Of all Sunday’s battlegrounds against the Jets, none should swing the war quite like how well the Patriots can pressure Zach Wilson.
Because the book on Wilson is out.
He is a talented, flawed passer who crumbles inside crumbling pockets. Wilson is the lowest-graded quarterback under pressure this season, per Pro Football Focus. He fails and flails because first and foremost, he wants to show off his arm.
And as physically gifted as he is, Wilson cannot resist the urge to chase big plays, despite the dangers of taking unnecessary sacks or throwing interceptions.
The Patriots, of course, know this. In three meetings against Wilson, they’ve sacked him seven times and grabbed a matching seven interceptions. The Jets are 0-3 versus the Patriots since drafting Wilson with the No. 2 overall pick last year. This season, they’ve overcome his poor play with a well-rounded roster that is deeper and more talented than the Pats’.
But that wasn’t enough in a 22-17 loss to three weeks ago, and it may not be again Sunday.
Here’s how the Patriots can cause Wilson and Co. to crumble yet again.
1. Double Garrett Wilson on passing downs
Not only is first-round rookie Garrett Wilson the Jets’ leading receiver in every major statistical category, he is their top deep threat.
Wilson burned the Pats for catches of 54, 23 and 18 yards in their last meeting, plays the coaching staff surely highlighted in meetings this week. Curiously, Bill Belichick opted to double Wilson on the Jets’ first third down of the game, then hardly doubled him the rest of the game. Expect to see a higher rate of double teams (or safeties over the top) on Sunday.
If he’s eliminated, Zach Wilson will need to turn to his other leading receivers, tight end Tyler Conklin and running back Michael Carter, who are far less likely to break for an explosive gain or a touchdown on a given play. That’s a win for the Pats
2. Force Zach Wilson to be patient
Before Patriots defensive back Myles Bryant faced off with Wilson twice last year and once last October, he went head-to-head with the young gunslinger in college.
His University of Washington defense owned Wilson’s BYU passing attack over a 45-19 win in 2019, a day Bryant said he helped execute a game plan similar to what the Patriots have done in each of their last three meetings with the Jets. They played two-deep coverages and forced Wilson to be patient, knowing he would eventually force a throw and make a mistake.
“I played Zach when he was at BYU and it was the same kind of thing. … I think a quarterback like that, when you have that kind of arm, you want to put that on film and put that in the game plan,” Bryant told the Herald. “So he’s going to take his shots.”
In addition to keeping two safeties back, look for the Patriots to get creative with their four-man rushes to fluster Wilson. Last month, he threw his first interception against the Pats after Matt Judon hurried him as part of a four-man pressure that confused the Jets’ offensive line. Because as Judon rushed, fellow outside linebacker Josh Uche dropped into a short zone in Cover 2 zone while a blitzer came up the middle.
Pressure, impatience, pick. Bingo.
3. Expect run-game changeups
Like the Patriots, the Jets are also coming off a bye week during which they self-scouted.
Surely, at some point, they discovered how and when they can run the ball more effectively, a key for them considering Wilson’s struggles when he’s forced to throw. For starters, they’ve averaged 5.1 yards per carry on power and counter runs, designs that involve pulling guards, compared to fewer than four yards per carry on outside zone, the one-time base of their run game. So, will they call more power and counter plays Sunday?
It’s possible. At the very least, the Patriots must enact whatever adjustments are necessary to counter the Jets’ game plan because there will be wrinkles. And considering both teams’ questions at quarterback, whoever can run the ball best Sunday might just run away with a win.
“I’m sure they’ll have a couple new wrinkles for us, and I’m sure we’ll have a couple new wrinkles for them,” Bill Belichick said this week. “We’ll see how it goes.”