CLEVELAND – Sam Darnold met with Browns ownership and coaches prior to the NFL Draft. But Thursday night is the first time he will meet Gregg Williams’ defense.
The Browns' defensive coordinator is known for being aggressive and dialing up some of the most creative and exotic blitz packages to rattle even the savviest of quarterbacks.
In Weeks 1 and 2, Williams had the Browns attacking Super Bowl-winners Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees. They blitzed nearly 48 percent of the time, a number that was expected to go up against the 21-year-old Darnold, who was playing his third game in 11 days.
“He does a great job,” Todd Bowles said of Williams. “They disguise very well. They move around very well. They’re very fast. They have a great understanding of what they're doing and that makes it awfully difficult for an offense, and they've made it awfully difficult for people.”
Hungry is a word that’s been used often to describe the Browns and their defense, and it was expected Williams’ unit would try to feed off of Darnold’s inexperience. Williams usually has rookies overmatched, flummoxed and running for their lives.
Since 1997, starting rookie quarterbacks had a 13-28 record and a 69.1 passer rating against Williams’ teams. They were 4-18 on the road, with 10 touchdowns and 26 interceptions, and were sacked 51 times. Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith – the only other Jets rookie quarterbacks to start Week 1 – totaled one touchdown, five picks and were sacked nine times in their first games against Williams’ defense.
The challenge Darnold will face is sure to be immense as he tries to join some exclusive company by beating Williams’ defense on the road. But the quarterbacks who did it as rookies certainly weren’t elite: Vince Young, Trent Edwards, Colt McCoy and Josh Freeman.
This entire experience could help Darnold’s overall development, going against this defense and seeing so much in such a short time. Baker Mayfield, the quarterback the Browns selected first overall, is on the sideline watching Tyrod Taylor run Cleveland’s offense.
Darnold said he wasn’t thinking about what might have been or looking to show the Browns that they made a mistake by passing on him when he played in the stadium that many believed he would call home. Keeping away from premier pass rusher Myles Garrett and helping the Jets win were Darnold’s main concerns.
But a lot was riding on this game for both teams.
The 1-1 Jets, although they wouldn’t admit it, didn’t want to be the team to lose to the Browns. Cleveland (0-1-1) hadn’t won since Dec. 24, 2016 – a streak of 19 games. But the Browns have been knocking on the door and were looking to break it down against the Jets.
The Browns were favored for just the second time since 2015 after tying the Steelers and losing by three in New Orleans. Cleveland’s long national nightmare might have ended already had former kicker Zane Gonzalez not missed three field goals and two extra points in those games.
Darnold didn’t have much time to prepare for Williams’ defense, but he had resources to help him. Josh McCown has faced Williams’ teams many times, and cornerback Trumaine Johnson played for him with the Rams.
Establishing a run game that wasn’t there against the Dolphins would help keep the pressure off Darnold. But the Jets believe the best preparation for Darnold has been playing against the Bowles-Kacy Rodgers defense in practice.
They don’t have anyone like Garrett, but the Jets mix up coverages and try to give different looks to confuse a quarterback. Through two games, the Jets ranked fifth in total defense.
“He's seen it every day of the summer with our defense,” Bowles said. “He's seen it in the spring. It's not like he's going to see anything that he hasn't seen. They disguise well. He just has to play his game and the other ten guys on offense have to do their job.”
Darnold said, “It's definitely been helpful to be able to go against a defense that does some similar stuff.”
The Browns and Jets are not the Jaguars or Vikings, but Williams’ track record speaks for itself. He’s coached five top-five defenses, and seven in the top 10, and was the coordinator of the 2009 Saints' Super Bowl champions.
No team had blitzed more than the Browns, and their seven sacks were tied for fifth. Garrett is one of the quickest and most aggressive pass rushers in the league.
Darnold knew he had to prepare for the pressure. But he’s shown he’s a mobile quarterback who can roll either way and throw on the run.
“His guys are always ready to play every single game, they come out fiery,” Darnold said. “They bring pressures that sometimes no one has ever seen before.”