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Zach Wilson’s Week 1 film: An encouraging NY Jets’ silver lining

Zach Wilson, NY Jets, Carolina Panthers
Zach Wilson, NY Jets, Carolina Panthers, Jet X Graphic, Getty Images

Zach Wilson’s film shows a young quarterback overflowing with potential

Results-driven folks have to be upset. The first game of the much-hyped Robert Saleh and Zach Wilson era ended in a loss.

Making matters worse, it was a loss captained by ex-New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, who was traded in the offseason after three years of play that didn’t live up to his draft slot.

On Sunday, the former No. 3 overall pick scored a couple of touchdowns and put up a good statistical performance – which impresses the people who only check the box score after the game and feel like they can discuss every aspect of the matchup.

The keen observers know the truth, though.

Darnold played like the same old quarterback Jets fans got used to seeing – a signal-caller with a lethargic mind to read and identify defenses but with plus physical abilities and instincts.

Darnold’s offensive coordinator, Joe Brady, seems to agree with this assessment. His game plan was as simple and protective as it could possibly be, trying to limit Darnold’s responsibilities post-snap.

But that’s enough about Darnold. He’s gone, and the new face of New York is Zach Wilson.

The BYU product – who is captivating enough to make dozens of BYU fans make the trip to Charlotte to watch him play – had an impressive debut despite being around a bunch of players who failed to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

Wilson was the unquestioned silver lining of the game for the Jets. Once again, the box score folks wouldn’t be able to grasp that, since Wilson’s stat line (20/37, 258 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) was not that impressive.

Those who watched the game know that Wilson showed impressive poise and bounce-back ability after a first half in which he got pressured in virtually every dropback.

The most obvious takeaway from the quarterback matchup is that Darnold and Wilson had completely opposite performances. The box score folks will say that’s because Sam outplayed Zach.

But that’s not true.

The difference between both quarterback’s performances was well foreseen by Joe Douglas and the Jets’ coaching staff when they decided to move on from the USC product. While Sam needs a play-caller who can hide his weaknesses, Zach has scheme transcendent traits – both physical and mental. He can elevate those around him, especially when those around him aren’t performing as expected.

Darnold was only able to function when things around him went right (and by right I mean flawless), putting up a good game statistically (24/35, 279 yards, 1 TD) but failing to make things happen when challenged by the Jets defense.

When Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich realized they had to change up from their vanilla defense approach and needed to at least show pressure, Sam Darnold sputtered. In the second half, the Panthers quarterback led his offense to a miserable 109 yards and only three points, letting Wilson and the Jets climb back into the game.

Wilson had the completely opposite trajectory: he grew as the game got tougher. He improved as the Panthers’ lead increased and as the Jets coaching staff asked more of him, giving him early-down pass attempts on pure progression concepts.

Wilson got hit and got back up to throw a dart to Corey Davis for a touchdown. Wilson picked up a tough and complex Panthers defense in only a half. Wilson showed the resilience and adaptability that are necessary for a franchise quarterback.

Beyond the box score, Wilson was the best quarterback on the field.

And that’s what the tape shows.

New York Jets, Jets X-Factor

Zach Wilson film vs. Panthers: The Good

  • Ability to create
  • Post-snap progression
  • Pre-snap identification
  • Ability to execute offense when given time

Off-schedule plays: Incomplete deep to Corey Davis

This is a play that was all over Wilson’s tape at BYU: ability to extend the play and throw an accurate ball while on the move.

What’s impressive here is that Brian Burns beats George Fant from the jump and Wilson makes him miss calmly while keeping his eyes downfield. The ball placement is good – you don’t want to have the defensive back undercutting it for a possible pick.

Furthermore, Corey Davis could have drifted away from the defender to help the completion angle (or flatten his route to give Wilson his chest for an easier completion).

Off-schedule plays: Touchdown to Corey Davis

Once again, Wilson shows his ability to extend plays. No. 2 reads the scissors concept to his left (corner from the inside receiver, post from the outside receiver – a good Cover 3 beater) and feels the pressure. (Davis could have scored with a within-the-pocket throw if Wilson had time.)

Wilson, then, extends the play and finds Davis in the back of the end zone – the same receiver who was initially running the post route.

