By Zach Braziller
Three targets, one short reception allowed and one noteworthy pass break-up near the goal line against a Pro Bowl tight end.
Even Sauce Gardner, the Jets’ confident rookie cornerback, didn’t expect such an impressive opener. He figured the Ravens would go after him, that he would be tested more and that he would allow a few more catches.
“It helped boost my confidence for sure,” Gardner said Friday after practice. “I’m not going to say I was thinking I was going to give up explosive plays, but I definitely didn’t think I was going to give up only [one reception], and it was a zone target to the flat. So it wasn’t anything. I didn’t expect that. I thought it was going to be much different.”
Instead, his first regular-season game as a Jet was similar to many of his games in college at Cincinnati: The opponent stayed away from him. The Ravens went after the Jets’ other starting cornerback, the far more accomplished D.J. Reed, who performed extremely well in his debut in green as well, producing an interception, forced fumble and no completions on six targets.
Afterward, Gardner even expressed his surprise to Lamar Jackson, Baltimore’s MVP quarterback, about how little the Ravens threw to his side. Jackson was familiar with Gardner’s work in college, tweeting in the lead-up to the draft that he hoped Gardner could somehow land in Baltimore.
“You had a good game,” Gardner, the fourth-overall pick from the 2022 draft, recalled Jackson telling him. He added: “That was cool.”
Jets teammates took notice of how well Gardner played. Safety Jordan Whitehead was impressed by his attention to detail and understanding of the defense. It was as if the young cornerback was a veteran already. Though Gardner was used to playing on the outside, the Jets used him in the slot to defend All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews on occasion. On one play, Gardner broke up a long pass intended for Andrews near the end zone.
“He played like a vet,” Whitehead said. “No complaints, he just lined up and got the call. I forgot he was a rookie. You didn’t even know he was a rookie out there. This guy was ready to play.”
It sometimes takes rookies time to adjust to the speed and intricacies of the NFL game. But things weren’t too fast for Gardner. In fact, he felt practice has been quicker. He seemed absolutely prepared for Week 1 after a strong training camp and preseason.
Gardner does expect teams to target him more in the coming weeks, particularly after how well Reed played opposite of him against the Ravens. He wouldn’t mind the Browns taking a different tack this Sunday.
“Who wouldn’t prefer to have interceptions and pass deflections and all that?” he said. “I’d rather have that. [Sunday’s game] was how it was in college. I would prefer to have games where I get targeted a lot and make a lot of plays than games where I’m not targeted at all.”
But it also showed the respect the Ravens had for Gardner. In his first game as a pro, a quality opponent felt better off staying away from him than challenging him.
“The fact it happened like that brought me back to reality, that football is football,” Gardner said. “These guys I’m playing against in the league, they all played college like me. They were all rookies at one point in time.”