The two primary questions leading up to the Jets-Dolphins contest at MetLife Stadium have been whether Sam Darnold can take a hit and how will Tua Tagovailoa respond after absorbing a blow. Both young signal-callers could be under center for their teams in the rivals' return engagement as the first meeting was a one-sided affair, a 24-0 'Fins shutout, on Oct. 18.
Much has changed in the past month, but the Jets remain without a victory. They are 0-10 for the first time in franchise history and with each passing day, they grow more weary of answering questions about their winless campaign to date. Conversely, the Dolphins have become media darlings of sorts, catching praise for a five-game win streak that vaulted their mark to 6-3. But the Jets have been more competitive the last two weeks, dropping one-possession contests to the Patriots and the Chargers, while the Dolphins had their good vibes hit a detour last week in the Mile High City during a 20-13 loss to the Broncos.
Still yet to taste collective success, the Jets offense has taken undeniable strides with Darnold on the sideline. And the primary reason for that is that Denzel Mims, Breshad Perriman and Jamison Crowder played together for the first times in Week 9 and 11 and the results were instantaneous – 17 receptions, 330 yards and 4 TDs. The outside combination of Perriman and Mims has been eye-popping with the former hauling in 7 balls for 155 yards and 3 TDs and the latter pitching in with 7 catches and 133 yards. A fifth-year veteran playing with his third team, Perriman is still burning defensive backs with his speed and the rookie is averaging 16.7 yards a pop and is only the seventh receiver in the last six seasons to start his career with four consecutive games of 40+ yards.
"Those guys have been producing the last couple weeks, so it's going to be nice playing with those guys and getting to play with them in a game," Darnold said.
While Jets backup Joe Flacco has played well in six of the past eight quarters, he and the entire offense struggled mightily against Miami's pressure packages and tight coverage in their clash in South Florida.
"I felt like there was a few times where we actually got behind them the first time we played them, we didn't hit them," said head coach Adam Gase. "Whether it was, we had pressure or we just mistimed the jump, we just have to make those plays. I thought Mims did a good job this last game — when we had some opportunities he went and got the ball. We had some tight coverage and we won on 50-50 balls. I thought BP (Perriman) getting that long touchdown was huge."
In four career outings against the 'Fins, Darnold has passed for 4 TDs and 8 INTs and he's been sacked 11 times. The Dolphins, No. 2 in third-down defense (33.9%), T3 in takeaways (17) and No. 4 in scoring defense (20.2 Pts/G), feature one of the NFL's top cornerback tandems in Xavien Howard (6 INTs) and Byron Jones while Nik Needham handles nickel chores.
"That can help Sam a lot, being able to stretch the field like that, but we have to make those plays," Gase said. "We have to understand when they're pressuring, we've got to get rid of the ball and we've got to make sure we do a good job on our protection schemes. It's a challenge for sure, but I do think Sam has grown a lot since especially last year when we saw the amount of zero (Cover 0) and pressures that we saw to where he sees things. It's like anything else, the more you see stuff the better you get at it."
The Jets didn't see much of Tagovailoa in Week 6, but they were there when the offensive reins were handed to him late in the fourth quarter. Following that relief appearance, Dolphins head coach Brian Flores named him the starter and Tagovailoa has gone 3-1 with 6 TDs and 0 INTs. Tagovailoa was neutralized last week in Denver, finishing with 83 yards passing and getting sacked 6 times before being replaced by Fitzpatrick.
"This is clearly a very talented player. He's played well," Flores said. "He's a developing player. We have a lot of confidence in him. That's why he's the starter."
Fitzpatrick added: "It's very clear this is Tua's team. There is no controversy. It's his team and he's going to continue to lead the team. We just have to all pull in the right direction."
Tagovailoa, who injured his left thumb Wednesday, was listed as questionable for Sunday after being limited throughout the week. Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said his unit has prepared for both Dolphins quarterbacks and they'll be ready if they see Fitzpatrick a second time.
The Dolphins need a victory or else their playoff hopes will dwindle further as December nears. And despite their current predicament, the Jets have not fragmented and they remain a motivated group heading into their 11th contest.
"We're playing better every week for us, but it hasn't been enough to get a win yet," said veteran guard Greg Van Roten. "That's the most frustrating part is we are improving, but we can't seem to find a way to finish a game."
It's been a frustrating season for Darnold and his teammates, but he's eager to finish the season on a high note.
"I just need to go out there and play my game, play smart but continue to play aggressive," he said. "Just balancing those two, obviously it's a fine line between playing too aggressive and playing smart. Just have to play my game and play smart out there."