Geno raised his arms in confidence. He’d just beaten the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in his first career start after teammate Nick Folk’s field goal cleared the uprights. This confidence, and borderline cockiness, was what made him successful in his debut. He was unshakeable. He was in command. He was in control. He was the respectable quarterback that the New York Jets had been missing, if only for one week.
Smith wasn’t supposed to play as well as he did in Week 1. A rookie out of West Virginia, he was criticized in the pre-draft process for letting plays develop too long, a kind way to say the lightbulb wasn’t always on upstairs. He wasn’t supposed to be ready to lead any team, let alone the Jets.
The Jets were in disarray during the preseason, lacking playmakers and losing expected starting quarterback Mark Sanchez in the third preseason game to a torn labrum. That put him out of commission for the time being and put Smith in business. And in Week 1, Smith handled his business.
He was in control of the offense. For the majority of the game, he knew where he was going with the ball. There were rookie mistakes here and there, but overall, he did surprisingly well. He went through his reads 1-2-3 and got the ball out quickly. When there was no one to throw to, he moved the pocket and extended plays with his feet. On one broken play, he made a heady move by scrambling instead of chucking the ball into the ground like most other quarterbacks do.
It was supposed to be a screen pass to running back Bilal Powell at the end of the third quarter. Once Smith caught the snap and dropped back from his already five yards deep shotgun set, he looked to the middle of the field, where two split-field safeties roamed, to sell the play. Then he looked to Powell, who faked a block on defensive end Adrian Clayborn before turning his attention to Smith for the pass. Only the block wasn’t sold well and took too long to execute, in turn allowing the Bucs defense to play down the line of scrimmage and into Smith’s vision. They crowded Powell and left no other targets for Smith throw to. The only escape route was through the backside, where an over-pursuing defensive end was supposed to be.
And so Smith took it, running to his left with the ball neatly tucked into his right arm. He ran diagonally toward the sideline before cutting straight downfield once he reached the 25-yard line. He scrambled eight yards and set up a manageable 3rd-and-1.
How many times have you seen Sanchez throw a boneheaded interception on a screen pass like that? Hell, just watch his Week 1 preseason game against the Detroit Lions, when he threw a pick-six to rookie defensive end and No. 5 overall pick Ezekiel Ansah on a screen pass. It’s about the little things, like making the simple decisions to keep the team alive.
Smith made some good decisions in the passing game when he actually did pass, too. He went through his reads and stuck the ball in tight windows when needed, while other times taking what he was given. The majority of the throws came in the middle of the field, where offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s offense is designed to attack and where Smith completed 13 of 19 passes, according to Pro Football Focus. One of the passes that stood out was on a shallow cross concept, a staple of Mornhinweg’s.
Smith was in shotgun with a running back and receiver at his sides. To his left was receiver Jeremy Kerley, who took one right step forward and shifted to the outside after a hand gesture from Smith. The shift created a three receiver “Trips” set to Smith’s far right. Each of the receivers in that set had specific routes they were to run.
The No. 1 receiver, furthest inside and closest to the offensive line, was to run a dig route that, if it was zone, would land him in the middle of the hashes. If man coverage, he’d continue to run laterally.
The No. 2 receiver, in between the No. 1 and No. 3 and the only one on the line of scrimmage, would run a corner route to the deep right. This was done to clear the defense out to that side, like on the far left of the field.
And the No. 3 receiver would run a shallow cross in front of the dig route and Smith.
Traditionally, Smith’s read would be shallow cross to dig. And when the play began, it appeared to be just that. Smith dropped back and only looked to the middle of the field, where two deep safeties played very wide of the hashes, creating room for the middle linebacker to run down the seam (or “pipe”) in their Tampa 2 zone coverage.
As he read the coverage, Smith went in reverse and hit the end of his drop. He needed to get the ball out of his hands because of the play’s design, one that is like other plays — it rhythmically syncs the feet and reads together. He hopped forward at the end of his drop and fired the ball past the crossing route and to the dig. That was Kerley, who pressed the middle linebacker vertically prior to sitting down in between the weak-side outside linebackers and strong-side nickel cornerback’s coverages.
Reading coverages and getting the ball out timely is what critics said Smith couldn’t do. And maybe he can’t over the long haul, but he did last Sunday and will have a chance to do it tonight against arch enemy Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, who will surely test Smith’s understanding of the game on a short week of preparation.
Belichick has long had success against rookie quarterbacks, never losing to one in his coaching lifetime. A big reason why is his confusing tactics. He throws many looks at the signal-caller, some true, some false, and that’s how he forces a decision. For Smith, the key will be to go through his reads and maintain composure. To give his team a shot, he’ll have to do what he did against the Bucs: extend plays and kept the team alive when it looks to be on life support, like he did on the final drive of the game.
A big 25-yard strike to tight end Kellen Winslow in the middle of the field and a subsequent 10-yard scramble to the right sideline put the Jets in position for a Nick Folk field goal. After slicing through the New York air, the kick sailed in between the uprights. Geno Smith was confident in the win.