Sunday’s loss to the New England Patriots was the quintessential Bill Belichick masterpiece against a rookie quarterback. For this edition of Zach Wilson’s Week in Review, we’ll dive into each of his four interceptions to assess blame, acknowledge concerns, and draw conclusions before Week 3’s matchup against the Denver Broncos.
A Quick Statistical Update
It goes without saying that eight quarters of football is not nearly enough to decipher whether or not a quarterback will be a franchise guy. That sentiment is amplified with projects like Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Drew Lock, and Wilson. Of course, New York Jets fans hope Wilson’s future is closer to those first two names, even if it takes some time.
That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be acknowledged that statistically, Wilson has been arguably the worst starter in the NFL. Tej Seth of Pro Football Focus does a good job of quantifying this with his Passing Composite Score. By compiling one’s Accuracy Rate Over Expected (AROE), EPA/Play, and Raw PFF Grade, we can determine who have been the best and worst passers through two weeks. For Wilson, his 29th-ranked AROE (-15.46), 31st-ranked EPA/Play (-0.33), and 28th-ranked Raw PFF Grade (-0.05) are emblematic of a quarterback who has struggled mightily thus far.
In simpler terms, Wilson has played-turnover prone football and has not retained enough explosiveness to keep the offense viable. Is that entirely his fault? That almost certainly isn’t the case. Still, Wilson needs to get better. They’ll never overtake New England without said improvement.
Interception 1: Reckless Aggression
Wilson’s first interception of the day also came on his first drop back. Simply, it was a masterclass in trying to do too much.
Needless to say, the above call was likely not optimal, given the play New England ran. Living with that is part of the chess match football is. In terms of the process, I actually give Mike LaFleur some credit. The zone play action is a staple of the offense, and utilizing pre-snap motion is only going to help your young quarterback. There’s nothing inherently detrimental from the Mills concept, and it even resembles a pass that netted Corey Davis about 35 yards in Week 1.
However, the blitz beat the flawed interior protection and with only three routes on the field, Wilson found himself in a pickle. Wilson quickly forced the pass into murky waters over the middle of the field. The defensive back made a nice play, and once the tip drill was initiated, it was game over.
Belichick won this round not with an exotic coverage call, but with fast, disciplined play in the front seven. Getting in the face of Wilson on what was supposed to be a relatively easy tight-window throw was all that was necessary. It was a bad read not out of confusion, but out of reckless aggressiveness in the wake of pressure.
Additionally, it wasn’t too dissimilar from plays against Carolina that should have been sacks. At this point in time, Wilson’s priorities have too often been on making the big play, instead of the smart one. Thankfully, we can reasonably expect this issue to be coached out of him with time.
Interception 2: Electric Boogaloo
Moreover, the second interception of Wilson’s day came on his very next pass attempt. It… wasn’t the most confidence-invoking start of his life. Unfortunately, I found this pick nagging at me after I suggested more half-field progressions last week.
While this interceptions wasn’t truly on Wilson, it’s never fun to see easy throws take turns for the worst. Here, we see a play action bootleg that results in a nice three-level read. Wilson has shown to be comfortable on the move and with these types of progressions.
He’s got two hittable throws in front of him, and makes the right decision. Elijah Moore underneath likely would have been completed, but only for a short gain. There’s a defensive back in position to make a tackle well before the first-down marker.
Davis’ crossing route is the intermediate option of this progression. Against this single-high look, there is a legitimate window to throw into. Wilson identifies it and hits Davis with a catchable ball, even if it’s a little high. For a receiver making as much money as Davis is, New York should expect that to be caught.
Obviously, it wasn’t, and the Jets quickly found themselves in the midst of a nightmare scenario. There isn’t much blackboard material to work with here; Wilson did his job. From there, it’s a matter of keeping oneself in the right state of mind amidst adversity. I cannot and will not speak for Wilson’s emotions. Still, it is worth noting that Saleh and LaFleur may recognize it as part of the learning curve.
Interception 3: Unacceptable Execution
There are a lot of interceptions that exemplify how football is a team sport. The offensive line may break down, a receiver may drop a pass, maybe a coach draws up a horrific play. Sometimes, it’s all on the quarterback.
In the fog of war, there are few opportunities for easy completions. You have to hit your layups.
LaFleur calls a fairly easy play call, fit with a reliable pre-snap indicator for Wilson. Braxton Berrios’ motion shows New England’s hand of man coverage. From there, Wilson should hit Berrios for a short gain or quickly pivot to Elijah Moore’s corner route. He opted for neither.
On third-and-four, the indicator and early separation should have been all Wilson needed. That move-the-chains attitude is necessary sometimes, even if it isn’t fun. Instead Wilson hesitates and puts himself in a precarious situation. He’s late to make the read, throwing to the sideline from the opposite hash, and doesn’t have a legitimate third option in the progression. It’s a two-read throw that he took too long to process and immediately felt the consequences. Wilson delivered a poor, easily-undercut pass, and found himself out of luck once again.
Furthermore, Wilson will continue to toe the line between playmaker and game manager; all the great ones do. Wilson’s instincts and raw talent make explosive plays the expectation, but it also gets him into trouble. This isn’t unique to Wilson either. If you recall, Buffalo’s MVP candidate was uncorking 40-yard, cross-body throws to free safeties on first down not too long ago. On the other hand, this is yet another example of processing miscues while in structure.
Is it coachable? Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. Intangible issues like these can linger into the later parts of a passer’s learning curve.
Interception 4: The Ugly Duckling
Even if it wasn’t actually Wilson’s worst play, no snap illustrated Sunday’s performance better than Devin McCourty’s de facto punt return on second-and-28.
Before I comment on this play, I’d like to link to Vitor Paiva’s work. He broke down Wilson’s Week 2 performance very well, including an in-depth discussion on this very play.
Through two weeks, New York hasn’t been afraid to call the deep shot. It’s been a relatively surprising development, given how Sam Darnold’s offenses operated. That in itself should be a vote of confidence for the rookie.
Here, we see a flood variant, where Berrios’ orbit motion turns into the flat aspect of the passing concept. Davis is running a deep-out from the slot, and Moore intends to carry the safety deep. Against Cover 3, as the pre-snap look would suggest, this should be fairly successful.
However, the Patriots rotate their safeties post-snap to play what looks to be a Cover 6 variant. At this point, Davis, the primary read, is not likely to become open. In turn, Wilson moves on to Elijah Moore and (acceptably) makes the aggressive decision to throw the “go.” The only problem is, it seems Moore did not run his streak. After a vertical stem, Moore tails off to the sideline, corrupting the spacing of the concept. Wilson clearly did not anticipate this miscue and threw what looked like the worst interception of the young season.
Final Conclusions From Week 2
If there is one thing that Sunday showed us, it was that New York is still in the very early stages of this rebuild. Wilson looked downright bad, even if the lowlights weren’t entirely his fault. To some extent, this was to be expected. Part of the process of developing a project passer like Wilson is enduring the bumps in the road. This team is not going to compete in 2021. It likely will suffer a similar fate in 2022. All that matters is that Wilson develops into “the guy” for this franchise.
Overall, it was an incredibly ugly day. No team wants to get embarrassed in their home opener, much less so when their new face of the franchise receives the worst of it. Now that it’s over, the most important part of Week 2 is leaving it in the rear-view, taking what you can, and making sure it doesn’t happen again. Playing in Denver, against an elite secondary and Von Miller, there will be no time for Wilson to wallow.