Fortunately, Sam Darnold’s performance over the last 59 minutes and 40 seconds of Monday night’s game has already confined his first pass of the night to the annals of Jets history. However, the play choice and how the Jets arrived at this as a smart idea for his first regular season snap warrants a longer look.
Before we revisit this ill-fated play, we need to look back on the development of the Jets’ offense over the last few years, with a focus on one concept in particular.
Although the Jets have a new offensive coordinator, this system has evolved out of what was already in place under John Morton. There is plenty of overlap between the current system, Morton’s scheme and the Lane Kiffin/Steve Sarkasian scheme which had both Morton and Bates on the staff about a decade ago.
While there will be differences in approach, there are sure to be some staple concepts which will be prevalent in all these systems and - based on preseason - the expectation was that a sail concept in the passing game would be one of these.
The basics of a sail concept are pretty straightforward. You have three receivers flowing to the same side of the field, with one running a flat route, one going downfield and the third running an intermediate route. This gives the quarterback three options within his natural eye line.
Let’s look at a basic example. On this play, the receiver running a jet sweep goes to the flat, Charone Peake goes deep on a go route and Hunter Renfro runs a deep crossing route. With the safety pulled towards the middle of the field, Deshaun Watson takes the deep shot against single coverage.
The fact that the receiver who caught the pass is Peake and the tight end who stayed in to block on this play is Jordan Leggett serves as an example of how the Jets should have - and may actively have targeted - players who are familiar with such concepts. Of course Darnold himself came from a system which has evolved out of Kiffin and Sarkasian’s system and used these same concepts regularly at USC.
This is a scheme the Jets have used regularly in the past and with some good success. It has worked particularly well as an ice-breaker for their young and inexperienced quarterbacks because there’s a safe and straightforward checkdown option and a low downside in terms of risk if the protection breaks down or the receivers are not open.
The combination doesn’t have to be the same as this though. Peake could have run an out pattern while Renfro continued to go deep upfield. Sometimes you might get a back running a wheel route and the slot corner from the opposite side would run a drag route and become the short option. The key is that the quarterback has options at three levels and can read the field accordingly.
Here’s an example of Darnold in college, correctly identifying that the downfield option is the one that’s open.
The Jets like to run this play with a roll-out. This is beneficial in two ways. First of all you don’t need to rely on the protection to hold up because the quarterback will be running towards the sideline so can easily either throw the ball away or get out of bounds close to the line of scrimmage in the event the play breaks down. Secondly it makes for a more natural read progression as the routes unfold right in front of the quarterback’s natural eye line. Both of these aspects mitigated issues with last year’s team.
However, in preseason, it became immediately apparent that defenses knew this was going to be a staple of the Jets offense and were ready for it. An early ice-breaker for Josh McCown on what would have been his first pass of preseason ended with him simply running out of bounds because the Falcons were all over each of the three main options.
The Jets tried it with Darnold as well and, similarly, the Falcons were ready for it. Interestingly, and in a depature from the norm, they ran this with Darnold rolling to his left, which already adds another dimension since Darnold has shown an innate ability to make throws moving to his left in preseason and on Monday night.
Again though, you can see the benefits of the limited downside to this play. Unlike other plays where you might be at risk of being sacked or stripped in the pocket while you wait for routes to develop, the roll out builds in a safety net by getting the quarterback close to the sideline with any efforts to pursue him out there likely to open up one of the passing options.
The Jets don’t just run these concepts in conjunction with a roll-out. On this play, Teddy Bridgewater successful makes the throw from within the pocket, much like Watson did in the earlier example.
However, it’s that roll-out play with the easy dump-off option that the Jets like to use when playing conservatively. If the dump-off is wide open, you can take that option immediately. The intermediate option, Lawrence Thomas, playing some wide receiver here, doesn’t even get halfway across the field as he gets slowed up near the line, but it doesn’t matter because Darnold takes what the defense gives him.
So with this set-up, we have a safe play defenses are anticipating and actively preventing. However, we also have a developed tendency. So, on Monday night, the Jets tried to get a jump on the Lions by - as Josh McCown would say after the game “taking a shot”.
The wide angle shows that the Jets would run Robby Anderson on a crossing route, Eric Tomlinson on a downfield route and Quincy Enunwa to the flat, although he instead picked up a blocking assignment rather than being a pass catching option. Darnold then steps up into the moving pocket to make the ill-advised cross-field pass.
Clearly this was a bad read by Darnold, who should never have attempted this pass unless the safety had been drawn out of position. Quandre Diggs stayed home and made the easy pick six, but we don’t need to dwell on that too much because Darnold bounced back from it.
As we saw last year, Tomlinson snuck downfield for a few big plays and maybe this is a play that could lead to more of the same. The two defenders on that side of the field are initially caught out but the safety, Glover Quin, makes an excellent read.
So, is it the case that the play was indeed a tendency breaker, specifically designed for Powell to be open for a big play? Or was the “taking a shot” aspect of this play Tomlinson being the downfield option with the hope that the defense wouldn’t be prepared for that? The pass to Powell could have been a case of Darnold panicking and trying to improvise when the initial option(s) were covered. However, it seems much likelier that this was a built-in secondary option in the event Tomlinson was covered.
With that lesson learned, the Jets didn’t abandon the concept later on. Darnold’s final completion was also on a sail concept, as he hit Terrelle Pryor near the pylon before the Jets opted to take a knee.
Passing schemes in the modern NFL are all about quick decision making, route combinations and variation. While the Jets’ first play of the season was more of a fail concept than a sail concept, this is the kind of approach you can expect them to continue to take.
Without the aspect of the tendency-breaking high-risk cross-field throw, this is a safe play which gives you a good chance to exploit any defensive hesitation without having to make a risky pass or being in danger of losing big yardage and putting the quarterback in jeopardy of getting hurt.
You can expect to see the Jets continue to use these kinds of concepts on a weekly basis, but with the flexibility their skill position personnel brings to the table, there’s still plenty of room for creative wrinkles. We’ll be watching out for that with interest in the weeks to come.