Post-snap progressions: Elijah Moore drop on a deep ball

Wilson here shows the ability to maneuver the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield. It’s such an impressive play, as Wilson is able to read the flat-footed safety while stepping up and still delivers a dime to Elijah Moore.

Zach’s ability to see the rotation to 2-high is impressive, too. Moore has to make that catch. It’s a game-changing type of play.

Post-snap progressions: Crosser to Davis – play side to the backside

Probably my favorite play by Wilson in this game from a mental standpoint. His ability to go front side to backside of play calls is well beyond his experience.

Wilson goes from stick to crosser, smoothly, and then throws with perfect ball placement which allows Davis to pick up solid yards after the catch. When kept clean, Wilson showed the ability to calmly progress through reads.

Post-snap progressions: Go route to Denzel Mims

Another A+ play from Wilson. Once again he shows that he can maneuver the pocket keeping his eyes downfield, while also recognizing the Panthers’ defensive rotation.

It’s a throw that showcases the best of Wilson, both mentally and physically: It’s a rope across his body on the Cover 2 shot hole, well recognized by Wilson since it was a post-snap rotation.

Post-snap progressions: Checkdown to Michael Carter

The Monday Night Football broadcast with Peyton Manning was a very insightful one for those who are interested in understanding X’s and O’s and the chess match that happens in each play during a football game.

Manning, on Monday, praised quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Derek Carr every time they were disciplined and progressed to their check-downs when the primary read was covered.

You can see that from Wilson on the pass below. Look how his eyes tell the whole picture: The moment No. 31 commits to Davis on the inside pattern, Wilson immediately shifts to Carter for an easy first down.

Ability to ID coverages: DPI on Tyler Kroft, recognizing the pressure

This is a good play by Wilson, who recognized the pressure and kept drifting away since there were more rushers than linemen. The ball placement is good, too.

Kroft would’ve caught the football if not for a Juston Burris DPI (remember him?). That’s what you want to see from the rookie: a sense of urgency and recognition.

Ability to ID coverages: Crosser to Braxton Berrios on 4th down.

Here’s Berrios making a play for Wilson. It’s fourth down and the ballgame. Wilson reads the Cover 3 pressure. The field flat is the open spot.

He drifts away waiting for Berrios to get there. Braxton accelerates as fast as he can to get to the open zone as soon as possible. Wilson delivers a good ball with good anticipation.

Throwing with timing: Play Action to Corey Davis.

Just like it happened in preseason, Wilson was able to execute the offense in rhythm when the offensive line did its job. On this deep curl to Davis, you can see their rapport and Wilson’s ability to play with timing throws.

Moore’s route influences the FS and Davis gets open on the in-cut. That’s who the Jets want to be throwing the football.

Throwing with timing: In cut to Berrios backed in Jets own end zone

Why does Braxton Berrios get so many snaps? Because of plays like this.

Berrios has an in route, but he recognizes the coverage and “sits” in the soft spot of the zone so Wilson has a throwing window. It’s a great sign that Wilson and Braxton are on the same page here; the veteran slot and the rookie quarterback are identifying the defense the same way.

Throwing with anticipation: Touchdown to Corey Davis.

Wilson with a beautiful on-time throw to Davis on the out. Similar play to the one they hit vs. the Giants in the preseason. Wilson recognizes man-to-man coverage, sees the cornerback does not have outside leverage, and throws at the moment Davis starts breaking outside.

Zach Wilson film vs. Panthers: What To Work On

  • Fixing protections
  • Getting rid of the football
  • Playing with more sense of urgency
  • Limiting turnover possibilities

Sack by Brian Burns

In Wilson’s second pass attempt of the game, he gets sacked by a free Burns. Not good.

It’s hard to find a culprit not knowing who sets protections in the offense, but the fact is the OL slid left expecting pressure from the three men the Panthers showed. Burns, then, was left untouched.

You have to think that center Connor McGovern was responsible for the protections because Wilson thinks the hot is coming from his left. McGovern probably thought that either the RB or the TE was staying in as an extra blocker to handle the right side EDGE. 

Pick your matchup vs. man

Wilson, here, is trying the home-run play on the double-move Sluggo by Ty Johnson. The problem is he should’ve picked Moore in the in-cut vs man coverage in a six-man rush-type of situation. The quarterback must play the situation and go with the higher percentage throw.

