For three years, just grazing Sam Darnold’s non-contact jersey could have gotten a Jets defensive player kicked out of practice.
The protection rules change Sunday, when a clean, bone-jarring hit on Darnold — traded to the Panthers in April — will be celebrated on the Jets sideline.
“Any time you go against a quarterback that you played with, you get excited just because you actually get to hit him now,” linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “That’s the big picture. After you get past the former-teammate part, it’s just another opponent we have to get ready for.”
If only it were that simple.
NFL players are creatures of habit, and it is unusual for the Jets to be studying internal film of their own offense when scouting Darnold. Or to be going through mental notes they never expected to weaponize so soon, gained from recent training camps when the starters frequently practice head-to-head.
“We know we have to make him uncomfortable, get pressure in his face,” defensive lineman John Franklin-Myers said. “That’s what we plan on doing. Knocking people back, making sure he can’t see past us and he’s running around all game. He makes great plays on the run, so we have to pursue him and track the ball.”
Because all is fair in love and football, defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich has opened his game-planning to more voices than normal. Seven of the projected starters are former Darnold teammates, but only defensive linemen Quinnen Williams, Franklin-Myers and Foley Fatukasi plus safety Marcus Maye have significant head-to-head experience.
“They’ve definitely given insight as the week has gone along as far as what they felt like gave him trouble, what they felt like his strengths were,” Ulbrich said. “At the same time, I think you are going to see a different version of him from the standpoint of the [Panthers’] system is completely different than he ran here. I think it’s very conducive to the player that he is.”
On the same day the Jets traded Darnold, Maye posted a face-palm emoji to Twitter to suggest he thought it was a mistake. Or was it something else?
“I had a headache during that moment. That’s all it was,” Maye said dryly. “Sam is a friend. Obviously you don’t want to see anybody go, but it’s a business at the end of the day.”
Familiarity is a two-way street: Darnold can exploit what he knows about the Jets’ veteran personnel even though, like him, they are in a new system. To Darnold’s advantage, his big-play weapon, receiver Robby Anderson, is also a former Jet-turned-Panther, and their rapport is well-established.
The Jets’ youngsters Darnold doesn’t know — like starting rookie linebackers Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen, and almost an entirely new group of cornerbacks — likely won’t be involved in too many exotic disguises for fear of information overload.
“You have to maybe be simpler than you want to be,” Ulbrich said. “Let these guys execute at a high level and make sure that everybody is on the same page so that our technique, our physicality and our effort comes to life. You have to really fight the urge to make schematic answers to problems at times because, although it might be the right thing to do schematically, it’s not the right thing to do by the way of a young group.”
Limited preseason film of Darnold operating the Panthers’ offense at its most vanilla only is so helpful. Same goes for watching 2020 film of the Panthers’ playmakers when Teddy Bridgewater was the one distributing the ball. The answers might come from within.
“We turn on the film and watch our offense from last year for tendencies of what Sam can and can’t do,” Franklin-Myers said. “All we’re looking at is the quarterback in that case. It’s kind of weird, but it’s part of the game and you understand.”
One of the defining moments of Darnold’s three seasons with the Jets was when he was caught saying he was “seeing ghosts” — a football code for being flustered into expecting pressure to come from one place when it comes from another — in a 2019 game against the Patriots. The Jets won’t be looking for a haunting.
“The system is built [so that] we’re not a big ‘drop ends, drop tackles [in pass coverage]’ and do a lot of craziness with them,” Ulbrich said. “We train them really well at going forward. That’s usually conducive to good rushers, good edge-setters and good run defenders. Just let them eat.”