bracket coverage to take away the short portion of the field. The Jets don’t have any other dangerous weapons, so New England should be able to devote the extra resources to stopping Herndon without significantly weakening themselves anywhere else.

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