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CHARLOTTE, NC – In his NFL debut, New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson discovered what it was like to be Sam Darnold for the past three years.
Under heavy pressure, Wilson was fired six times in a 19-14 loss to Darnold and the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at the Bank of America Stadium, but he impressed teammates with his toughness in nearly gathering the Jets from a 16-0 deficit.
“I’m telling you what, No. 2 will win a lot of fights for us,” linebacker CJ Mosley said.
Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 draft NFL, was not hit in the preseason at all – not a single knockdown. That changed quickly. In all, he was hit 10 times and hit 14 times in 43 dropbacks, according to the NFL Next Gen Stats.
“My throat is a little sore – a little whiplash, but I have to cope,” he said.
On his last sack, by defensive tackle Derrick Brown, Wilson said “it felt like I was hit by a truck for a second.” He got the wind knocked out of him, but a game later he fired his second touchdown pass to wide receiver Corey Davis.
“It was amazing,” said center Connor McGovern. “It was the first time he was really hit. It was great to see how he reacted. We have to keep him cleaner, but the resilience he showed was phenomenal. Every week you will see special things from Zach.”
Despite the poor pass protection, Wilson completed 20 of 37 passes for 258 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. In the 2nd quarter, it was ugly when he started 9-for-22 for just 93 yards. He then girled up and led two long touchdown drives, reducing the deficit to five by 1:56 to play.
“It’s hard,” Wilson said of the constant pressure, “but it’s part of the job, right?”
He did not cope with the early pressure and went 0-for-7 under duress in the first half. He was also 0-on-4 in third place. The former BYU star settled down and started making off-script games, one of the reasons the Jets drafted him. In the second half, he was 3-for-6 under duress and 3-for-5 at third down.
“He obviously took some shots, but he got up again,” coach Robert Saleh said. “He showed determination. He’s fearless, he really is. And he only gets better.”
Darnold, who dealt with similar protection issues during three unproductive seasons with the Jets, made more plays than his successor. He passed 279 yards, threw for one touchdown and ran for another.
After an almost flawless preseason, Wilson entered the season in the midst of high expectations and hype. He quickly discovered that playing quarterback for the Jets is not easy.
Even his first signature game went bad. On his first NFL touchdown pass, a 22-yard throw in which he escaped his pocket and threw on the run to a wide open Davis, Wilson lost his blindside defender.
At the back of the game, left tackle Mekhi Becton suffered a potentially serious knee injury. He was helped off the track and immediately drove to the locker room. The Jets did not provide an update on Becton and said he wants tests.
In the 2nd quarter, Wilson struggled to find a rhythm and discovered that it is much harder to face a starting defense than a defense in the second string, which was the case in the preseason. His worst throw-in was a poorly thrown ball over the middle that was intercepted by linebacker Shaq Thompson.
The offensive played poorly. As a surprise, George Fant started with the right tackle instead of Morgan Moses, who was considered the favorite in the summer-long competition. Moses had started 96 games in a row; last time he did not start was 2014 in his rookie year with the Washington Football Team.
Moses went to the right tackle when Becton got hurt, with Fant switching to the left tackle, his natural position. Running blocking was also not good as the Jets only managed 45 yards on 17 carries. The five starters had no game representatives together in the pre-season and the lack of continuity was evident.
“We knew they would warm us up,” McGovern said of the Panthers. “That’s what happens when you have a younger quarterback. So we have to beat them on the hot throws and make big games. It will slow them down.”