If Sauce Gardner thought the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award he won last year sent a warning to the rest of the NFL about the perils of throwing in his direction, he learned otherwise in his only action of the 2023 preseason.
The Jets’ star was indignant on the sideline — as seen on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” — questioning why the Giants challenged him twice with deep passes to rookie Jalin Hyatt that fell incomplete.
Head coach Robert Saleh and teammate Quinnen Williams offered the same response: The targets will stop when the interceptions mount.
“I just said, ‘They’re right.’ I have to get more,” Gardner said after practice Saturday. “I’m looking forward to the season and having more opportunities like how the Giants gave me those. I have to make the most of them … [by] going up and attacking the ball.”
Gardner led the NFL with 20 passes defended last season: 18 incompletions and two interceptions.
He was graded as the league’s No. 1 cornerback by Pro Football Focus, which sets up a difficult encore.
“I’m just trying to dominate,” Gardner said. “They sky’s the limit for me. That’s how I feel. My teammates and coaches feel the same way about me. Anything that’s possible, I’m trying to achieve it.”
Three of the other four NFL players who totaled at least 16 passes defended last season had more than two interceptions, so there is room to improve.
“That’s why he’s special: He always knows there’s more, there is an envelope to continue pushing, there is a line to build, there is no ceiling,” Saleh said. “The great ones want to be coached, the great ones want to be challenged, the great ones want to know their flaws and what people are seeing on tape so they can fix it and get better. And he’s one of those.”
The Bills, who visit the Jets on Monday night in the season-opener, challenged Gardner on the first play of their first meeting last season.
The result was a 42-yard gain to Stefon Diggs that must have caught the scouting attention of Giants head coach Brian Daboll — a former Bills offensive coordinator.
“The Giants did the same play,” Gardner said, referencing the first preseason throw to Hyatt. “The very first play of the game, they ran exactly what Buffalo ran. I guess that was a learning curve. I had to see that twice. Usually I don’t make those type of mistakes, especially out of the gate. It was unexpected, but this year I’m always going to be ready.”
It’s especially wise to be on your toes versus Bills quarterback Josh Allen.
Though he had 71 touchdown passes over the last two seasons, Allen also had 29 interceptions, including seven in the red zone.
“He definitely takes a lot of chances, but he takes those chances because of the guys he’s got,” Gardner said. “Diggs, Gabe [Davis], they’ve got trust in each other. I don’t get too caught up in that because I know the type of great player [Allen] is. Especially the fact that he can extend plays — so it’s not just defending one play, you have to defend the next play.”
The double-edged sword is that the Jets want Gardner to force more takeaways, but they don’t want one of their best playmakers to be less involved as opponents look elsewhere.
“There are things that he’s going to ask, ‘Why?’ and our job is to give him an answer,” Saleh said. “But I love his mindset. I hope teams keep throwing it his way because the ball either ends up on the ground or I think this year it will end up in his hands.”
Gardner had nine interceptions in 37 games in college at Cincinnati, so it’s not a hands issue.
“Just having the mentality that when the ball is in the air, it’s my ball and I have to catch,” Gardner said. “Instead of having the mentality like, ‘Don’t let my man catch the ball.’
“That can be a blessing and a curse at times, but I have to find that sweet spot of when to go for the pass break-up and when to pick the ball off.”