How well did Zach Wilson perform against the Pittsburgh Steelers?
At long last, I’m thrilled to bring back my QB Grades series, where I grade the New York Jets’ starting quarterback on every single play from 0-to-10 to generate a consummate 0-to-100 overall score for his performance in the game.
The series took a little hiatus with Zach Wilson‘s absence, but now that he’s returned, it’s time to get back into the swing of things.
My goal with this grading system is to capture the true quality of the quarterback’s performance. Box score statistics are usually misleading, as they do not account for a variety of factors that determine whether a quarterback performed well or poorly on a given play.
After re-watching each play on the All-22 film, I grade it on a 0-to-10 scale. Once I’m finished grading each play, I take the average of all plays to form a 0-to-100 overall score with 50 being approximately league-average (based on my studying of numerous other quarterback performances across the league).
Here are just a handful of the primary factors that are taken into account in the grading of each play, and a basic description of what I’m looking for:
- Decision-making (Did the QB choose the best available option or did he leave a better play on the field? Regardless of if a ball is intercepted or not, did the QB put the ball in danger of being intercepted?)
- Throw difficulty (Clean pocket or pressured? Wide open or tight window? Stationary or on the move? More difficult throws are more valuable.)
- Accuracy/placement (Even if the pass is completed, was the ball placed in the best possible spot or did the receiver have to make an extra effort to catch it? Was the ball placed in a spot that maximized YAC? Did the QB protect his receiver from a big hit?)
- Game situation – score, time, field position, down and distance (Good decisions based on the clock/situation are crucial. Playing the sticks is also important – it is not a good play to complete a tightly covered 3-yard out on third-and-10 while a 15-yard dig is open, but a 3-yard out on third-and-2 is good.)
Ultimately, it’s all about context. Not all 40-yard completions are created equal. Not all interceptions are created equal. You need to watch a play to understand whether the quarterback did a good or bad job. The raw result of a play cannot give you that answer.
When we analyze every play on film multiple times and grade the quarterback’s individual effort independent of his surroundings or the on-paper outcome of the play, we get a much better estimation of how well he actually played.
Of course, keep in mind that these grades are subjective. They are but one man’s opinion and are not intended to be viewed as gospel. Feel free to let me know your takes on my grades for these performances.
Let’s dig into everything that went into my 0-to-100 grade for Zach Wilson‘s season-two debut against the Pittsburgh Steelers. How much did Wilson truly struggle during his rougher patches of the game? How does his fourth-quarter surge stack up among the best stretches of his career?
Time to hop in.
For each performance, I include a few metrics that help explain how Wilson arrived at his final grade.
These are some of the metrics I will break down for every Wilson outing.
Overall grade: 0-to-100 grade based on the average score of all plays analyzed. An estimation of individual performance quality.
Positive plays: Number of plays graded above 5.0: above-average efforts.
Negative plays: Number of plays graded below 5.0: below-average efforts.
Neutral plays: Number of plays graded as a 5.0: plays that are not noticeably good or bad. These are typically lost plays or plays in which the QB can hardly be evaluated: screens, batted passes, miscommunications, and unavoidable sacks are commonly graded as a 5.0.
Positive/negative ratio: Ratio of positive plays to negative plays. Defines the quarterback’s consistency level.
Average positive score: The average score of all positive plays. An indicator of how high the quarterback’s peaks were — a higher score indicates his best plays were often highlight-reel-worthy while a lower score indicates that his best plays were typically unspectacular.
Average negative score: The average score of all negative plays. An indicator of how low the quarterback’s valleys were — a higher score indicates his mistakes were typically minor while a lower score indicates that his mistakes were typically brutal.
Wow Factor: Combination of average positive and average negative. An indicator of the combined ability to avoid big mistakes and produce outstanding moments.
7+ plays: Number of plays graded 7.0 or better: elite moments. Big-time plays, if you will.
≤3 plays: Number of plays graded 3.0 or worse: brutal moments. The ones that make Jets fans throw things at their TV.
