FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The clock started ticking at 4:06 p.m. Sunday. As he walked off the field after losing to the Miami Dolphins, Sam Darnold digested the game and quickly turned his focus to the Cleveland Browns, knowing he'd have to cram on a short week.
A 100-hour week, to be exact -- from final gun in New Jersey to opening kickoff Thursday night in Cleveland. That's not a lot of time to prepare for the most un-vanilla defense in the NFL -- a blur of blitzing, stunting and deceiving madness, hatched from the diabolical mind of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
As the Education of Sam Darnold continues, this chapter is known as, "The Rush Job for The Rush Job." On Sunday evening, after some family time, Darnold joined backup quarterback Josh McCown at the Jets' facility to start breaking down Cleveland video. They worked well into the night.
"Yeah, it's a different challenge, something that I haven't necessarily dealt with," Darnold said of the quick turnaround. "But it's awesome."
In the first two weeks, Williams wasn't shy about unleashing his band of blitzers at a pair of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees, so you can bet he will delight in dialing up the pressure against a rookie. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Browns blitzed 40 times out of 84 dropbacks, a league-high 47.6 percentage -- and that number figures to climb against Darnold.
"I'd blitz him, too. I'd blitz our young guy," wide receiver Terrelle Pryor said. "But our young guy plays like a veteran."
Darnold displayed his high-ceiling potential in his first two starts, but this week is different because of the opponent's complex scheme and the time constraint. A quarterback typically gets 160 hours between starts, Sunday to Sunday. Darnold is getting only 63 percent of that allotment, easily the biggest challenge of his young career.
"They got to the quarterback last week against a guy like Drew Brees, a Hall of Famer -- on a long week," McCown said of the Browns. "They've proven they can get to the guy, regardless of the circumstances."
Brees's brain is like a computer and yet there were times where he seemed confused by Cleveland's pressure schemes. On a third-and-8, he called a protection that slid to his right, leaving his blind side exposed. In came linebacker Jamie Collins and safety Jabrill Peppers, both of whom were unblocked. They flushed the Saints' quarterback out of the pocket for an incomplete pass.
Later, on a third-and-6, Brees called out "51 and 22!" in his pre-snap signals, the numbers for Collins and Peppers, respectively. Presumably, he expected them to blitz. As it turned out, he was sacked by No. 38, nickelback T.J. Carrie, who came free.
Get the picture?
"Oh, it's coming, and it's coming from everywhere, with all kinds of stuff," said former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky, now an ESPN analyst. "Sam is going to see some stuff Thursday night that he’s never seen before. That’s going to be the challenge presented to him."
Orlovsky said the key to neutralizing a Williams-coached defense is figuring out a plan of attack. Do you max-protect or do you run your normal offense? Both approaches have a risk-reward factor.
If you protect the quarterback with extra blockers, you're reducing the number of targets in the passing game. If you stick to your normal game plan, it puts stress on the other players to make sight adjustments -- "hot" routes for the receivers and blitz pick-ups for the backs. Orlovsky said maybe offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates can use a no-huddle on certain third downs, preventing Williams from calling "those crazy, exotic, Star Wars-type blitzes."
For Darnold, it's important to stay cool and go with the flow, which seems to fit his laid-back personality.
"For Sam, the big thing is you can’t try to be perfect, because you’re not going to be," Orlovsky said. "You can fool yourself into thinking, from watching film and doing walk-throughs, 'OK, I've got it figured out, I know what they’re doing.' Then you get into the game and it happens incredibly fast, way faster than you experienced and you’re wrong.
"You’ve become overwhelmed by being right. You spend so much time at the line of scrimmage trying to be right with your protections that it’s a domino effect. Then you’re late on your reads, then you’re late on your ball and you make an incorrect decision or you don’t see the rotation in the secondary. The biggest thing for Sam is don’t be consumed by being right."
For a rookie, Darnold has demonstrated next-level thinking. He's made only two bad decisions, both of which resulted in interceptions by a safety. Surprisingly, he was blitzed only 11 times in the first two games, tied for 29th. Opponents have treated him like a savvy veteran even though he was the youngest opening-day starter in league history.
Williams, a mad scientist with a UFC mentality, will attack the kid with a variety of blitzes. It won't stop there. He has the ability to marry exotic blitzes with unique coverages. No, vanilla is not his favorite flavor. He might show a Tampa-2 coverage, with a random player dropping into the middle of the field between the two deep safeties.
"His guys are always ready to play every single game," Darnold said. "They come out fiery. At the same time, they bring pressure that sometimes no one has ever seen before."
It's not a fool-proof system, of course. The late Buddy Ryan, a defensive mastermind, used to say that somebody's band usually ends up playing after a blitz. For all their aggressiveness and deceptions, the Browns haven't been efficient when they rush five or more players, as quarterbacks have completed 24-of-35 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns -- a 108 passer rating.
"They'll leave people wide-ass open because they try to do so much," said wide receiver Jermaine Kearse, who described it as a "very unusual" defense that is difficult to prepare for.
Williams is relentless and shows no mercy. Orlovsky found out the hard way in 2011, when he replaced the Colts' starting quarterback in the fourth quarter of a 62-7 loss to the Saints. He figured Williams, then the New Orleans defensive coordinator, would call off the dogs. He figured wrong.
"He all-out, zero-blitzed me," Orlovsky said with a laugh. "That’s the kind of defensive coordinator he is. It’s gas down all the time. That’s what Sam is going to see."