Detroit New reporters Justin Rogers and John Niyo talk about the Lions' season-opening matchup with the New York Jets. Justin Rogers and John Niyo, The Detroit News
LIONS VS. JETS
Kickoff: 7:10 p.m. Monday, Ford Field, Detroit
TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760
Line: Lions by 6.5
View from the other side
Andy Vasquez, who covers the New York Jets for The Record, breaks down the matchup for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Monday night's game with the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. You can follow him on Twitter at @andy_vasquez.
1. The Lions know a thing or two about starting a baby-faced rookie quarterback and it wasn't pretty Matthew Stafford's first year. What are reasonable expectations for Sam Darnold in this game and for his rookie campaign?
Vasquez: Well, contrary to some of the things you might have read or heard about Darnold, he hasn’t played like Joe Montana's and Tom Brady’s quarterback love child. To expect him to go out there and light the league on fire on Day 1 is not reasonable.
But, Darnold doesn’t look like a typical rookie quarterback, either. I’ve never seen him looking confused or overwhelmed. Miscommunications are rare. He’s been steady and consistent and didn’t make an egregious error during the preseason. He has a knack for sensing pressure and the speed/elusiveness to get away from it.
Basically, he plays like a competent, middle-of-the-road starting NFL quarterback. (Pretty good, because at 21 years and 97 days he’s about to become the youngest Week 1 starting quarterback since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.)
So that’s what you can expect out of Darnold on Monday night and for the rest of the year: steadiness. He’s not yet good enough to single-handedly win games, but he’s capable of making big plays. And when he makes his inevitable rookie mistakes, he doesn’t seem like a guy who will be shaken up by it.
2. The Jets defense is loaded with young, exciting talent at all three levels. What's the biggest concern/weakness heading into this matchup with the Lions?
Vasquez: The outside linebackers. The Jets haven’t had a legitimate edge-rushing threat since John Abraham was traded away in 2005 and they don’t have one on this roster. Jordan Jenkins is a strong run stopper, and has improved in coverage, but hasn’t found consistent success getting to the quarterback. Josh Martin, the other starting outside linebacker, may not play as he deals with a concussion -- he suffered it in the third preseason game and hasn’t practiced since. The Jets’ only other outside linebacker is a former Lion, Brandon Copeland, who is solid, but not scaring any quarterbacks.
Expect the Jets to take some risks to offset this weakness. You might even see safety Jamal Adams frequently line up near the line of scrimmage. But those risks, of course, will leave the defense vulnerable to some big plays -- especially if the Jets can’t put pressure on Matthew Stafford.
3. With Jeremy Bates taking over as offensive coordinator, what notable changes are you expecting with the team's play-calling?
Vasquez: One of the reasons the Jets moved on from John Morton, despite a surprisingly productive 2017, is the Jets didn’t rely on the run enough — and that rubbed a lot of players the wrong way. So expect the Jets to run the ball more this season, especially with a rookie quarterback.
Beyond that, I wouldn’t expect the play calling to change all that much. Bates was heavily involved with the offense last year, and will employ a similar West Coast system. He seems to have a better perspective than when he was last an offensive coordinator in Seattle (2010), when he got fired after one season. Bates eventually took a several-year hiatus from football, which included him walking the Continental Divide Trail from New Mexico to Canada.
Bates said that harrowing journey helped him be less hard on himself and more positive. Will it make him better at calling plays? We’re about to find out.
4. One of my favorite players in this recent draft class was Nathan Shepherd, out of little known Fort Hays State. The offseason reports have been promising. Do you believe he can make the jump from small school standout to NFL contributor in his first year?
Vasquez: Well, the Jets believe it, because Shepherd will be starting at defensive end on Monday night at Ford Field. It’s just the latest step in a remarkable journey that included him working odd jobs -- as a bouncer, in a plant nursery and electrical construction -- to save up enough money so he could go back to college and pursue his football dream.
At 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, he has the size, strength and quickness to be an immediate contributor. He held his own in the preseason, impressed coach Todd Bowles -- who does not give out compliments easily.
There will be mistakes, especially early, as he makes the massive leap from Division II to the NFL. But I believe by the end of the season he can be a major contributor to the defense.
5. The Jets will win this game if?
Vasquez: They get pressure on Matthew Stafford and can avoid a game-changing mistake from Darnold.
Darold is competent, but probably not ready to go out and hang 30 points on the Lions in his NFL debut. If he can avoid giving the Lions free points, the Jets should be able to stay in this game.
But if they’re going to win, they’ll need the defense to carry them through the finish. The Jets don’t have a ton of proven pass rushers outside of Leonard Williams. But expect Todd Bowles to take some risks with blitzes and uncommon defensive schemes to get to the quarterback. If it works, it could disrupt the Lions’ offense enough for the Jets to get out of Detroit with a win.
Score prediction: Lions 24, Jets 20
Jets to watch
■ Sam Darnold, QB: The youngest quarterback to make his debut since the league's 1970 merger, Darnold showed above-average pocket presence and accuracy during the preseason, completing better than 64 percent of his throws. Lions coach Matt Patricia has raved about the USC product’s ability to throw on the move, whether he’s rolling to his left or his right, and Darnold is aided by a trio of underrated wideouts and an excellent receiving back in Bilal Powell.
■ Jamal Adams, S: A top-10 pick last season, Adams certainly looks the part at 6-foot-1, 222 pounds. He did a nice job racking up the tackles as a rookie, but the splash plays have lagged behind. He recorded just two sacks, one forced fumble and no interceptions. You can expect to see a jump in performance in his second season, likely including more aggressive use as a blitzer. The Lions won’t want to lose track of where Adams lines up throughout the night.
■ Leonard Williams, DL: The Jets don’t have a legit pass-rushing threat on the outside, but Williams can be a load to handle in the middle. He generated more than 40 quarterback pressures last season and will likely line up across rookie guard Frank Ragnow much of the night. Keeping Matthew Stafford's pocket clean starts with limiting Williams' push.