FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The New York Jets had a good thing going. They had a formula, an identity. Run the ball, play great defense and wear down the opponent in the fourth quarter. It allowed them to win games — four in a row — by minimizing the quarterback position.
Then Sunday happened. Bill Belichick came to town, the Jets lost their way and Zach Wilson turned into an interception machine. To save the season and to avoid the postseason question that no one at One Jets Drive wants to confront (Time to draft another quarterback?), they have to make sure Wilson stays on his training wheels. And that’s on the coaches.
“He has to play better and we have to find ways to help him,” coach Robert Saleh said after Wilson’s three-interception nightmare against the New England Patriots — a 22-17 loss.
It certainly raises some questions when a player drafted as highly as Wilson (second overall, 2021) needs to be propped up, but you can’t lose sight of the fact that it was an enormous jump from BYU’s cushy-soft schedule to the NFL.
That’s a big-picture discussion. For now, the Jets (5-3), still in the thick of the AFC wild-card race, need to maximize his talent and coach around his shortcomings because a quarterback change isn’t happening, Saleh said Monday.
In his five games since returning from a preseason knee injury, Wilson’s completion percentage is 54.9 (ranks 32nd), and he has thrown three touchdowns and five interceptions.
Former NFL quarterback-turned-analyst Ryan Fitzpatrick, who started for the Jets in 2015 and 2016, said Sunday’s clunker could be “a nice wake-up call” for Wilson.
“He just has to get into a better flow now, understanding what the team needs from him,” Fitzpatrick said Tuesday on a Prime Video conference call. “Some of those wild throws off his back foot, the scrambles, this is a good enough team to where they don’t need that. … He has great mobility and a great arm, but he still has to learn how to play quarterback in the NFL.”
A few ways the Jets can help him, with data courtesy of NFL Next Gen Stats and ESPN Stats & Information:
• Balance is key: The run-pass ratio got skewed against the Patriots — 43 dropbacks, 15 runs — and it put too much pressure on Wilson. Saleh said it got out of whack because they were in catch-up mode in the fourth quarter, but they actually had twice as many passes as runs (25 to 12) through three quarters.
The loss of rookie running back Breece Hall (knee surgery), their best offensive player, probably influenced offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s playcalling. The offense ran through Hall during the four-game winning streak, and now he’s gone for the season. It will be difficult to replace his production, but they should be in better shape once newcomer James Robinson (five carries for 17 yards in his Jets debut) gets more comfortable with the offense.
• Shore up the pass protection: Wilson is catching major heat for his decision-making under duress — a valid criticism — but they can help him by, you know, blocking better. He was pressured on 16 of his dropbacks, the most he’s faced since Week 2 of the 2021 season (also against the Patriots). For the season, he’s had to evade pass-rushers on 33% of his dropbacks, the highest rate in the league.
Fill-in right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi (six pressures, one sack) struggled in his starting debut. George Fant and Max Mitchell won’t come off injured reserve until Week 11 at the earliest, so the Jets have to make do with the current personnel and find ways schematically to help him and the others.
Quite obviously, Wilson isn’t a good quarterback when under pressure — and that’s putting it kindly. His completion rate is 14.6% (6-for-41), the lowest for any quarterback since ESPN began tracking the stat in 2009. Four of his five interceptions, including all three Sunday, came under duress.
Four of the five, including two Sunday, came on third down. Wilson tends to press, trying to create something out of nothing. He “wants to prove his worth,” Saleh said. The team would gladly accept a bunch of nickel-and-dime checkdowns instead of an occasional $30 million highlight.
“There are always plays I’m going to want back,” Wilson said after the Patriots loss Sunday. “There are always things that happen and sometimes you sit there and you wonder, ‘Why did I just do that?’ kind of thing. But it’s part of football. You’ve got to move on.”
• More timely decisions: Wilson is a much better passer when he delivers the ball on time, but that doesn’t happen nearly enough. His average time to pass is a league-high 3.26 seconds. Some of that is due to inconsistent protection, forcing him from the pocket. But some of that is on him, holding the ball too long and drifting in the pocket. In certain situations, he needs to be quicker when reading coverage and processing information.
It’s a timing-based offense, and it throws everything out of sync when he doesn’t deliver the ball in the rhythm of the playcall. He’s a solid passer when he releases the ball in under 2.5 seconds — 40-of-52, 365 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception and a 93.8 passer rating. LaFleur’s challenge is to design a game plan that allows Wilson to play at a faster pace.
• More slants: This pass route is a staple of the West Coast offense, but the Jets don’t throw them that often. It happens to be one of the few routes in which Wilson shows a real proficiency. He’s 9-of-13 for 97 yards on slant routes. They have the right personnel, including big-bodied receivers Corey Davis (6-foot-3) and Denzel Mims (6-foot-3) and the shifty Elijah Moore. All three are capable of making yards after the catch on quick-hitting routes.
• More play-action passes: Again, this is another trademark of this offensive system, but the Jets don’t utilize it often enough. Wilson has attempted 40 passes off play-action, 102 with no play-action. He’s more efficient when throwing play-action passes, averaging 8.9 yards per attempt compared to 6.8 on others. It’s also worth noting that four interceptions came on non-play-action passes.
With the Jets’ ability to run the ball, the play-action should create huge passing windows for Wilson. The bigger, the better, considering his accuracy issues.
The Jets need to get Wilson fixed — and fast — because they have an unexpected opportunity to make a playoff run. There’s a win-now mentality in the locker room. As center Connor McGovern said, “This is the time. It doesn’t feel like a rebuild anymore.” Which could create a conundrum for Saleh if Wilson’s turnovers continue.
Saleh is confident the team can re-discover its winning formula, and he believes Wilson will be a big part of that.
“The guy is 4-1 coming back as a starter, and he does have a lot to do with that — avoiding all the sacks, being able to throw away the ball, keeping us on track, keeping us on schedule,” Saleh said. “There’s a lot of things that don’t blow up the stat page, but from a coaching standpoint, there’s a lot of things that he’s done to keep us at least from imploding.”
Well, except for Sunday.