Red zone sack

This is a play Wilson can’t make. After a long completion to Mims, Wilson needs to reset his mind and understand that a check down short of the end zone is a good thing – especially when compared to a sack.

He’s got Kroft open underneath but spends a lifetime looking at Davis, who’s double covered. Kroft probably scores if Wilson gives him the ball.

Sack on 3rd & 2 (needs to trust his eyes)

On third down and short, Wilson has to play with more sense of urgency, especially after getting beat up a ton in the first half.

I understand his thinking: the Panthers are “only” rushing four and he has five blockers, but that’s not what the entire game context should tell him. The moment he stops looking at Berrios (1st read, who probably had an option route), Berrios is open. As a quarterback, his job is to give the ball to Berrios, leading him outside and getting the first down.

I think Wilson was overthinking here. He had Davis vs. Jaycee Horn to the field side, and once he realized it was man post-snap, he knew it was a better matchup. But it does not matter. On a pick-a-side play call, he must stick to the side he first picked and throw the ball on time.

There is one complaint about Mike LaFleur I’d like to mention: give your quarterback something to come back to over the middle. A mirrored out/corner concept on third down limits Wilson so much if nothing is there on his first read.

Sack by Burns on Wilson hero-ball type play

This play is just the epitome of bad offensive line play. The Jets have 7-man blocking for Wilson, and despite that the Panthers are still able to get home with a four-man rush.

Wilson has to throw it away early here – especially when he recognizes the Panthers are playing quarters coverage. Hero ball won’t get Zach far.

Sack on 3rd & 10: Have to audible

This is a tough play to evaluate Wilson, especially because of the play call. As a play-caller, you have to do better than this in an all-out situation. Rub concepts, crossers, whatever. Calling hook routes at the marker won’t do any favors for you rookie quarterback that has been under pressure all day.

I wonder if Wilson has audible freedom. If he does, that’s a play call he should’ve changed.

Hesitant RPO

Rule one for run-pass option play calls: when in doubt, run it. Wilson cannot decide to throw the ball and hesitate. One, because his linemen will be way down the field whenever he decides to throw it (resulting in a penalty). Two, because he’s probably going to be quickly pressured. This isn’t BYU where he could elude defensive linemen easily. If the quarterback decides to throw on an RPO, it must be a bang-bang play.

Watch how the LB (jersey No. 4) is Wilson’s key here. Zach knows, but he’s willing to throw the football and ignores a favorable run look. RPOs, more than anything, are about discipline and knowing when to run the football.

Interception to Shaq Thompson

First and foremost, this is not a good play call. Panthers’ LBs are playing well and DBs are playing aggressively. I understand the stick and nod call to fool the aggressive LBs, but the safeties would be crashing down the ball anyway. Wilson throws into a very tight window and gets picked by Thompson.

Wilson can’t make this throw, yes, but his second read was probably Kroft on the pivot/return. The moment Wilson threw the ball, Kroft was near the sideline. There was no time to get back to him since No. 90 on the Panthers’ defense was already getting home.

Zach Wilson’s debut was a positive one

Overall, Zach Wilson’s first game was the classic game of a rookie quarterback with huge upside. A lot of mistakes, yes, but the impressive plays are the ones that catch the eye. Wilson’s special traits were on full display during Sunday’s game – which is even more impressive since things around him were far from good.

For the game against New England, fans have to expect some adjustments on the offensive line and by LaFleur, especially because the Jets will be facing a defense that’s also aggressive and likes to confuse the quarterback and the offensive line with stunts – just like the Panthers.

In the passing game, Keelan Cole and Jamison Crowder, if back, will be a huge boost for the offense. Both have a knack for getting open on key spots and will be reliable options for Wilson, even more so against the man-heavy Patriots.

The key is, as usual, controlling the line of scrimmage and allowing Wilson to play in rhythm. If the offense is able to function as scripted, the Jets should be able to move the ball against New England and snag their first victory of the Robert Saleh-Zach Wilson era.

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2 years ago

Just an outstanding article. Must be read 3 times, to appreciate the content and insight, there is a ton. The initial remarks on Sam were fascinating, Brady’s game plan disguised weaknesses, and let Sam function at an optimal level. It will be interesting to see how Sam develops as the season progresses. But this article is about Zack, it’s early, but he is a smooth operator that will generate big plays. Do your self a favor , read this again