On a very limited snap count, the New York Jets’ first-round pick managed to impact and perhaps turn the game
Those were the words of pumped-up Jets fan and Wish kid Kyle Stickles at the draft. As revving as Stickles’ announcement was, the actual name was a major letdown for most Jets fans. Will who?!
Despite the training camp hype that had many fans changing their minds, McDonald has been a disappointment so far this season. He has one pressure and has barely made a blip on the radar screen. That’s a far cry from the third-down pressure machine the Jets envisioned from him as a rookie.
Still, McDonald has played just 66 defensive snaps so far, including 41 as a pass rusher and 25 in run defense. He has an opportunity to turn things around over time as Jermaine Johnson has after a slow start this year. For fans who may already be thinking “bust” in their minds, consider that McDonald didn’t play football until his junior year of high school and is also still only 240 pounds. Johnson bulked up and built muscle over the 2023 offseason, and McDonald will likely try to do the same after the season.
Against the Giants, though, McDonald showed glimpses of his talent and ability to impact a game beyond just the pass rush stats. He played only eight defensive snaps in the game, but he made several of them count. He also had a sneakily underrated play late in the game that may just have allowed the Jets to come back and win.
McDonald made a few nice plays that weren’t really visible on the screen or in the box score.
With the Giants pinned near their own goal line, McDonald made a play on first down. Going against Giants tackle Justin Pugh, he knifed his way into the backfield and got to Saquon Barkley to limit the gain to two yards. The play generated negative EPA, which is considered a run stuff by some standards.
On the second down play, McDonald didn’t do anything flashy. Going against a tight end, he wasn’t able to gain penetration. Still, he held his spot and was not knocked backward, forcing Barkley to cut to his right. Barkley gained four yards on the play, but McDonald did his job.
This may be one of the reasons that McDonald is not generating much pressure: only 17 of his 41 pass rush reps have been considered true pass sets. That means that on 58.5% of his pass rush snaps, teams are running screens, play-action, or very quick releases.
On this play, McDonald beats Tyre Phillips around the edge, albeit not entirely cleanly. If the ball hadn’t been released so quickly, he would have hit Tommy DeVito along with Tony Adams. It likely was considered a true pass set (it doesn’t seem like the release was in under two seconds), but there just wasn’t that much opportunity for McDonald to get home unless he had won the rep completely cleanly.
Although McDonald needs to learn how to defeat the tackle’s hands more quickly (this angle doesn’t give a good picture of what exactly happened with the hand-fighting), he showed his ability to come around the corner and still get to the quarterback.
With the Jets trailing 10-7 with 28 seconds remaining and Graham Gano lining up for a game-sealing field goal, Robert Saleh and Brant Boyer knew they needed a miss to have any shot. They pulled out a trick from up their sleeve: lining up Will McDonald right in the center of the field goal block team. It was the first snap McDonald played all season on an opponent’s field goal attempt.
As he was likely coached to do, McDonald leaped right over the long snapper and got in Gano’s face. It’s hard to say that this definitively impacted the missed kick, but it certainly could have been a factor. Especially considering that McDonald was slightly to Gano’s left and he missed the kick to the right, it definitely appears that the kick hooked a bit because McDonald was there.
In fact, considering McDonald’s bend and athleticism, the Jets may want to try using him more often on field goal blocks.
McDonald still has a long way to go
The Jets thought McDonald would be a closer for them on defense. That has not been the case thus far.
Still, just as they’ve done with Johnson, it might behoove them to try to use McDonald creatively. Putting him in the center of a field goal block setup is one way to utilize his athleticism. Moving him around the formation might be another option.
Overall, though, in very limited reps, McDonald made an impact on the Giants game. It’s the first time we’ve really seen that from him, and it’s a start at a position that is often difficult for a rookie.
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