How Patriots defense forced Sam Darnold into seeing ghosts

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — “I’m seeing ghosts.” -Sam Darnold, Oct. 21, 2019

The Jets second-year quarterback was not watching a Halloween movie, he was playing in an NFL game against the Patriots defense. And unfortunately for him, his comments were aired on ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast during the first quarter since he was mic’d up for the network.

Darnold and the Jets offense started the game with turnovers on three of their first four possessions, including two really poor interceptions.

“Ohh, he did? Ohh man, that is the boogeyman. It’s real,” Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy said when he learned of Darnold’s comments, referring to the nickname he’s given to the Patriots defense.

Added Van Noy: “Sorry, sorry, he really said that? Oh man. That is crazy for him to say that. That makes it real, you know what I am saying? That’s crazy.”

It was a game Darnold would rather forget, as he finished 11-for-32 passing with 86 yards, four interceptions and a fumble for a quarterback rating of 3.6. It was the lowest quarterback rating against the Patriots defense in the Bill Belichick era. And for context, when the Patriots beat the Titans 59-0 in 2009, Kerry Collins threw for -7 yards and still had a quarterback rating of 4.9.

So, how did the Patriots confuse the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week so much?

They did a bunch of different stuff before the snap that had Darnold confused about where everyone would be, and also put constant pressure on the No. 3 overall pick.

“Like I said, they were throwing it up,” cornerback Stephon Gilmore said. “We knew there was going to be opportunities. We just had to make him pay anytime he threw it up.”

On some plays, the defense showed an all-out blitz, but then would drop a player into coverage at the last second, forcing a quick and sometimes poor throw. Other times the Patriots brought all seven players and Darnold, along with the offensive line, failed to protect it. In addition, the safeties played mind games wth him by giving both single-high and two-high safety looks pre-snap, which made it extremely difficult for Darnold to know what he was going up against.

It probably didn’t help matters that the Patriots defense seemed motivated by Darnold’s comments during the week about finding the weakness in the unit. It was even featured in a video tweeted out by the official Patriots Twitter account before the game of Devin McCourty getting the unit fired up.

“We did a really good job tonight,” Van Noy said. “He was trying to find our weakness and we just kept trying to play to our strengths and he kept trying to find our weakness and we kept playing to our strengths.”

As a whole offense, the Jets finished with 154 net yards and were 2-for-11 on third down.

“For us, it’s getting off on third down and turning the football over,” McCourty said. “That gets us fired up because when you can do that, you’re going to frustrate any team. You can go out there and get turnovers, make them go three-and-out and get off the field. Listen, we’ve got one of the best offenses in the last 10 years that I’ve been here. If we can keep getting them on the field with four, five or six turnovers, that’s going to make a difference in a game.

“I think we feed off of having the opportunity of getting them the ball back and them going to make plays. We make a couple plays on our own and get in control of the game. If we can make it one-dimensional and make it a passing game, then we can really start doing what we love to do.”

Following the four-interception performance Monday, the unit is up to 18 on the year —  the same number it had all of last year. To put that in perspective, the Panthers have the second-most interceptions in the league and they have eight. The New England defense is on pace to finish the year with 41 interceptions. The most interceptions in the modern era is the 1986 49ers, who had 39. In addition, the 18 interceptions through the first seven games are the most since the 1996 Packers had 20.

“It sucks,” said Darnold. “Obviously, that first pick, it wasn’t a good feeling and right there, that’s one I’d like to have back because if I don’t throw that I feel like it is a different game. It’s easy to say after a loss like that, but I’ve just got to play a lot better.”

While Darnold was the Patriots defense’s latest victim, he certainly wasn’t the only quarterback to have issues against them this year, and he won’t be the last.