Zach Wilson should have had more touchdown passes as a rookie
The most glaring number in Wilson’s 2021 stat-line is the “9” situated in the “TD” column. Wilson launched only nine touchdown passes in 13 starts. Considering he threw 383 passes, just 2.3% of Wilson’s passes were touchdowns. Among qualified quarterbacks, only Sam Darnold (2.2%) and Trevor Lawrence (2.0%) had a worse rate.
Why did Wilson struggle so much in this department, and how can he get better at hurling six-pointers in 2022? I wanted to dig deeper and figure out what particular issues led to Wilson’s minimal touchdown production.
The phenomenon of Zach Wilson’s passes being stopped at the 1
There are some areas where Wilson must improve (which we will get into), but when analyzing Wilson’s touchdown-pass output, the most obvious thing that stood out was a largely luck-based phenomenon: Wilson was the victim of a bunch of passes that were stopped one yard short of the end zone.
Wilson completed six passes that were halted at the opponent’s 1-yard line. That tied him for the most such passes in the NFL, along with Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott, and Ryan Tannehill.
Considering that Wilson played fewer games than all four of those quarterbacks, Wilson actually led the NFL in passes stopped at the one-yard line per game, with a relatively enormous average of 0.46. That is more than double the 2021 NFL average for all teams (0.19).
This is something that, in a vacuum, can mostly be chalked up to luck. So, let’s say Wilson had league-average luck in those situations and we turn three of those six passes into touchdowns.
Now, Wilson has 12 touchdown passes on the season, giving him a positive touchdown-to-interception ratio against his total of 11 interceptions. His touchdown rate (out of 383 passes) would jump from 2.3% to 3.1%, allowing him to surpass Justin Fields (2.6%) and Daniel Jones (2.8%) on the league leaderboard.
Things would look a little more promising for Wilson if he had just a normal amount of luck in these particular coin-flip scenarios.
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What happened on those plays?
It’s worth examining those unlucky stops that cost Wilson some juicy statistical credit. What exactly happened on those six passes? Here is what went down of each of Wilson’s passes that were stopped at the 1-yard line.
Tevin Coleman vs. Titans in OT (2nd down from TEN 8-yard line): Wilson throws a screen pass with perfect accuracy to Coleman on the right side. Coleman picks up some blocks and dashes for the pylon. He dives and extends the ball but is marked out at the 1-yard line. The call was extremely close and went to review; if called a touchdown on the field, it probably would have remained a touchdown after review. It would have been a game-winner in overtime.
The result: On third down, the Jets call a bootleg for Wilson but nobody is open, so he attempts to keep the ball and score it himself. He is tackled for a three-yard loss and Matt Ammendola makes a 22-yard field goal.
Jamison Crowder vs. Eagles in Q2 (1st down from PHI 11-yard line): Wilson throws a screen pass to Crowder on the left side. The pass is a bit high, but it arguably helps the play as it allows blocks to develop downfield, giving Crowder a lane to dart for the goal line. He’s marked down a half-yard shy of the end zone.
The result: On second down, Wilson sneaks the ball in for a one-yard touchdown.
Michael Carter vs. Jaguars in Q4 (3rd down from JAX 3-yard line): Carter leaks out of the backfield into the right-side flat. Wilson gives him an accurate pass with good timing. However, the linebacker makes an incredible play to stop Carter at the 1-yard line as he takes a perfect angle.
The result: On fourth down, Wilson passes to Conor McDermott for a one-yard touchdown.
Tyler Kroft vs. Jaguars in Q4 (3rd down from JAX 6-yard line): Kroft lines up in the right-side slot and runs a stop route, halting himself at the one-yard line. Wilson gives him a slightly low pass so he can get down and protect himself from the defender on his back, and Kroft makes the grab.
The result: On fourth down, Eddy Pineiro makes a 20-yard field goal.
Braxton Berrios vs. Buccaneers in Q1 (2nd down from TB 9-yard line): Wilson throws a screen pass to Berrios on the right side. It’s a tad low but is also nicely placed out in front to lead Berrios toward the end zone, giving him momentum that proves valuable. Berrios picks up the first down but is brought down at the one.