Zach Wilson’s Grade at Pittsburgh Steelers
- Nania’s Overall Grade: 55.9 – (Average: 50, Great: 60+, Elite: 70+, Poor: <40, Awful: <30)
- Plays graded: 42
- Neutral plays: 4
- Positive plays: 23 (54.8%) – (Average: 50%, Phenomenal: >60%, Poor: <40%)
- Negative plays: 15 (35.7%) – (Average: 30%, Phenomenal: <20%, Poor: >40%)
- Positive-negative ratio: 1.53 – (Average: 2.00, Phenomenal: 3.00+, Poor: <1.00)
- Average positive: 6.04 – (Average: 5.90, Phenomenal: 6.00+, Poor: <5.80)
- Average negative: 3.86 – (Average: 3.80, Phenomenal: 4.00+, Poor: <3.60)
- Wow factor: 9.90 – (Average: 9.70, Phenomenal: 10.00+, Poor: <9.40)
- 7+ plays: 6 (14.3%) – (Average: 8%, Phenomenal: >12%, Poor: <4%)
- ≤3 plays: 4 (9.5%) – (Average: 8%, Phenomenal: <4%, Poor: >12%)
- Actual stats: 18/36 for 250 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT (7.0 Y/A, 59.0 QB rating). 1 sack for 4 yards. 2 rushes for 15 yards. 1 receiving TD.
I scored Wilson with an above-average grade of 55.9 for his performance against Pittsburgh. It makes him look a lot better than his box-score stats. Wilson’s 50% completion rate, 1-2 TD-INT ratio, and 59.0 passer rating indicate a poor performance, but he was far more effective than those numbers suggest.
Why did Zach grade out better than his stats? It comes down to the difficulty of the plays he made. Wilson took a hefty amount of pressure and had to deliver balls from congested pockets. Many of the throws he completed required some combination of using a unique arm angle, throwing into a tightly-covered window, or releasing the ball with incredible anticipation.
Wilson’s average positive score (6.04) and number of elite-graded plays (6) exemplify the high quality of the plays he made in this one. The total of six plays graded with a score of 7.0+ ties his career-high (with last year’s Eagles game). He earned everything – little was handed to him.
Another disconnect between the box score and Wilson’s true performance is his sack-avoiding ability. In the box score, getting pressured and throwing the ball away is a bad thing, but in real life, it is often a great thing. There were a ton of plays in this game where Wilson miraculously dodged a defender and was able to throw the ball away in a situation where many other quarterbacks would have been sacked. I scored Wilson positively for his sack-dodging on a handful of plays.
With this performance, Wilson picked up where he left off with his improved second half of the 2021 season. I had Wilson with a brutal grade of 39.5 over the first six games of his rookie year. After returning from his injury, Wilson jumped up to an encouraging grade of 54.9 over his final seven games. This Steelers game marks his sixth game out of his last eight with a grade above 50.
Wilson’s 55.9 grade against the Steelers is his fourth-best mark out of 14 career games. Wilson’s games against the Eagles (68.9), Jaguars (74.1), and Buccaneers (76.1) remain his three best outings in my system.
A tale of two halves
I think Wilson’s first half was much rougher than many realized. This is because, upon rewatching the film, it stands out that Wilson missed more opportunities than it initially seemed. While the pass protection was not good, Wilson often did too much running around when he could have hung tight in the pocket and delivered to open targets. Also, his interception in the second quarter was brutal.
Going into halftime, I had Wilson’s grade at 25.1. He was struggling.
But Wilson’s second half is the best half of football I have seen him play in a Jets uniform. It was strong enough to make this an above-average overall performance despite the first-half woes.
Wilson went into the locker room and certainly saw on film that he could have a successful half if he just stayed poised in the pocket, went through his reads, and delivered confidently to the open man despite whatever pressure might be coming. Yes, the protection was less than ideal, but it was just competent enough to where it wasn’t completely destroying Wilson’s chances to succeed. He knew he could make plays if he were willing to stand in there and throw amidst the traffic – and that’s exactly what he did.
