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Inside look at Sam Darnold's start: Early trends, warning signs

After a mini-bye, it will be interesting to see how Sam Darnold and the Jets adjust their offense. Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Nobody is harder on Sam Darnold than Sam Darnold, who insisted upon returning from the New York Jets' mini-bye, "I have to be better. I have to execute better."

After a wildly successful debut, Darnold has regressed into a mini-slump -- a two-game losing streak that includes four interceptions. It's hardly cause for panic. After all, he began his career by starting three games in 11 days, something no rookie quarterback had ever done. So, yes, perspective is important.

At the same time, trends are developing and a picture is forming. With a hat tip to author James Joyce, let's call this, "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Quarterback" -- an inside look at how Darnold has fared in specific situations (with research help from ESPN Stats & Information):

Outside the pocket: 52.8 passer rating (26th)

This is Darnold's bread and butter, which is why offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates has called so many designed rollouts. In fact, Darnold has thrown more passes outside the pocket (24) than any quarterback in the league. Next closest are Aaron Rodgers (18) and Patrick Mahomes (18). Clearly, Darnold has a lot of room to grow in terms of efficiency.

Opponents seem to be ready for the bootleg pass, a staple in the Bates offense, which probably explains why he went to a misdirection play against the Cleveland Browns -- the 'ol bootleg throwback. Yep, the same play that resulted in a pick-six against the Detroit Lions. This time, it was completed for an 8-yard loss. It might be time to retire the throwback.

But, seriously: Bates needs to find creative ways to take advantage of Darnold's strength, which is throwing on the move. At times, he's on the move because he's under pressure.

"He's bailing out too fast," said a longtime quarterbacks coach, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "He has to learn to be a pocket passer. He has to learn how to get hit and deliver the ball."

First down: 34.5 passer rating (32nd)

This is a bit troubling because quarterbacks usually get vanilla looks on first down as defenses don't want to overcommit to the run or the pass. It's not like third down, when exotic blitzes come into play.

Clearly, Darnold has encountered some hiccups, as three of his five interceptions have occurred on first down. The playcalling last week was conservative, as the Jets ran on 15 of their first 21 plays on first down. That's too predictable, and they'll have to loosen up this week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have the ability to smother a one-dimensional offense. As the body of work grows, Bates will have a better understanding of Darnold's strengths and weakness and can adjust his game plans accordingly.

Empty backfield: 101.6 passer rating (eighth)

Darnold has looked comfortable in the empty formation, with the running back split out. A young quarterback can benefit from this kind of spread look because it helps to identify what the defense is trying to do. It's harder for the defense to disguise because it's spread thin across the field. He acknowledged this is an area where he needs to improve, so it makes sense to use more empty looks (only 16 pass attempts).

"I just have to be better with my reads and understanding what the defense is doing, and just be better be a better quarterback," he said.

The downside is that it leaves only five in pass protection, making them vulnerable to blitzes. That puts the onus on the quarterback to make quick reads and deliver on "hot" routes.

Play-action: 55.8 passer rating (30th)

The Jets have enjoyed stretches of productive running, which should create opportunities for play-action passing. There should be gaps in pass coverage, caused by linebackers overplaying the run. That hasn't happened. If it has, Darnold hasn't capitalized on it. For the Jets to be a balanced offense that feeds off the running game, this is an area that must improve.

Screens: 110.1 passer rating (sixth)

Don't snicker; there's a definite skill to screen passes, which require precise timing and ball placement. And it also helps having receivers who can make yards after the catch.

Eight-man box: No rating

Darnold has yet to attempt a pass against a loaded front, which is hard to believe. The stats say the Jets have faced an eight-man front on 13 plays -- and they've run the ball every time. With man-to-man coverage on the outside, the situation screams for a pass. It's up to the quarterback to recognize the situation and adjust. Darnold is young; eventually he'll figure it out.

"Most of the things I did wrong the last three games are very correctable," he said. "And that's a good thing."