The result: Carter’s rush is halted on first down. On second down, the Jets call a direct snap to Carter, who gives the ball to Berrios on an end-around, who rushes it in for the touchdown. Berrios had the option to throw the ball to Wilson in the end zone but smartly elected to take it himself with Wilson covered.
Keelan Cole vs. Buccaneers in Q3 (1st down from TB 22-yard line): Wilson hits Cole on a post route, who gets slammed down at the 1-yard line. Cole might have had a shot to score if he extended the ball, but the defender had his hand on it, preventing Cole from reaching for the goal line.
The result: Wilson’s sneak on first down is stopped. Ty Johnson rushes in for the touchdown on second down.
Ultimately, the Jets would end up scoring a touchdown on four of these six drives, which is less than ideal. Just two of those four touchdowns were scored by Wilson – one passing and one rushing. So, these unlucky stops certainly dealt some noticeable damage to his statistics.
Zach Wilson must be a more explosive producer of deep touchdown passes
Our previous topic was more of a luck-based subject that Wilson has little control over. What can Wilson do better that is within his control to throw more touchdowns?
One area where Wilson has untapped potential is the deep passing game.
Wilson tossed only two touchdowns on deep passes (20+ yards downfield) in 2021, tying him for 28th in the NFL. Both of those passes were thrown to Corey Davis early in the season – a 22-yarder against Carolina in Week 1 and a 53-yarder against Tennessee in a Week 4.
Here’s another thing those two touchdowns have in common: they were both off-schedule/improvised plays. So, Wilson did not throw a single deep touchdown within the structure of the offense.
Much of that is on Wilson, who missed his share of opportunities (overthrown deep shots to Davis and Elijah Moore against Atlanta come to mind immediately). However, the Jets’ offense called very few vertical routes that gave Wilson chances to chuck bombs down the sideline.
That’s just the nature of Mike LaFleur’s offensive scheme – it’s much more of an east-west offense than a north-south one – but the Jets should work to Wilson’s strengths and incorporate a few more 9 routes in 2022. They don’t have to be the crux of the offense by any means, but merely adding one more 9-route pass attempt per game could work wonders.
Wilson must be more accurate on in-structure deep passes and the Jets must call them slightly more frequently. You have to at least occasionally threaten the defense with a deep shot from within the structure of the play call. Throwing zero on-schedule deep touchdowns all season will not cut it.
Zach Wilson must be more prolific in the far half of the red zone
Another key weakness for Wilson was his red-zone passing – specifically, his passing from the further half of the red zone.
Wilson actually wasn’t too bad inside of the 10-yard line. On plays ranging from the opponent’s 10 to the opponent’s 1, Wilson threw six touchdowns on 19 passes, a 31.6% rate that is not egregiously far behind the NFL average of 35.8%. That rate placed Wilson 22nd out of 31 qualified quarterbacks and was better than Matt Ryan and Kyler Murray among others.
To boot, Wilson rushed for three touchdowns from inside of the 10, tying him for the sixth-most among quarterbacks.
So, even though Wilson can absolutely get much better from within 10 yards of paydirt, he was alright for a rookie.
The other half of the red zone is a completely different story. When throwing from the opponent’s 20-yard line to the opponent’s 11-yard line, Wilson was atrocious.
Wilson did not throw a single touchdown on 24 pass attempts from the 20 to the 11, giving him the most passes in that range without a touchdown in the NFL. Daniel Jones trailed him by one attempt while Tyler Huntley followed them on the list.
The NFL-average touchdown-pass rate in that range was 13.4%, so Wilson should have been expected to throw at least three touchdown passes in that area on his volume of attempts.
Wilson needs to be more aggressive at attacking the end zone when in this area. He averaged only 3.4 yards per pass attempt from the 20 to the 11, better than only Tua Tagovailoa (3.2), Tyrod Taylor (3.2), Daniel Jones (1.9), and Jacoby Brissett (1.9) among qualifiers. He ranked only a hair behind Taysom Hill (3.5) and Jared Goff (3.6).
That is not the company you want to keep.
Can Wilson turn around these weaknesses and become a prolific touchdown-thrower in 2022?