The New York Jets and their rookie quarterback ran into perhaps the NFL's top defense Sunday and they struggled to gain any traction early. Bolstered by a pair of takeaways deep in plus-territory in the second half, Sam Darnold and the Jets had three scores and very nearly made things quite interesting down the stretch.
Relying on mostly short balls through the season's opening quarter, Darnold dialed long distance in a 25-12 contest, and he had a streaking Robby Anderson open for a would-be score. But he overthrew his target and the Jets' chances evaporated.
"He beat the guy pretty good and we just have to execute," Darnold said. "Throw and catch."
Earlier in the fourth quarter, Darnold got the Jets into the end zone with a rope to TE Jordan Leggett. That 2-yard score was set up by Avery Williamson's forced fumble and Trumaine Johnson's subsequent recovery and return, giving the offense a chance from the Jacksonville 5.
Nothing was easy Sunday as the Jaguars swarmed all over the field on a sweltering afternoon. Even after the defense gave Darnold and the offense the ball at the Jacksonville 23 following a Darryl Roberts interception, the Jets were only able to settle for a field goal.
Prior to a Jason Myers 27-yard chip shot, you saw a microcosm of Darnold in a couple of plays. The gifted rookie bought some time on a third down and threw a sideline laser for a conversion to Jermaine Kearse. But then inside the 10, the USC product failed to see A.J. Bouye and the veteran corner jumped a pass intended for Quincy Enunwa and probably should have taken the ball the other way for a 90+ yard touchdown.
"I think sometimes we just have to make the plays that are there," Darnold said "I have to make the throw and not think too much. Just take what they give me and we'll start to find completions and start getting into a rhythm."
The Jets had some chances in the opening half. On a third-and-1 from the Jacksonville 49, Darnold narrowly missed an open Bilal Powell down the field on what would have been a chunk gain. And it was a similar script on fourth down as Darnold went down the middle to Enunwa and the veteran was unable to corral a pass that would have put the visitors inside the red zone.
"The one to BP, there's no excuse for that one," Darnold said. "I just have to put it on him. We just have to execute those when they're there in general - the one to Q, the one to BP and even the one to a Robby."
Attempting 14 passes in the first two quarters, Darnold completed nine attempts for 76 yards and was sacked a pair of times. Trailing just 6-0, the Jets appeared to get a spark they desperately needed when Darnold threw a vertical pass to Chris Herndon and the rookie tight end made a circus reception. But the 33-yard connection that would have put the Jets all the way to the 13 was negated because of an Eric Tomlinson hold.
The Jets weren't able to extend drives, converting just 1-of-5 on third downs over the first 30 minutes, and they went into intermission down 16-0. When the offense took the field to start the third quarter, they were in the shadow of their own end zone and were greeted with a safety when defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Marcell Dareus stopped Isaiah Crowell in the end zone.
Down 25-3 in the third quarter, Darnold was sacked a third time. Safety Barry Church got to him early and then Jaguars rookie DL Taven Bryan landed a late shot up by his head. However, Darnold shook it off and kept fighting, leading the visitors to another field goal after a 46-yard pitch-and-catch to Enuwna.
"For me, it's about winning every single game," said Darnold, who was 17 for 34 for 167 yards with the TD. "I do look at this as a process - me coming in here as a rookie and learning all that. But once I get out there on the field in a game, I want to win. There's nothing else that I'm thinking about."