I gave Wilson a 79.3 grade in the second half. Coming straight out of halftime, I saw a different quarterback – one who had shaken off the rust and had a restored level of confidence.
While Wilson’s fourth quarter is getting all of the attention, I liked Wilson’s play in the third quarter, too. I actually gave him a 78.8 grade in the third quarter, which is only a hair behind his 79.4 grade in the fourth quarter. Four drops in the third quarter masked how much better he was playing in comparison to the first half. Once the Jets’ skill players woke up in the fourth quarter, it became obvious how locked-in Zach was.
Wilson’s consistency shot up through the roof in the second half. After accruing a 0.7-to-1 ratio of positive to negative plays in the first half (7 positive, 10 negative), Wilson skyrocketed to 3.2-to-1 in the second half (16 positive, 5 negative). His poise and toughness canceled out the impact of Pittsburgh’s pressure, as he hung tight in the pocket and continuously made good decisions under duress.
Once Wilson got his mindset under control, his physical gifts were allowed to shine. Wilson delivered one pretty throw after the next in the second half.
Let’s take a look at some of the key plays from Wilson’s film, both good and bad.
First half film
Wilson’s first half features some shaky moments that he can improve upon. Hopefully, this first half can eventually be chalked up to him simply being rusty in his first game back. Based on his second-half surge, I think there’s a very real chance that is the case, but nevertheless, Wilson must rewatch some of these mistakes and work to ensure they do not happen as often in the future.
For each play in the breakdown, I’ll list the grade I gave him for that play. Anything above 5.0 is good and helps improve his overall game grade, and vice versa for anything below 5.0.
3rd & 7 – Qtr: 1, (8:37) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass short left to G.Wilson to NYJ 18 for 6 yards (A.Maulet)
I think Wilson makes the right read here on 3rd & 7, trusting Garrett Wilson to win one-on-one in the slot. But since the route is short of the sticks, Zach needs to give Garrett a chance to get YAC. Zach puts this ball too high and is a little late on it, causing Garrett to get tackled immediately. Minor accuracy mistake. (Side note: Corey Davis had a great route from the right slot). Grade: 4.5
1st & 10 – Qtr: 1, (7:35) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson sacked at PIT 40 for -4 yards (A.Highsmith).
Nate Herbig gets bulled fairly deep into the pocket, congesting the pocket, but I think Zach should still be able to stand in there and hit Garrett on the quick in-breaker over the middle. Not a terrible blunder, but a play I know Zach can make. Later on in this breakdown, we’ll see him make plays like this. Grade: 4.5
2nd & 14 – Qtr: 1, (6:53) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson scrambles left end ran ob at PIT 31 for 9 yards (D.Bush).
The speed at which Wilson recognizes this incoming pressure reminds me of Patrick Mahomes. That’s one of my favorite traits about Mahomes. He senses pressure so quickly; almost innately, using his peripheral vision. Mahomes gets out of there so quickly, and that’s how he buys himself plenty of space to make those outside-of-the-pocket plays.
Wilson does a great job of scrambling to his three-receiver side to give himself throwing options. Wilson reads the field and does not scramble until he’s certain there is no throw available. He gets nine yards in an otherwise hopeless situation. Great play. Grade: 6.0
2nd & 7 – Qtr: 1, (1:25) Z.Wilson pass incomplete short left [M.Jack]. Pressure by 51-Jack.
Max Mitchell gets roasted to allow edge pressure, but Zach takes a deep drop and has plenty of space to see and hit Garrett over the middle. The linebackers are sucked in by the play action, creating ample room. Instead, Zach gets flustered.
Once again, we’ll see Zach make plays like this later in the game. I think he was still rusty at this point, trying to reacclimate himself to the timing and rhythm of the game. Grade: 4.0
3rd & 7 – Qtr: 1, (1:12) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass deep right to E.Moore to PIT 47 for 20 yards (L.Wallace; R.Spillane).
