I recently began re-watching all of Sam Darnold’s throws from the 2018 season, going game-by-game charting his production by route type.
In addition, I’ve broken down his numbers based on a few different factors, including field side, number of rushers, and throw depth. I also decided to track the frequency of select notable occurrences, such as a tally of Darnold’s total “improvised” production (a revered staple of his), and a count of drops, among other things.
Previously, I ran through a few of the most notable statistical tidbits I found from tracking Darnold in his Week 5 and Week 6 outings, against the Broncos and Colts. Today we’ll move on to his seventh and eighth games, a pair of NFC North battles against the Vikings and Bears.
Before we start diving in, here is a look at the collection of route types I’ve been tracking.
Obviously, there is a seemingly infinite number of complex route concepts that could not possibly fit in that picture. I went with a simplified collection of 15 route types. I thought this lineup was perfect for having enough variety to capture every throw while not going overboard with specificity.
It’s sometimes difficult to tell exactly what route a receiver is trying to run. Other times, there will be instances where a receiver will run a more complex route that features a combination of multiple routes seen above, such as an out-and-up or slant-and-go among others. I assigned route types based on the nature of the throw for Darnold. Whichever route type best matched the angle, depth, and overall essence of the throw Darnold had to make, would be the one I’d go with.
Weeks 7 and 8 marked the first two of three straight rough outings for Darnold before his three-game absence due to injury. The circumstances were tough, as Darnold took on two of the league’s top four DVOA defenses while the Jets offense was riddled by injuries.
Let’s take a look at how the cookie crumbled for Darnold near the midway point of his rookie year.
Vikings 37, Jets 17. Darnold: 17 for 42, 206 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 interceptions (34.4 passer rating, 4.9 yards per attempt)
- The Vikings game was arguably Darnold’s only home outing of the season in which his performance could not be described as at least “solid”. His 40.5% completion rate and 4.9 yards per attempt both finished as season lows.
- While he didn’t receive much help against a formidable opponent, Darnold still struggled a lot in his own right. Over the first three quarters, outside of a drive in the first where he completed three straight passes for 72 yards and a touchdown, Darnold completed 5 of 19 passes for 14 yards. That’s 0.7 yards per attempt. Which. . . . isn’t very good.
- There were a few particular splits where Darnold really struggled in this one. Against zone coverage, Darnold completed 8 of 22 passes for 75 yards (3.4 per attempt) and only two first downs (9.1%). He also couldn’t get the downfield game going. Darnold’s average attempt distance against Minnesota was a season high 10.9 yards downfield. He attempted eight throws over 20 yards downfield, but only completed one of them.
- Darnold threw for only seven first downs. There was only one route that he picked up a first down on more than once, which was the out route. Darnold relied on the out route more than any other variety in this game, completing 3 of 7 for 39 yards and two firsts.
- In Darnold’s defense, he didn’t get much support in this one. Jets running backs picked up only 53 yards on 18 carries (2.9 per attempt). Darnold also suffered from four drops, which by my tracking was the highest single-game total for the Jets through that point of the season.
He had a handful of eye-popping throws, however. Sterling drops this pass, one of Darnold’s best throws of the afternoon.
Darnold also had this really nice dime to Trenton Cannon on the wheel route.
Bears 24, Jets 10. Darnold: 14 for 29, 153 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions (75.8 passer rating, 5.3 yards per attempt)
- The Jets were without both Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa in Week 8. As a result, Darnold had to go up against the league’s best defense on the road with a wide receiver group headlined by Jermaine Kearse, Andre Roberts, Charone Peake, and Deontay Burnett.
- Darnold wasn’t necessarily “good” in this game, but I thought he did just about all that he could given the circumstances. The Jets could not get anybody open in this game. There were many snaps where Darnold either had no options or could only try a tight-window throw a handful of yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The Bears had arguably the most talented defense in the league last year, and unsurprisingly, they absolutely clobbered the second-string Jets unit.
Here are a few examples of what a typical snap looked like in that game. (Soldier Field’s all-22 view can be tough to see, so I provided some very excellently drawn blue circles to help point out the blanketed Jets receivers.)
- A few numbers help showcase how much the Jets receivers struggled to separate in this game. The Bears broke up six passes that afternoon, a total that is 50% higher than their season average of 4.0, which was third-best in the NFL. Darnold was also forced to throw the ball away five times, which by my tracking was a season high to that point of the year.
- Darnold had some stark splits against the Bears. He did much better against man matchups than zone. He completed 10 of 14 attempts for 132 yards and seven first downs when throwing to receivers covered man-to-man. Against zone, he completed 4 of 10 passes for 21 yards and one first down. Darnold did a good job taking advantage of the rare 1-on-1 victories by his receivers, but could not buy a successful play underneath against zone coverages.
I wanted to point out a few trends I’ve noticed from Darnold over the games I’ve tracked so far.
So far, I’ve taken note that on a few different types of throws, Darnold has seen dramatic differences in production based on field side.
Darnold has had a substantially better deep game throwing to his left. On go, post, corner, fade, and wheel routes, here is a comparison of Darnold’s production by field side through eight games.
- Left: 14 for 26, 358 yards (13.8 Y/A), 13 first downs (50%), 7 touchdowns, 3 interceptions drop.
- Right: 4 for 18, 72 yards (4.0 Y/A), 4 first downs (22%), 1 touchdown, 1 interception
Additionally, Darnold has much more success throwing to his left on out-breaking routes toward the sideline. On out and comeback routes, here is a comparison of Darnold’s production by field side so far.
- Left: 13 for 17, 141 yards (8.3 Y/A), 7 first downs (41%)
- Right: 5 for 17, 51 yards (3.0 Y/A), 2 first downs (12%)
In contrast, Darnold has been more successful on in-breaking routes when throwing to his right. Here is a comparison of Darnold’s production by field side on slant and dig routes.
- Left: 7 for 16, 107 yards (6.7 Y/A), 5 first downs (31%), 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions
- Right: 14 for 23, 280 yards (12.2 Y/A), 12 first downs (52%), 1 touchdown, 1 interception
Is there meaning to these splits, or are they mere coincidence?
One theory that I think could be behind these numbers is the Robby Anderson factor. Just about all of Anderson’s deep production with Darnold through this point has been on the left side. Could the threat that Anderson provides on the left be opening up breaks toward the middle of the field for the right side?
Looking back at the Week 6 game against the Colts, it seems like this idea very much could have been in play. Jermaine Kearse feasted on slants from the right side, while Anderson consistently attracted help over the top on the left. With that game coming one week after Anderson roasted Denver with left side go routes, it makes sense that the Colts would be making it a point to avoid suffering the same fate the Broncos did.
I’m very curious to see if these trends hold up over Darnold’s next five games.
Here is a look at Darnold’s route type breakdown through his first eight games of 2018.