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Behind Enemy Lines: Sam Darnold has caught fire during winning streak

We caught up with MacGregor Wells of Gang Green Nation to get his perspective on the Bengals and Jets matchup.

Oakland Raiders v New York Jets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The Bengals and Jets will be meeting on Sunday in Cincinnati, so it seemed like the perfect chance for us to catch up with MacGregor Well of Gang Green Nation. We talked about Sam Darnold’s return, how the Jets have rebounded from their loss to the Dolphins and got his prediction for the game.

Patrick Judis: The Jets have been on a three game run since losing to the Dolphins. Has it been a matter of facing a softer schedule, or has this team finally started clicking?

MacGregor Wells: I think it’s been a combination of both things. During the current run the Jets have beaten the 2-9 Giants, the 2-9 Redskins and the 6-5 Raiders. The Giants and the Redskins were weak opponents. The Raiders were tougher, but the Jets happened to match up well with them. The Raiders rely on their running game on offense, and the Jets have the best run defense in the NFL. The Jets can’t run the ball on offense and rely on the passing attack, and the Raiders have a poor pass defense. In addition, it was an early game on the east coast for the Raiders, always a tough thing for a west coast team.

However, in addition to the easier schedule, the Jets have definitely raised their game. In particular, after a rough start to the year, including a bout with mononucleosis, second year quarterback Sam Darnold is starting to look like the quarterback the Jets thought they were getting when they drafted him with the 3rd overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft. In addition, the Jets defense has been playing very well of late. The Jets have the best run defense in the NFL, but the pass defense had been terrible earlier in the season. Ironically, it took injuries to the two starting outside cornerbacks to raise the level of the pass defense. Backup cornerbacks Blessuan Austin and Arthur Maulet have been a substantial upgrade to the injured starters Trumaine Johnson and Darryl Roberts. The big improvement in cornerback play has transformed this defense from a decent unit vulnerable to the pass into a good, balanced unit which can compete with most NFL offenses. The Jets now look like an average-ish NFL team rather than the awful team they looked like in the first half of the year.

PJ: New York was without Sam Darnold for a good chunk of the season. How has he looked, and how much has having him back in the lineup helped this team’s performance?

MW: Sam Darnold faced a string of really tough defenses earlier in the year which made him look bad. His three game absence due to mono didn’t help any, and the Jets offense ground to a standstill with weak armed rookie backup quarterback Luke Falk under center. Falk had no business starting games in the NFL, and the Jets offense was helpless with Falk calling signals. Since Darnold’s return from mono the Jets offense has looked markedly better. The last three games in particular have been promising, as Darnold has taken full advantage of some weak pass defenses to showcase the skills that lead to him being drafted 3rd overall. Darnold has been outstanding over the last three games, throwing 7 touchdown passes and just one interception over that stretch. He has produced an aggregate passer rating over 110 in those three games and has lead a Jets offense that has finally looked good after a long stretch in which they were arguably the worst offense in the NFL. Perhaps most significant is that Darnold has started to improve in his decision making. He has been avoiding the multiple terrible decisions that lead to turnovers in each game earlier in the year. Darnold is a playmaker, but if he can’t find a way to temper his aggressive nature with sound judgment he will not fulfill his potential in the NFL. Recent games have given Jets fans hope that Darnold is starting to mature into that role. The next step will be to see if he can have success against more challenging NFL defenses, but he has at least shown that he is now capable of dominating poor NFL defenses.

PJ: The Jets weren’t shy about making splashes in free agency this offseason. Who has been your favorite acquisition and least favorite?

MW: The Jets spent freely and unwisely in free agency this year, spending more money than any team in NFL history. It obviously has not worked out. It rarely does when you try to build an NFL team through free agency.

I would say three free agent acquisitions have looked pretty good for the Jets. C.J. Mosley was over paid when the Jets gave him the richest inside linebacker contract in NFL history, and he has been injured all year, so that seems disastrous. But when he was on the field in pre-season and in the first game of the year he was clearly a difference maker for the Jets defense. I am eager to see what he can do when he is healthy, and while he will never likely live up to his obscene contract, I think he will be a very valuable member of the Jets defense for years to come. Slot receiver Jamison Crowder has performed admirably in the slot and has quickly become Darnold’s favorite receiver. He’s on his way to a career year and possibly 1000 yards; I think the Jets got good value there. Le’Veon Bell is over paid, and his numbers have taken a hit behind the Jets terrible offensive line, but in my opinion he has been every bit the back he was in Pittsburgh, it’s just that the team surrounding him is so much worse. He has been good on and off the field and I’m happy to have him, though he’ll never live up to his exorbitant contract.

My least favorite free agent acquisition for the Jets in 2019 is center Ryan Kalil. A former star center for the Panthers for many years, Kalil was signed out of retirement, and he probably should have stayed retired. Kalil was atrocious when he played and dragged the entire Jets offensive line with him. With Kalil calling the protections the Jets line was helpless, never seeming to have the right protections in place, failing miserably to pick up blitzes and stunts, and never giving the quarterback time to operate. He is now out for the year with an injury, and it is not a coincidence that in his absence the Jets line has finally started to look competent. The Kalil signing has been an unmitigated disaster.

PJ: Is there a player you don’t feel gets enough recognition that you’d like to make sure Bengals’ fans know about?

MW: The guy to watch is defensive lineman Folorunso Fatukasi. A sixth round draft pick of the Jets in 2018, Fatukasi barely saw the field last year. In 2019, however, Fatukasi has emerged as one of the best interior defensive lineman in the NFL. He lives in opponents’ backfields, spearheading the Jets top run defense. Outside of Jets fans I suspect most football fans have never heard of Fatukasi. He’s a guy that, if he continues his high level of play, will soon begin to get the recognition around the league that he deserves.

PJ: What is your prediction for the game?

MW: Well, the Jets have been punching bags for Andy Dalton over the years, and it looks like Dalton will be back in the starting lineup this week, so that gives me some concern. But I think in the end the Bengals will not be able to run against the Jets, and I’m not convinced the Bengals passing attack can carry the day when the running game is not there. I think Sam Darnold will continue his hot streak against a vulnerable Bengals pass defense.

Final score: Jets 24, Bengals 17.

Thanks again to MacGregor Wells. If you’d like to see more of his work or Jets’ coverage you can check it out at Gang Green Nation.