Wilson’s Week in Review: Week 1

Welcome to the start of a weekly series detailing Zach Wilson’s performance from the previous week. Ideally, this will act to document his progress and standing in the league throughout the season. Without further ado, let’s get into the tape. Here is Wilson’s week in review.

Initial Observations

Scoring 14 points will never be something to write home about, and the stats reflect it. His -0.089 EPA per play ranked 28th in the league among 32 passers with at least 16 plays in Week 1. His 37.8% success rate was 31st. Wilson’s -11.1 CPOE ranked dead last. Interestingly enough, Wilson’s 10 air yards per attempt trailed only Derek Carr and Baker Mayfield for the league’s lead. At the very least, his approach should make for some entertaining football.

It is worth noting that poor wide receiver and offensive line play hindered the entire offense, and likely had an impact on these metrics. With any sort of positive regression, Wilson’s numbers will look better. Thus, if they stay stagnant, it is likely evident of Wilson performing worse than he did on Sunday.

Despite the flashes of brilliance, the tight window throws, the daredevil pocket maneuvers, and the perserverence to continue delivering after repeated hits, Wilson ultimately did not have a very good day. And that’s okay! It simply means the ingredients are there for Wilson to become a gourmet chef; he just needs to learn not to burn the toast. 

What Wilson Can Improve Upon After Week 1

Play-Action Fundamentals

We start with a rather mundane aspect of quarterbacking: handing the ball off. Or, at least, pretending to. Hailing from a shotgun-heavy BYU offense, play-action passes from under center simply were not on the menu. That inexperience showed up frequently in camp and did not fail to rear its head in Carolina.

An example of it comes here, where Wilson compiles a couple of minor miscues in what ends up being an incomplete pass to Ryan Griffin. Initially, Wilson’s footwork and timing are the issue. He fails to fully close the distance between himself and the running back on the play, Ty Johnson. In doing so, he makes the next part of the process, the play fake, less effective. Wilson fakes a handoff to the air, only to turn and find himself staring down the barrel of two Panthers.

Moreover, it is important to note the movement of the offensive line did enough to draw the inside linebackers towards the ball, and Wilson did enough to temporarily fool Haason Reddick and Jeremy Chinn. It was not enough, though, as the two athletic defenders quickly adjusted. Frankly, there isn’t much Wilson can do about that. Defenders get paid, too.

His lack of a consistently well-sold play fake didn’t blow up in his face here, but if falls under the “bad process” umbrella. Play-action passes are an easy way to attack a defense—maximizing that effect will only make Wilson’s life easier. If you are not convinced, feel free to see Tom Brady dominate with it every Sunday.

Processing Information Within Structure

As I noted in my Week 1 observations, Wilson looked much like his college self on Sunday. Considering how early it got his name called in April, that shouldn’t be too surprising. Where his profile falls short, however, is operating within structure. Essentially, when he is forced to stay in the pocket and think, things get messy. That was never more evident than in his debut’s lone interception.

What was likely Wilson’s worst throw of the day came right here. As you can see in the above diagram, his progression starts on the left and moves horizontally to the Stick-Nod, and if he so chooses, the quick out or flat.

Wilson’s struggles to perform in structure begin as a progressional issue. He has the look he wants, as Elijah Moore breaks inside to create a window between the defensive back and linebacker. Yet, he moves off of it a beat too quickly and moves on to the Stick-Nod. Wilson sees he has the inside leverage on Jaycee Horn, the defender Griffin would be beating up the seam. 

Unfortunately, Wilson took said leverage as permission to let loose. He failed to recognize the hook defender, Shaq Thompson. Whether it was simply an obtuse moment in the mind of a rookie passer, or an overconfidence in his arm to navigate an extremely tight window, the result was the same. Thompson made an athletic play on the ball and promptly ended the Jets’ drive.

Additionally, with Wilson pulling the trigger when he did, options were left unconsidered. This play was on second down, so the need to push the ball downfield was absent. Wilson felt it was a makeable throw, so typically there’s no trouble in leaving the progression unfinished. However, here it became a numbers game with an easy answer. 

