We thought Tom Brady leaving New England for Tampa Bay would end the winter heartbreaks and soul-crushing fourth-quarter drives. It merely delayed the inevitable. In Week 17, the New York Jets fell to the NFC South-leading Buccaneers, 28-24. From promising rookies to glimpses at the deepest parts of the depth chart, let’s take a look at what went down.
Zach Wilson’s best day as a pro was overshadowed by the 4th down blunder late in the game, but it shouldn’t take away from his performance. Wilson, against a talented Tampa Bay defense, totaled 234 yards through the air and didn’t turn the ball over. He repeatedly threw receivers open, dazzled in tight windows, and showcased the twitchiness that got him to New York.
For the second week in a row, Wilson will be tasked with building on a strong performance. Using this final stretch as a springboard for 2022 will be paramount in his, and the team’s, development.
Michael Carter looked good in his few snaps, grabbing nine receiving yards and a 55-yard rush. He’d leave with a concussion soon after. If his rookie campaign is indeed over, he can sit tight knowing he’s locked up a significant role in the future of this offense.
As for the rest of the backs, it was nice to see Austin Walter get a couple dozen snaps in. The production wasn’t impressive (14 carries, 49 yards) but the workload in relief was promising. Ty Johnson saw the rest of the carries and a decent amount of third-down work (three catches on four targets). Frankly, Johnson has disappointed since an intriguing start to the year. He has struggled to produce with any sort of consistency and could be deemed expendable this offseason.
Moreover, it’s time Nick Bawden sees some recognition. New York’s first real fullback since Tommy Bohanon, Bawden has excelled as a versatile blocker in his short stint.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Without Corey Davis, Elijah Moore, and Jamison Crowder, expectations were tempered for the receiving room heading into Sunday; and rightfully so.
Keelan Cole only caught two of five targets, despite Wilson’s impressive efforts. It was a step back from the better performances he’s showcased in 2021. Jeff Smith hauled in a singular 13-yard catch. Denzel Mims did not play in the loss.
Where the conversation turns, however, is with Braxton Berrios. An upcoming free agent, Berrios has emerged as a “must re-sign” candidate. His ability to contribute on special teams, on the ground, and through the air has made him the leading candidate for New York’s fourth wide receiver. A slow offseason could see Berrios start in the slot come 2022.
In Week 17, Berrios was the only New York Jets receiver to make any sizeable impact. Between two carries and eight catches, he racked up 77 yards and two touchdowns. Wilson’s fourth-down sneak would rob him of a chance at a hat trick.
At tight end, Kenny Yeboah and Daniel Brown held down the fort. Wilson was successful in targeting the duo, posting a 100% completion percentage and 65 yards on a quartet of passes. Yeboah may have flashed enough to earn a depth spot next season, but it was a fairly uneventful day for the position group.
The New York Jets offensive line had been dismantled by injuries well before Week 17. Surprisingly, they managed to put together a strong game against a very good Buccaneer front.
On the interior, Dan Feeney and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif outperformed expectations. Alijah Vera-Tucker continued his awesome rookie year, too. The three combined to play a major role in New York’s rushing attack. Tampa Bay’s interior defensive line had a uniquely quiet Sunday.
At tackle, George Fant exited early with a knee injury. His season is over, but like Carter, he’s played himself into 2022 plans for the Jets. His ability to play both tackle spots may become necessary when Mekhi Becton returns. Chuma Edoga would replace him on Sunday. Morgan Moses played well in the loss, though the tackles were outshined by their interior counterparts.
Defensive Line and Edge Rushers
It was a quiet day for New York’s defensive line, an unsurprising development given the talent the Buccaneers possess. Still, a few flash plays slipped through the cracks. Foley Fatukasi racked up two tackles for loss in what was one of the best games of his season. Nathan Shepherd and Sheldon Rankins had some disruptions, too, though they failed to find the stat sheet.
As a whole, the Jets held Tampa Bay to three yards per carry. Given the challenge in the trenches and their propensity to fold against any rushing attack, the defense’s performance against the run was very encouraging.
Much like Week 15’s game against the Miami Dolphins, New York edge rushers were never going to have an impact on this game. And that’s okay! Brady getting the ball out quick is clockwork, so don’t be disappointed in the edge group’s lack of success.
Ronald Blair III would replace Huff, another member of the Injured Reserve (IR) club. Playing 77% of the snaps, I felt he jumped off the screen a couple of times. For a guy whose first snaps of the season came in Week 10, he’s adjusted well.
C.J. Mosley and Quincy Williams share many similarities. Being better against the run than the pass is one of them, and it sure looked like it against the Buccaneer’s talented crop of targets. Brady and company did a good job of attacking the middle of the field and putting the two in a bind on more than one occasion.
The other side of the coin, of course, was found in their run defense. Both consistently held down their assignments and played fast, downhill football to complement the front four.
Perhaps the most interesting position group from Sunday’s defeat was the cornerbacks. In Week 17, the New York Jets, for the first time all year, saw Bryce Hall play worse than Brandin Echols and Michael Carter II. That isn’t to say he was bad, but Mike Evans and Antonio Brown both had their fair share of wins against him.
Echols had another strong performance, intercepting Brady on a fade route to Evans. He had his best game since returning from injury in Week 14 and he rose to the occasion against possibly the best team on their schedule.
On the inside Carter showcased an important part of his skillset, blitzing for New York’s only sack. He too had a pretty good day at the office. Of course, the entire defense got shredded in the game’s final minute, but Brady in the clutch is football’s version of divine intervention… maybe we should grant them a pass.
The star of the show in the safety room this week was Jason Pinnock. The rookie corner started at safety and had his best game to date. He was quiet but effective. Most importantly, he epitomized Robert Saleh’s vision of an athletic, versatile defense. There’s a reason Hamsah Nasirildeen and Jamien Sherwood were handpicked by the rookie head coach. Versatility will be a key for the future of this defense, and Saleh may have picked up his first true win in that regard.
Ashtyn Davis was out-snapped by Pinnock but wasn’t a detriment to the defense. Elsewhere, Elijah Riley played with a ton of energy, and though he was a step slow on the game-winning touchdown pass, he was quick physically and mentally throughout the contest.
Special Teams Units
It was smooth sailing for the New York Jets special teamers in Week 17. This might as well be another segment on Berrios. He’s been a sparkplug time and time again and averaged 27.5 yards per return. When teams intentionally kick around you, chances are you’re doing something right.
No major miscues elsewhere is a moral victory New York will gladly take. No missed extra points, no penalties-turned-to-missed field goals. There weren’t any poorly executed fakes, either!
Sunday may have played host to the most irrelevant soul-crushing loss in recent memory. To play so well only to fall apart at the end in such disastrous fashion was such a “same old Jets” moment. Ultimately, it was the most painful route to the best-case scenario. Wilson played well, as did many other young players, and they kept their pick safe within the top five, at least for now.
As for next week, they’ll head to Buffalo as heavy underdogs. It won’t mean much for their place in the standings, but a promising week could answer a lot of questions as they cross the finish line. For Saleh and his young coaching staff, these next four quarters could be monumental.