Zach Wilson Showed Promise in First Start Back Since Knee Injury

Zach Wilson had a disastrous rookie season. In the first game of his sophomore season, he showed necessary growth and room to improve.

Zach Wilson’s rookie season was reminiscent of a Jordan Peele film. You knew things were going poorly throughout the plot, and there were multiple twists and turns throughout. However, while Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a gory slasher and Saw is a torturous psychological thriller, Peele finds a way to make the audience overwhelmingly uncomfortable.

And that was the theme of Wilson’s rookie season; uncomfortable.

His uncomfortability in the pocket led to mass accuracy issues. Wilson was dropping his eyes to the rush and not properly going through his progressions. And while his environment was underwhelming, he underachieved relative to those surroundings.

While the box score from his first start back from his knee injury was ugly, Wilson’s film had some very bright spots and showed where he still needs to grow.

Zach Wilson’s first 2022 start

The New York Jets aren’t a great football team. Still, they head into Week 5 with an even 2-2 record along with 14 other teams in the NFL standings, and Wilson’s arm is a big reason for the team’s go-ahead touchdown drive against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week.

Wilson was only 18 of 36 for the game, with a touchdown and two interceptions. Wilson is a gunslinger. His carefree playmaking nature had folks comping him to Patrick Mahomes as a draft prospect. And while that narrative was always insane, there was no denying his big-play ability.

And that effortless arm of his was on full display against the Steelers.

Dusting the Cobwebs Off the Rifle

Wilson makes that throw look routine, but it was anything but. While he isn’t flat-footed here, Wilson doesn’t have the chance to put everything he has into this throw. But the entire process here was good. His eyes held Minkah Fitzpatrick in the middle of the field long enough, and his rapport with Elijah Moore is on full display here.

That pass was thrown very, very early. Wilson had to throw with a ton of anticipation here to have any hopes of completing this comeback. He has to have complete trust in where Moore will be as well. The football is well out of his hand as Moore reaches the top of his route.

Wilson made this throw early in the game, piquing my interest for the rest of the contest.

The above throw may have been his most impressive of the night. While Wilson’s eyes are still inconsistent (we’ll get to that), he does an excellent job here of not making his intentions known until he was ready to deliver the football. The young QB could have easily gotten his eyes to the “dig” route early, which would have brought Devin Bush over earlier and eliminated the window.

But the placement of the pass and the velocity it took to fit that pass in there is the real 500-level stuff. If the pass is thrown any further inside, Bush has a chance to make a play on it. And throwing it low makes it harder on Bush to make a play on the ball as well.

Wilson went 6 of 6 on the final drive, although one completion was called back due to a block in the back penalty. The urgency of the drive could be part of the reason he had success in it.

It’s purely speculative, but some young quarterbacks are more comfortable in these do-or-die situations because they don’t necessarily have to worry about the consequences of a poor decision. Some quarterbacks — Wilson included — can show gunshy tendencies. Their indecision can be crippling and lead to late decisions, which often end poorly.

This 4th-and-7 throw from the previous drive is an example of that. Wilson holds the safety in the middle and delivers a laser beam with absolutely zero flinch in his decision.

Zach Wilson Looked More Comfortable in the Pocket

Last season, Wilson was sacked 44 times in 13 games. The Steelers have never been shy about bringing pressure, and Wilson was under siege often in his 2022 debut.

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But unlike a season ago, where he’d drop his eyes and try creating something out of nothing, Wilson was far more in command of his action in Game 1. He didn’t always make the correct decision and didn’t always keep his eyes up, but Wilson didn’t allow a consistently collapsing pocket to get him out of rhythm or too uncomfortable, which is the most significant growth we needed to see from him in Year 2.

Area of Improvement for Zach Wilson

Wilson looked excellent when he was able to work in rhythm. However, getting past his first read is still an issue. And while he’s improving with his eyes, he still struggles with locking on to his first read. It almost swung a touchdown into a pick-six in the low red zone.

Learning to Lie With the Eyes

Minkah Fitzpatrick is a psycho. He’s playing out of his ever-loving mind so far in 2022. And on this play, Fitzpatrick almost took it 96 yards to the house. If he had committed a bit more, he would have.

But Wilson’s eyes took him there the entire way. Outside of the red zone, Wilson pretty consistently held Fitzpatrick in center field, at least initially.

Making Snappier Decisions

Most young quarterbacks have to work on that whole locking onto the first read thing. However, some situations don’t make much sense to struggle in. How the heck does a professional QB get stuck on an initial read backside of a 3×1 read against Cover 3, as Wilson does in the following clip?

Eye manipulation and progressing through reads on certain concepts versus certain looks are growing pains that we deal with in young quarterbacks. But what happens in the above video probably had Wilson’s personal QB coach (the team’s QB coach), Mike LaFleur, and Robert Saleh throwing Microsoft Surface tablets like they were Tom Brady.

Let me explain why this is so egregious. Cover 3 as it’s shown above by the Steelers is as basic as it gets. In fact, it’s so simple that most high school teams refuse to run it at this point against teams that can actually throw the football. And one of the first reads a QB is taught is the cornerback-to-slot read in a slant-flat or curl-flat combination.

In no world was that hitch ever going to be an option. The millisecond Wilson sees the backer drop into the flat, he must come off that and move to Tyler Conklin, who had sat down between the hashes in first-down territory.

Figuring Out the Fine Line of Risk vs. Reward

Wilson’s first interception was a bad decision. His second interception was thrown a bit too high and Conklin tipped it up for an interception. Unfortunately, Wilson could have also thrown two more.

One was a fine decision, but the ball was thrown behind Garrett Wilson, which was the only place that Zach Wilson could not put the ball. Luckily, his receiver stuck his hand up and knocked the pass down.

The second one was a really bad decision.

Young man, just throw this one to the benches. Don’t let this pass even see the light of day.

Wilson made mistakes in his first game back, but the positive parts of the game Sunday should provide the hope that he can iron out his issues. His newfound comfort in the pocket and improved ball placement should provide some hope in his ability to progress his shortcomings.

With no shortage of weapons surrounding him, there’s no doubt we’ll get a good picture of whether Wilson can or cannot be the guy going forward after 13 more regular-season games.

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