Carolina sent four, two defenders were away from the concept, another two surrounded Wilson, and a final two were in the vicinity of Griffin. That leaves one defender for the two checkdown options to the right side of the formation. Given the situation, either one would have been sufficient. 

Now, it isn’t entirely surprising Wilson seemed jittery on these full-field progressions. Throwing in an offensive line’s performance that saw him flattened on multiple occasions acts as a harsh reminder he is, in fact, human. Effectiveness with these types of progressions will be an important hurdle to clear, but for the near future, an increased dosage of half-field, vertical progressions may be the way to go.

The Two-Way Street of Wilson’s Game

Earlier in this piece, I mentioned Wilson’s flashes of brilliance, along with a list of statistics that didn’t exactly love his performance. No play epitomizes the binary nature of his game as much as the following.

Wilson pulls off what can only be described as a nasty evasive manuever to dodge the runaway train dubbed Haason Reddick. It was twitchy, incredibly instinctive, and one of the many times Wilson flashed that skill on Sunday. He then rolled out to his right, found an open man… 

… And promptly botched the throw. 

This, more than anything else, is something New York will probably have to live with. While Wilson possesses above-average accuracy when on the move, all passers run the risk of inaccuracy when they fail to set their feet. Wilson’s mechanics weren’t even terrible for a quarterback on the run. It seems the fluctuation in arm angle (without a set base) hindered his accuracy. 

Again, Wilson is going to be on the move constantly, especially behind the tragedy New York calls their offensive line. He’s going to miss some throws because of it. Trying to limit his game out of a fear of an occasional missed throw would only hurt the rookie. Still, it should have been his second interception on the day. Missing open throws like that with any consistency will get Wilson into trouble, but then again, he isn’t in that situation if it isn’t for his incredible acrobatics within the pocket.

Package Play Struggles

Another part of Wilson’s game that showed both flair and failure was his performance on package plays, where he is making a quick decision post-snap off of a defender’s reaction. 

Wilson was given two right answers on this play. He’s faced with the decision to hand the ball off with an open cutback lane, if the blocks set correctly. Johnson can reasonably be expected to gain a few yards. If he so chooses, there is also a window to hit the slant route.

It’s worth noting that Jermaine Carter Jr. (number 4) makes a solid play here to not make Wilson’s choice obvious. Of course, Brian Burns having his way with George Fant also has a sizeable impact on Wilson’s process.

Wilson once again showcases his instincts by avoiding a direct blow, though he does not successfully evade Burns. He attempts to solve a problem with another problem, as evading the initial contact leads to a fumble, which is possibly a result of him trying to get a throw off as he is falling. Committing to the slant, throwing it in the dirt, or prioritizing ball security are each options with their own degrees of difficulty, risk, and reward. Wilson’s decision to maneuver away from the defender was impressive, but is almost immediately dampened by the ensuing fumble.

Mitigating this aspect of Wilson’s game seems like an unnecessary leash. Yet, certain plays and concepts demand to be executed on schedule. Wilson’s movements moved them off schedule, so a last ditch effort to get rid off the ball seems foolish in hindsight. Good on him for lessening the blow, but once that decision to pivot is made, ball security becomes the priority.

A Quick Sidenote

Props to Wilson for diving for the fumble immediately; it’s an example of leadership that his teammates likely appreciated, even if coaches and trainers cringed.

What Wilson Did Well in Week 1

Pitch and Catch Within Structure

One of Wilson’s best throws on Sunday came within structure, which was nice to see. He also showcased better play-action fundamentals, perhaps because of the nature of the play. Even so, it’s encouraging that he is putting out good tape on the weaker aspects of his game.

Wilson executes this play perfectly. The play fake is carried out well, his feet remain on schedule, and he delivers a good, on-time ball to Corey Davis. Wilson identifies Donte Jackson’s alignment as an indicator Davis will be open, and is correct in his assumption. Also, this is a great route from Corey Davis.