Oh yeah… this is the good stuff. Third-and-seven, Wilson hits Elijah Moore for 20 yards on an out route from the opposite half. The anticipation is ridiculous, as Wilson begins his motion before Moore even breaks. Elite throw.
Wilson’s first half did have flashes of greatness, like this one, but it wasn’t until the second half that he cleaned up his mistakes and started thriving on a down-to-down basis. Grade: 7.0
2nd & 8 – Qtr: 2, (7:51) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass incomplete short right to G.Wilson.
Zach still needs to get the missed layups out of his game. Here, he yanks the ball on a screen pass to Garrett and misses wide-left. You just can’t miss these. Grade: 3.0
3rd & 14 – Qtr: 2, (3:58) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass incomplete short right to G.Wilson (A.Maulet) [L.Ogunjobi].
Zach forces one on third-and-long and tosses an interceptable ball. Fortunately, Pittsburgh drops it, but Zach should not be attempting this pass to Garrett considering the defender’s tight coverage. Throw it away and live for the next drive.
Or, if he manipulates the robber safety well enough, he could come back to the left side and hit Moore on a deep curl. Zach will learn this quickly – we’ll see some great manipulation of Pittsburgh’s defenders later in the game. Grade: 3.0
3rd & 5 – Qtr: 2, (1:56) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass incomplete deep right to Mi.Carter. PIT-T.Edmunds was injured during the play. NYJ-M.Mitchell was injured during the play. PENALTY on PIT-A.Maulet, Defensive Holding, 5 yards, enforced at PIT 49 – No Play.
First off, I think Zach needs to hit Garrett on this out-breaker out of the slot. Zach starts his progression on the left side of the field and is looking at Garrett as he beats his man, but decides not to target him.
After that, I think Zach would’ve been best-served throwing this away. He puts Michael Carter in enormous danger here by leading him directly into the safety help. Carter takes a massive hit. Grade: 3.5
2nd & 11 – Qtr: 2, (:40) (No Huddle, Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass incomplete deep right to C.Davis.
Wilson’s most underrated play of the game. The pressure forces to drift Wilson as far back as 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage. He sees Corey Davis improvising and plants his feet to throw, launching an absolute dime with pressure in his face. This was ruled incomplete, but it should’ve been a catch, as seen below. Regardless, it’s an incredible throw. An effortless 33 yards through the air. Grade: 8.0
— OnlyJets (@OnlyJets1) October 4, 2022
3rd & 11 – Qtr: 2, (:33) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass deep left intended for J.Smith INTERCEPTED by C.Sutton at PIT 4. C.Sutton pushed ob at PIT 30 for 26 yards (C.McGovern).
We close out Wilson’s first half with an atrocious interception. The Jets are in field goal range with the half nearing its end, and they are set to get the ball to start the second half. There is no need to take any risks here. But Wilson makes the costly mistake, kickstarting the momentum shift in Pittsburgh’s favor.
First, I would like Zach to notice the man coverage and see that Garrett is going to come open on the crosser. After passing on that, though, Zach just needs to get rid of it. Jeff Smith’s crosser is going straight into Moore’s defender on the outside. There isn’t much space there. It’s not a window worth trying considering the situation. Grade: 1.0
Second half film
Things got a lot better from here on out.
2nd & 9 – Qtr: 3, (14:22) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass incomplete short middle to G.Wilson (M.Fitzpatrick).
This is Zach’s first play of the second half. It’s nothing special or difficult by any means, but I wanted to include it since I think it sets the tone for the type of QB he would be from this point forward.
Zach hits the depth of his drop, sees Garrett open over the middle, and fires it into his chest. Simple. Easy. Efficient. Confident.
Garrett has the ball knocked loose, but nevertheless, the quick decision-making shown by Zach on this play is a sign of what’s to come. Grade: 5.25
1st & 10 – Qtr: 3, (10:59) Z.Wilson pass short right to C.Davis to NYJ 26 for 15 yards (M.Adams).
