Let’s take a look at the two interceptions Sam Darnold threw on Sunday against the Dolphins. On the first, Darnold looked like a rookie. Believe it or not, I actually thought Darnold came away looking good on the second.
Let’s start with the pick Darnold threw in the first quarter.
Here he wants to hit Quincy Enunwa on the slant out of the slot.
It isn’t entirely clear what coverage Miami is playing. It could be a Cover 1 man with a linebacker lurking in the middle of the field to help out on crossing routes.
It also might be a combo coverage with man to man on the receiver at the top of the picture and zone elsewhere.
It doesn’t really make a difference because the result is ultimately the same.
The key is what T.J. McDonald does after the snap. McDonald starts following Neal Sterling on the tight end’s drag route as though he’s in man to man coverage.
With McDonald following Sterling, Darnold thinks he’s going to have a nice window to throw the ball to Enunwa.
If it is actually zone Sterling is leaving McDonald’s area, which frees him up. If it is man, McDonald still has help on Sterling with the linebacker lurking in the middle of the field. I don’t know which coverage it is, but either way McDonald can pass Sterling off which frees him up to jump into the passing lane.
Does McDonald bait Darnold by pretending to follow Sterling? Do instincts just take over, and he jumps the route once he sees that’s where the ball is going? I don’t know. Either way it is a really nice play.
Whenever a first year player makes an error, the phrase “rookie mistake” tends to get thrown around. In many cases it is a weak excuse because the player has made a mistake that would be unacceptable even for a college player.
This is an actual rookie mistake. In the Pac 12 this kind of coverage or playmaking isn’t the the type of thing you see often. One of the points of playing Darnold this year is for him to make this kind of mistake so that he can learn not to make it in the future.
Now let’s move to the second interception. You might have found the title of this article odd. How can a quarterback show veteran type savvy on a play where the throws an interception? Well, I think the quarterback part of this play is executed at a high level. The failure comes at the receiver end.
At first look, it isn’t clear what the Dolphins are doing defensive here either. It could be a Cover 3 zone.
It could also be a man to man look again with Cover 1 over the top and a linebacker in the middle of the field.
In this instance, however, the formation has forced the Dolphins to tip their hand. Chris Herndon is lined up as an outside receiver and has a cornerback lining up against him. Robby Anderson is in the slot and has a linebacker against him.
It’s tough to believe the Dolphins would choose these as man to man matchups so it becomes clear they are indeed playing a Cover 3 zone.
Darnold eventually looks to Pryor in the end zone.
The real action here comes on the double post routes by Anderson and Pryor.
Through the early part of the play, Darnold has his eyes on the Anderson post in the middle of the field.
There’s a very good reason for this.
In a Cover 3 look, the outside corner defending the outside receiver, Pryor, is playing with outside leverage. He is trying to push Pryor into the middle of the field because there is supposed to a middle safety there to help.
The problem for Miami is the safety is occupied with Anderson’s post route. With Darnold looking at Robby the middle safety has hold his position, which means he can’t move to help on Pryor.
When a young quarterback struggles, you frequently hear an excuse that his receivers aren’t getting open. It isn’t always an invalid excuse, but it ignores the ways a quarterback can help get his receivers open. Because Darnold held the deep safety in the middle of the field with his eyes, there is a big window to deliver this ball to Pryor (window is the rectangle; middle safety is circled).
So why does this turn into an interception? It comes down to the route Pryor runs. Just watch this thing. He’s more occupied with hand fighting than he is at running an effective route. He isn’t running his route at full speed. This ball is on the money if Pryor is actually does so.
Pryor took the blame for it after the game.
Terrelle Pryor apologizes to Sam Darnold for sloppy route that led to INT https://t.co/tD5QBpj6Fy— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) September 18, 2018
The quarterback can help get a receiver open. He cannot, however, run the route or look for the ball.
But a lot of plays will end with good results going forward if Darnold keeps doing what he did on that play.