Jets have found winning script with emerging defense, Zach Wilson's smarter play

Zach Wilson big smile helmet off postgame vs. Bills white jersey
Zach Wilson big smile helmet off postgame vs. Bills white jersey

This was exactly what the Jets wanted to see from young quarterback Zach Wilson. The fact it came off the heels of one of his worst games as a professional quarterback made it all the more sweet.

Wilson managed Sunday’s 20-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills to perfection. His numbers weren’t gaudy (18 of 25, 154 passing yards, a touchdown, no interceptions, and 24 rushing yards), but the key was that he didn’t do anything to put the Jets’ chances of victory in harm's way.

He played within the structure of the offense. He took what the defense gave him. If a play wasn’t there to make — he made it. If it wasn’t — he never forced it. Instead, he threw passes away, he took sacks, he scampered to yards himself.

This is the quarterback the Jets have been waiting to arrive this year.

And If he’s here to stay, the Jets won’t just be playing meaningful games down the stretch — they’ll be in the postseason.

Not a soul over at One Jets Drive saw this 6-3 start coming. As Robert Saleh said multiple times over the offseason: He knew the Jets were a better team, but he stopped short of claiming anything else for a reason. And, no, that reason wasn’t to spite headline-craving media.

The Jets were realistic. They knew they were young — so, so young — with the core of their team littered with first- and second-year players. It was going to take time for that youth to mature. The goal was to try to hit three wins, maybe four before the bye. That would set this team up to be relevant in December.

But this?

No one saw this coming.

The six-win Jets sit a half game out of first place in the AFC East. Their six wins are tied for the most in the conference. Just the Minnesota Vikings (seven) and Philadelphia Eagles (eight) have more wins across the league. The Jets have been able to accomplish this seemingly-improbable feat because the youth they felt would take time to develop has matured at an astronomical rate. Cornerback Sauce Gardner and receiver Garrett Wilson are rookies playing at a Pro Bowl level. Another rookie, Jermaine Johnson, is fast approaching that level, too.

Corner D.J. Reed (25), defensive tackle Quinnen Williams (24), and tight end Tyler Conklin (27) aren’t rookies, but they’re playing the best football of their careers. The Jets are getting key contributions from running back Michael Carter (23), defensive linemen Carl Lawson (27) and Bryce Huff (24), along with stable play from the few veterans they do have in guard Laken Tomlinson, tackle Duane Brown and safety Lamarcus Joyner.

It’s taken the Baby Jets, as Saleh affectionately calls them, and turned them into a win-now ball club. And that youth is only going to get better … and better … and better.

The Jets have gone from the NFL’s homecoming opponent to a legitimate force.

Now it’s on Wilson to make sure that doesn’t change.

Wilson, at this point in his career, is not capable of putting a team on his back. And guess what: That’s perfectly OK. It’s not that the second-year passer is developing slow, a bust or anything of that nature. He just hasn’t developed as uncharacteristically quick as so many of his teammates. So, right now, he’s where most quarterbacks are after 19 games.

There’s undeniably physical talent. He can make every throw. He’ll flash a few times every game just how special he can become. But, when he tries to do too much, as he did against the New England Patriots, there are catastrophic repercussions. Wilson’s biggest problem right now is inconsistency — which is completely and totally normal.

They key for the Jets is finding a way to marry a win-now team with a quarterback who’s still developing. The best way to do that is not ask, or have, Wilson do too much. That’s the recipe to success.

During the NFL Combine this year, Saleh said one of the best things the Jets could do to help Wilson’s development was improve New York’s defense. The Jets have done that … to say the least. They’re seventh in DVOA and yards allowed per game (312). They’re eighth in points per game (19.6). That includes a slow start. You’d be hard-pressed to find a defense playing better football than the Jets are right now. You can make the argument that, over the last month of the season, they’re not playing like one of the best defenses — but the best defense.

And that defense is going to keep the Jets in virtually every game they play. Look at what they did to Buffalo’s Josh Allen, one of, if not the NFL’s best, quarterbacks. Allen finished Sunday 18 of 34 passing (52.9 percent) for 205 yards with zero touchdowns, two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 46.8. It’s elementary math: If the defense allows 19.6 points per game, all the Jets need to do to win is score 21.

The game plan for the Jets to continue to win games after they return from their bye is simple: Continue to play that dominant defense, then gut it out on offense. The Jets want to run the ball, put it in their playmakers hands, and, sometimes, when the opportunity presents itself, take a shot or two down the field.

Aside from a magical fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Jets won in spite of Wilson against the Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, and Miami Dolphins. He got away with near turnovers. He missed layup throws. He wasn’t managing the game as much as the Jets seemed to be trying to win without him.

That changed against Buffalo. All those times Wilson bailed out of the pocket? They were gone. He stayed in, and when he faced pressure, he ran forward, not backward. He was accurate and decisive. Maybe the most impressive play came on the Jets' game-winning drive. Facing a third down near the goal line, Wilson took a sack instead of throwing a pass up for grabs. No, the Jets didn’t get a touchdown, but kicker Greg Zuerlein kicked the game-deciding field goal.

That’s a quarterback the Jets can win with while they wait for Wilson to catch up to his teammates. You needn’t any more proof than the result of the game against the Bills.

The Jets took down arguably the best team in the AFC. Let that sink in.

And it won’t be the only time that happens if Wilson can stick to the script.