I would like the Jets to get Zach more of these bootlegs off play action. When his decision-making is on point, he can thrive with these concepts thanks to his physical tools. That is displayed here as Wilson throws across his body and hits Davis right in the chest for 15 yards. Grade: 6.0
3rd & 6 – Qtr: 3, (8:53) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass short right intended for T.Conklin INTERCEPTED by M.Fitzpatrick at NYJ 38. Penalty on NYJ-G.Wilson, Offensive Pass Interference, declined.
I really do not think this interception is a bad play. To start, Zach has to wait a relatively long time to get this ball out because he cannot ensure Tyler Conklin will be open until Garrett opens him up by picking his defender (illegally, as he was called for OPI). So, Zach can’t anticipate this throw. By the time he can confirm Conklin is open, Zach is about to get sacked, forcing him to use a sidearm angle just to get the ball out.
Is this throw higher than ideal? Yes. Should this be caught a high percentage of the time by a 6-foot-3 tight end? Also yes. Conklin barely gets off the ground and still gets two hands on it. The ball goes straight through. Additionally, the fact that this ends up as a pick is purely dumb luck. Most of the time, this ball hits the ground. Grade: 5.0
3rd & 5 – Qtr: 3, (6:36) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass short middle to T.Conklin to NYJ 48 for 18 yards (T.Norwood).
Despite the previous pick, Zach was not rattled. He continued building on the momentum he came out of halftime with.
Zach started getting a feel for the Steelers defense in the second half. He consistently found ways to move defenders with his eyes and create windows. Here, Wilson holds the linebackers underneath to open a lane to find Tyler Conklin over the middle. To fit the ball through a crowded pocket, Wilson fires with a sidearm angle and still puts the ball right on the numbers with good velocity. Tremendous blend of mental and physical excellence. Grade: 7.0
2nd & 5 – Qtr: 3, (5:30) Z.Wilson pass incomplete short left. Pressure by 41-Spillane, 56-Highsmith.
This is a wonderful avoided sack and throwaway. Wilson feels the blindside pressure (rare Alijah Vera-Tucker loss) and miraculously spins out of it. He’s got no room to step up due to the interior cave-in, so a backwards spin was the only way out, and Wilson pulled off the Houdini act. Few quarterbacks would have gotten out of that. (Definitely not Joe Flacco.) His movement skills are special.
The box score says this is an incomplete pass for 0 yards, but in reality, Wilson saved 8 yards. Grade: 6.0
3rd & 6 – Qtr: 4, (12:05) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass short right to G.Wilson to PIT 42 for 35 yards (M.Fitzpatrick).
The Jets are down by 10 at this point. This play put the Jets on the comeback trail.
Minkah Fitzpatrick (No. 39) was lurking underneath and watching Zach’s eyes all game. Zach eventually picked up on this and started to use Minkah to facilitate success. Here, Zach holds Minkah in the middle before flipping his head to the right and immediately getting the ball out to Garrett, just barely beating the incoming pressure. Zach hits Garrett in stride to facilitate YAC, and the Jets get an enormous third-down play to set their comeback in motion. Grade: 7.0
3rd & 13 – Qtr: 4, (10:34) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson scrambles left tackle to PIT 39 for 6 yards (A.Maulet, C.Heyward).
Facing likely four-down territory on third-and-13, Wilson comes up big with a six-yard scramble to create a more manageable fourth down. Nobody is open and Wilson is about to be sacked courtesy of pressures allowed by Laken Tomlinson, but Wilson dodges the sack and turns it into a positive chunk. Best-case scenario outcome given what transpired. Grade: 6.0
4th & 7 – Qtr: 4, (9:48) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass short right to C.Davis to PIT 17 for 22 yards (T.Norwood, A.Maulet).