Given a clean pocket, Wilson was able to operate smoothly and show off his arm talent. Everything went as planned, and New York gained 20 yards. Obviously, there will be instances where plays get muddy and Wilson will be forced to move off his first read, deal with pressure, etc., but this should boost our collective confidence in his ability to hit his layups.

A couple of times on Sunday, Wilson missed fairly easy, one-read throws. Those are the types of mistakes that put you in 3rd-and-long. Hopefully, Wilson success here is emblematic of the progress that can be made on other easy throws. That isn’t to say Wilson didn’t make plenty of good throws on Sunday, either; but his -15.46 Accuracy Rate Over Expected must improve.

Keeping the Offense Dangerous

One of my favorite plays Wilson made in his debut was his first career touchdown pass. It was a great example of how Wilson is going to win a lot of reps, even when things go south.

Wilson spent a lot of time outside of the pocket on Sunday, and this play is no different. Carolina’s interior linemen generate pressure, forcing Wilson to relocate. By extending the play, he gives Davis time to freestyle and find space in the corner of the end zone.

On the move, Wilson places this pass well. It gets to where it needs to be and allows Davis to slow himself down and keep himself in bounds. Having the ability to not only get out of the pocket, but to accurately deliver the ball downfield as well, will be critical in the success of the offense. If Wilson’s double-digit air yards indicate anything, it’s that New York will be testing defenses deep. Keeping that threat viable when the defense wins reps at the line of scrimmage is invaluable.

Of course, New York is going to give up pressures on shorter throws, too. We saw it all too often during Week 1. Being able to harness his athleticism will both keep the offense afloat, and more importantly, keep Wilson healthy.

Playing Beyond His Years

Wilson made a handful of plays on the offense’s last drive; it was easily the team’s best series of the day. One play that got a good amount of attention was Denzel Mims’ 40-yard reception. It was a fantastic play. However, parts of it may have flown under the radar.

To start, Wilson navigates the pocket well amidst the pressure. Secondly, he reads the concept well and beats the safety with his throw. Obviously, to deliver a throw with this touch and velocity while getting drilled is insanely impressive. It was a nearly perfect play that shows off the physical and mental things Wilson does well.

The Jets upped the tempo for this possession, given that they were down two scores late in the fourth. Wilson proved he can carry out these assignments exceptionally. Here, Carolina’s defense is still getting set up, but Wilson recognizes he has everything he needs and takes the snap without a set defense. It was intuitive, effective, and ultimately, a veteran-like play from a rookie in his NFL debut.

Keeping Cool Amidst a Big Moment

The final play that stuck out to me was Wilson’s second touchdown pass. In need of a score, Wilson effortlessly navigated a smaller field to find Davis.

This play is executed perfectly. Wilson was calm, cool, and collected amidst the chaos. Wilson takes his drop and hits an open Davis right on schedule. Additionally, Wilson did not just deliver a good ball. He retained the proper headspace to nail the necessary fundamentals.

Little things like that could loom large for the rookie. Timing is key in the NFL, and being able to operate in tough situations is what gets quarterbacks paid. Having a target that can separate like Davis certainly helps, too. Now we know Wilson can do it, it’s just a matter of doing it consistently.

Final Conclusions From Week 1

Jets fans were incredibly excited about their rookie passer coming into the week. Nothing from Sunday’s action should suppress that. His immense arm talent, out of structure prowess, and tight-window throws against zone coverage define his game. I would expect a more successful vertical attack to join the arsenal in the near future.

Still, Wilson fell short on multiple occasions on Sunday. As long as we see progress, that is not something to worry about. The struggles with horizontal progressions were legitimate, as were some of his throws under duress. Still, Sunday could have gone a lot worse, considering the circumstances.

This weekend will give Wilson his biggest challenge to date: New England. Wilson must set his protections better if he wants to give New York any chance of winning. It goes without saying that stepping up to this challenge is the next step in proving Gang Green has a franchise quarterback. Don’t expect Bill Belichick to make it easy for him.

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