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Sam Darnold Shines, With a Defense Behind Him

The No. 3 overall pick looked like the real deal in his debut against the Lions. And the promise of the young Jets QB—so often frustrated in the past—is bolstered by a strong unit on the other side of the ball that shares the rookie’s confidence

Jets fans, it’s OK to think it. Sam Darnold’s teammates were thinking it, too, as they left Ford Field on the good side of a lopsided 48-17 season opener against the Lions. The rookie quarterback thought he played “pretty well,” but you saw more than that, and so did the players who suited up next to him, who cheered him on from the sidelines, who told him they weren’t worried after he threw a pick-six on the very first play of his first-ever NFL game.

The Jets have been searching for a franchise quarterback for decades, and on this night, it sure did look like they might have found that guy.

“Absolutely,” linebacker Darron Lee said over the phone, on his way to boarding the team buses.

Lee then mentioned how dedicated Darnold is, and how hard he works, and how “Uncle Josh,” i.e. 39-year-old Josh McCown, keeps the rookie steady… but perhaps what matters most is how much this young quarterback, barely of legal drinking age, a few weeks removed from taking third-team reps in training camp, has the belief of the rest of the locker room.

The franchise’s search has been long, but Darnold seemed to happen so fast—the Jets moving on after losing the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes and just a few days later trading up for the No. 3 overall pick, and the once-presumed No. 1 overall pick still being on the board when it was their turn, and the announcement of him as the opening-day starter a week ago coming to the surprise of exactly zero people.

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Then Darnold threw the pick-six, and that feeling Jets fans know all too well, that of the other shoe dropping, felt like it was happening quickly, too. But even when Lee and other members of the starting defense went up to Darnold after that play and told him he was going to be fine, that they had his back, they almost felt like it didn’t need to be said—they didn’t get the sense that he needed that reassurance.

“He’s always smooth under pressure, he doesn’t get rattled, so we weren’t worried whatsoever,” Lee said. “We are excited, we are proud of him—we are proud of everybody who contributed to this win.”

Darnold's resiliency is why he was starting this first game, the only one of the five QBs taken in the first round this year who earned that opportunity. The defense (and even the Jets’ once-maligned special teams) had his back as promised, taking the ball away five times and yielding just a single touchdown drive to Matthew Stafford, a 10-year veteran QB who routinely posts 4,000-passing yard seasons. But the difference between the Jets with Darnold and, say, the Browns with Tyrod Taylor in Week 1 of the 2018 NFL season was that Darnold turned those turnovers into points.

Lee, who had two interceptions, stunningly described how the Jets defense was calling out plays before the Lions snapped the ball, based on formations, personnel groupings and hand signals they’d studied on film. On Lee’s first interception, he sat, waited and broke on the ball when Stafford threw it, jumping in front of Theo Riddick for a pick-six of his own. On the second, he knew the Lions were trying to run a wrap route around the defense, wrapping one receiver behind him and hoping he’d run up to cover a second receiver in front of him, and thereby leave a wide open window in back of him. But Lee didn’t bite—“as a defense we said, don’t bite the cheese”—hung back and leaped to snag the pass high in the air.

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Stafford grew rattled, both physically and mentally. And Darnold grew the Jets’ lead. The defense held Stafford to a three-and-out on his first drive, and the Jets' Andre Roberts returned the punt 43 yards, giving the ball back to Darnold on Detroit’s 32-yard line. On a third-and-7, the former USC passer showed the combination of skills that offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates adeptly showcased, rolling to his right to extend the play and firing a pass to Quincy Enunwa. That led to Isaiah Crowell’s 6-yard touchdown run. On the next series, the defense set up the rookie again, cornerback Morris Claiborne picking off Stafford inside Lions territory. Darnold converted a third down with his legs to take the Jets into field goal range. By the top of the second quarter, he’d more than erased the deficit he’d created in the game’s first 20 seconds.

Before halftime, Darnold delivered his best play of the night. Matt Patricia’s Lions had a two-deep coverage on the play, which should have prevented against any deep throws. But Darnold sucked in the safety on Robby Anderson’s side just enough without even a full pump fake—it was just a little shoulder shrug—so that his fastest receiver could get on top of the defense as he streaked up the left sideline. The result: A 41-yard TD.

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Out of halftime, Stafford led his lone TD drive of the game, tying up the score. Darnold again had an answer. The 20-yard pass he made on that drive, rolling to his right and whipping a throw to Terrelle Pryor while on the run, again represented his unusual skill set. Enunwa scored on a catch-and-run TD, and then Lee delivered his pick-six, and then Roberts turned in a 78-yard punt return TD—and suddenly the Jets felt about this game how they feel about Darnold: pretty darn sure.

Earlier this offseason, a few weeks after Darnold was drafted, he joined a group of his teammates for dinner at Tao restaurant in Manhattan. Leonard Williams, first-round pick in 2015; Lee, first-round pick in 2016; and Jamal Adams, first-round pick in 2017. The Jets stocked their defense with all these young starters, and then they added their hopeful face of the franchise. “Definitely something of a bright point for the team, for sure,” Lee said, “but as a defense, it doesn’t change what we have to do.”

That was one of the first things Lee remembers telling Darnold—that if he won the starting job, the defense was behind him. If he made a mistake, be ready to bounce back, because they were going to get him the ball back.

That scenario happened immediately. The defense bolstered Darnold, and in turn, Darnold bolstered the hopes of the Jets. It was one night, for now. But you can see it, and they can see it, lasting much longer than that.

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