Zach Wilson proved one thing on Sunday: He can take a licking and keep on ticking.
The Jets’ 23-year-old franchise quarterback was absolutely pounded in his NFL debut, behind a porous offensive line that kept him under pressure and running for his life most of the game. Because of that, Wilson got off to a bad start, getting shut out in the first half and throwing for only 84 yards.
But boy did that change in the second half, even though the beating kept coming. Wilson ended up completing 20-of-37 for 258 yards for two touchdowns and one interception and nearly rallied the Jets to an impressive victory. He fell just short in Carolina and left with a 19-14 loss.
The beating Wilson took was really brutal, and the six times he was sacked don’t really tell the story. He probably avoided another six on his own, as he showed off his escapability. He even was able to make a couple of “off schedule” plays.
But at the start, there wasn’t a lot he could do because the whole line was crumbling around him. George Fant, who got the surprise start at right tackle over Morgan Moses, was particularly bad. But the pressure came from everywhere. And it killed the Jets’ running game, too. Their longest rushing play of the game was 12 yards because their running backs couldn’t get through the line of scrimmage without getting crushed.
Wilson was just 6-of-16 for 84 yards and an interception in the first half, which was a small miracle considering how much he was rushed and how many times he barely got rid of the ball as a Panthers defender was ramming into him. Oddly, he wasn’t pressured a ton on his one interception. He just didn’t get the ball high enough over linebacker Shaq Thompson when he was trying to hit tight end Ryan Griffin.
But in the second half, he found his rhythm, even as the pressure continued. He got on the scoreboard in the third quarter when he rolled away from an incoming pass rusher and fired a 22-yard touchdown pass to Corey Davis. And then, late in the fourth quarter, he had a remarkable series in which he hit Braxton Berrios with a 25-yard pass on a fourth-down throw, then found Denzel Mims for a 40-yarder.
He was sacked hard on the play after that, with his helmet bouncing hard off the turf. But on the next play, he found Davis for an 8-yard touchdown that gave the Jets a fighting chance with 1:56 to play.
The Jet didn’t get the ball back, which was a shame because they had some momentum and Wilson was starting to look like an NFL quarterback. He just didn’t have enough time … which really, considering how the offensive line played, was really the theme of the game.
Here are some more takeaways from the disappointing debut of Wilson and new head coach Robert Saleh …
– As if things weren’t bad enough for the line, they lost LT Mekhi Becton in the third quarter when a Panthers defender fell into the back of his right leg. Becton was down for a while and it looked bad enough that Saleh came onto the field and several players knelt around him. Becton had to be helped to the sideline and then carted to the locker room with a knee injury. With him out, Fant moved over to LT and Moses took over at RT.
– Wilson didn’t have a lot of time to find his No. 1 receiver, Davis, for most of the game, except for one big 35-yarder in the first half. But that changed late and Davis finished with 5 catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns. Only targeting Davis 7 times in this game, with Keelan Cole and Jamison Crowder were out, feels like a mistake. He’s their best play-maker and they needed to find ways to get the ball into his hands earlier than they did.
– Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur promised to ride the hot hand at running back, but in this game he couldn’t find one. Tevin Coleman got the start, but all three got carries within the first seven plays. In the end, Coleman had nine carries for 24, Ty Johnson had 4-for-15 and rookie Michael Carter was 4-for-6. None of them were very effective thanks to the aforementioned offensive line.
– The injury to Crowder should have opened up a huge door for rookie receiver Elijah Moore, who was the most exciting player in Jets camp for much of the spring. But it didn’t carry over. He dropped the first two passes thrown his direction. The first was a short dump off where he was wide open. The second was a deep pass that might have been difficult, but in the end went right through his hands. He finished with one catch for minus-3 yards (though he did have a 22-yarder called back on a penalty.
– Sam Darnold was outstanding early against his old team, because … well, of course he was. He completed 24 of 35 passes for 279 yards, completed a 57-yard touchdown pass to another ex-Jet, Robby Anderson, and he ran for a 5-yard touchdown. Unfortunately for him, he was a non-factor in the second half as the Jets mounted their comeback. After halftime, Darnold completed just 7 of 13 for 45 yards.
– The Jets had no answer for Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey, especially after rookie Jamien Sherwood got hurt – though honestly, it’s not like they seemed likely to stop him when Sherwood was in there. There were gaping holes in the middle of the field and any time McCaffrey broke through the line (which was often). He finished with 98 yards on 21 carries and nine catches for 89 yards. And it wasn’t just McCaffrey. The linebackers were really out of position on Darnold’s 5-yard touchdown run late in the first half.
– The Jets lost safety Lamarcus Joyner to an elbow injury in the first half, and that was a big deal because they were counting on him to be a disruptive force in a young secondary. Also, they’re not deep at that spot, especially after putting Sharrod Neasman on injured reserve on Saturday. His replacement, Sheldrick Redwine, looked lost. And he got burned really badly on Anderson’s 57-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter. He was quickly replaced by Adrian Colbert, who was elevated from the practice squad on Saturday.
– Despite all those passing yards by Darnold, the Jets’ young cornerbacks were honestly not bad. It’s not like the Panthers receivers had their way with them, even though the Jets’ pass rush didn’t get going until the second half. And Anderson’s touchdown, as noted, wasn’t on the cornerbacks. There were even a few notable good plays, including rookie corner Michael Carter II knocking away third down pass from Terrace Marshall in the first half and a key stop on McCaffrey by Javelin Guidry on a third down in the fourth quarter. The coverage by all of them was pretty tight.
– The Jets also got a decent pass rush, especially in the second half – and that wasn’t guaranteed after they lost Carl Lawson for the season to a torn Achilles. They had only one sack by John Franklin-Myers, but he did nearly have a few more and the heat was definitely on Darnold in the second half.
– The Jets lost punter Braden Mann on his second kick of the game when Panthers running back Chubba Hubbard was dragged into his left knee. But kicker Matt Ammendola didn’t disappoint as an emergency punter, booting it 51 yards on his first kick and unleashing a 65-yarder on his second. Probably not good that the Jets’ MVP was, once again, their punter, though.
– Even with both Crowder and Cole out, Mims was a complete non-factor. In fact, in the first half he didn’t step on the field. It feels like it’s now about more than just him falling behind when he had that serious bout with food poisoning in the spring. In recent weeks he seemed to be getting more and more work at practice. But apparently it wasn’t enough for the coaching staff. Unless there’s an injury they haven’t revealed, or if he’s somehow still recovering from food poisoning, that doesn’t bode well for him at all.