Zach Wilson has as many NFL awards as wins during this rookie season.
Wilson’s two touchdown performance against the Jaguars in the Jets’ 26-21 win on Sunday earned him his third rookie of the year award. And when the award was announced, Jets fans got to work creating photo-shopped social media tributes including one with the former BYU star posing as Michael Jordon, the NBA’s GOAT, with three fingers pointed, signifying three championships.
Now Wilson gets a chance to battle against the best to ever play the quarterback position when Tom Brady — and his seven Super Bowl rings — come to MetLife Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
To put Brady’s ridiculous playing career in context, the Bucs star’s playing career spans almost as long as Wilson’s been alive.
When Brady, 44, appeared in his first regular-season NFL action on Nov. 23, 2000 against the Detroit Lions in a 34-9 loss, Wilson was just a year old.
“It’s pretty crazy to think about, my entire life he’s been in the NFL,” Wilson, 22, said on Thursday. “I think just knowing the fact that he’s still going and I’m able to play against him is really cool because I’ve obviously watched it my whole life.”
While Wilson is in awe of the legendary QB, he isn’t getting too caught up in the head-to-head matchup.
“As far as me versus him, that’s the last thing I’m thinking about,” Wilson said. “It’s our offense against their defense. I almost feel like the game that’s almost split. It’s not like I can do anything about how our defense does. So, I need to just control what I can control and I’m 100% worried about the defense that we’re getting from them.”
And Wilson’s right, whatever Brady does to the Jets defense is out of his control.
Wilson and the offense must execute against a Buccaneers defense that’s allowing 20 points per game on average this season but just 14 points over their past four outings.
“They’re an aggressive style,” Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur said of the Bucs team. “They’ve got good players and they’re very well coached.”
Aggression is in the Bucs defense’s DNA, a unit coached by former Gang Green head coach Todd Bowles.
Throughout the season, the Buccaneers’ sole purpose is to make teams one-dimensional by eliminating the run. They’ve allowed the third fewest rushing yards (1,316) and the second fewest rushing touchdowns (9), per Next Gen Stats.
Teams rarely run the ball on them. Only 313 times this season, the fewest in the NFL. To contrast, teams have run the ball on the Jets 469 times this season.
That makes teams pass happy, and that’s not necessarily great news for most offenses going against the Bucs (11-4).
Quarterbacks only have a passer rating of 85.4 against Bowles’ defense. A big reason is because of the Bucs’ high blitz rate. They blitz on 38% of their defensive snaps, second most in the NFL behind the Miami Dolphins (who roughed up Wilson two weeks ago).
Against the Dolphins, Wilson was blitzed on 38% of his dropbacks and was sacked four times in those situations. Some of the sacks were a result of poor communication up front picking up the extra blitzer — including backup tackle Conor McDermott missing an assignment — Michael Carter not pass protecting well enough and Wilson simply holding the ball too long.
The loss to the Dolphins provided teaching moments on how to handle the blitz that the entire offense should benefit from going into Week 17 even though the Dolphins and Bucs blitz in different ways.
The Dolphins match their blitzes up with mostly man coverage, which is why they run the second most cover zero blitzes in the NFL. The Bucs match some of their blitzes with zone and man, which can cause confusion and force a quarterback to hold the ball and take sacks.
That’s why they have the second-most sacks (44) in the league, led by Shaquil Barrett (10) and Ndamukong Suh (6).
In the last four games, the Buccaneers have ratcheted up the heat. They have 17 sacks, 60 QB pressures and have allowed a QB rating of 76. The Jets may catch a break as Barrett is nursing a knee injury and hasn’t practiced this week.
However, with the extra blitzing, there will be openings in coverage. The Buccaneers blitz so often, pass catchers are open 50.3% of the time. They only have 11.9% of tight windows, second fewest.
“I’m sure they’re gonna be bringing pressure and doing different things to try and confuse us. I think it’s gonna be a good challenge for me,” Wilson said. “I feel like I’m prepared, and I feel like we have a good scheme going into it. I just feel like I need to just stay focused and just be decisive with the ball.”
It will take his best effort to date if Wilson wants to add another player of the week award.
Robert Saleh, who returned to work this week after his own stint on the COVID list, was optimistic Wednesday that more Jets starters would return off the COVID-19 reserved list ahead of Sunday’s game against the Bucs. He was right. The Jets activated guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, defensive end John Franklin-Myers and safety Ashtyn Davis off the reserve/COVID list on Thursday. Wide receiver Vyncint Smith and defensive end Hamilcar Rashed came off the list as well and are back on the practice squad. Gang Green got nine players back on Wednesday. The Jets beat the Jaguars in Week 16 despite having 19 players out because of the NFL’s health and safety protocols. … The Jets released safety Elijah Benton and wide receiver Isaiah Zuber.