In a gotta-have-it spot, Wilson sees the man coverage and knows he has Davis if he can win his route. Wilson sees Davis gain the leverage advantage and immediately begins his throwing motion; before Davis gets out of the break. Wilson trusts his veteran to make a play and throws a good ball for the clutch conversion. Grade: 6.0
3rd & Goal – Qtr: 4, (7:35) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass short left to C.Davis for 5 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
This play is so much more impressive than it might look upon first glance.
Wilson quickly checks the middle as he takes the snap. He sees that Minkah is lurking over toward Davis and Conklin’s route combination, so he knows he has to get this ball out fast. Once Wilson confirms Conklin has successfully cleared room for Davis to get open on the whip, he fires.
The placement of this ball is incredible. Remember, Wilson knows Minkah is coming. So, Wilson does not lead Davis inside. Instead, he puts the ball right on Davis’s body as he comes out of the break, which keeps the ball away from the pursuing Minkah. The velocity is fantastic and the ball whizzes just by Minkah for the touchdown. Grade: 7.0
1st & 20 – Qtr: 4, (1:44) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass short left to Mi.Carter to PIT 37 for 11 yards (A.Maulet) [M.Reed]. PIT-C.Heyward was injured during the play.
This play isn’t as flashy as others Wilson made during this comeback, but I think it is one of the best indicators of what changed for him in the second half.
The Jets are in a tough spot as a penalty has them in first-and-20 outside of field goal range. Reading the right side of the field, Wilson sees quick edge pressure courtesy of Conor McDermott. Rather than panic, Wilson hangs tight in the pocket and looks for his checkdown. He steps up, locates Michael Carter on the opposite side of the field, and hits him with an accurate throw shortly before being taken down.
First-half Wilson might have tried to play backyard football here, missing an easy opportunity for much-needed yards. But this is the heady, clutch, and in-command Wilson of the second half. Grade: 5.625
2nd & 9 – Qtr: 4, (1:31) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass deep right to C.Davis to PIT 20 for 17 yards (D.Bush).
Wilson’s final throw of the game is his best. He reads the entire field from left to right. Once he gets to the right side, he sees Davis about to break into open space between the zones. At the same time, he sees a defender in his face and knows he has to get the ball out right away. With no panic whatsoever, Wilson stands tall, stays focused on Davis, and delivers – accepting the hit.
The placement here is perfect. Wilson puts the ball low-and-away to keep it from the defender and protect Davis. At the same time, it still hits Davis in stride and is placed in a spot where it can be easily caught. The Jets get a massive conversion. Grade: 9.0
A tantalizing display of resolve from Zach Wilson
Not only is Wilson’s second half the best half I have ever seen him play as a Jet, but Wilson’s first-to-second-half improvement is easily the most substantial in-game progress I have seen from him.
I think that is largely due to the rust that he was shaking off in his first game after a long injury absence (not to mention in his first regular season game in nine months), but regardless, it was extremely promising to see Wilson prove he can brush off a rocky start and come out of halftime as a completely different quarterback.
How many times have we seen Jets quarterbacks start a game slowly and never recover? Over the years, when watching the Jets play, it always feels like you know exactly how the quarterback and the team are going to perform that day after watching the first few plays. Because of this, two-score deficits have always felt insurmountable for the Jets, whereas when you watch other NFL teams play, a two-score hole feels like nothing.
Football is a four-quarter game! There is always plenty of time to rebound and go win the game. That’s what Wilson did in Pittsburgh. He was not good in the first half. Adversity struck in the third quarter. But the defense and his skill-position weapons gave him a chance to pick up the pieces and go get a victory. So he stayed poised, learned from his mistakes, and played his best when it mattered most.
You don’t always have to be razor-sharp for four quarters to win a game. There is always a door to get back into the game if you show resolve and fight to the finish. Franchise quarterbacks do it all the time. They are not perfect every week, but they find ways to win even when they aren’t at their best, and that’s what makes them great.
Wilson showed that ability in Pittsburgh.
There are still plenty of things for Wilson to improve upon, but Jets fans have to be thrilled about what their quarterback showed after halftime. That second-half version of Wilson is a perfect showcase of what he could look like if he hits his ceiling.