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Baby Steps for the Jets

The Jets may be starting to evolve

NFL: New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday the Jets took a few baby steps towards the land of relevancy with a 24-20 comeback win on the road in Pittsburgh. Being that my college roommate of four years is from Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, (a suburb of Pittsburgh) it made the win for me all that much sweeter. It takes wins like this to elevate a team, give them belief in themselves for the long road ahead this year.

The Jets entered the game with an all-time record in the state of Pennsylvania of 1-16 with the only win coming in Pittsburgh back in 2010. The Jets have never beaten the Eagles (0-12) all time, but that will change the next time the Jets play them; hopefully in the Super Bowl.

The win came despite the Jets being down 10 with 5th and 6th string offensive tackles by the time the game got into the 4th quarter. The Jets had to use their right guard, Alijah Vera-Tucker, as an emergency tackle because of injuries. AVT was a tackle in college so he had some expertise in the position, but he never played or practiced there (if he did he did so briefly) as a pro. The job he did there will not go unnoticed by the coaching staff as ATV did an excellent job of protecting Zach Wilson even as the defense pinned their ears back to rush the passer. The Jets will likely again be looking for help on the waiver wire if the injuries turn out to be severe to the offensive linemen.

Make no mistake. Wins like this one can be season changers and even franchise outlook changers for an NFL team. The chances of the Jets coming back and winning this game, on hostile ground, with substitute players were minimal. I’m sure the Steelers themselves felt the game was in hand even with a rookie QB at the helm.

It was not that they won. It was how they won; as a team with an unflinching QB who was harassed immediately almost every time he went back to pass. Zach Wilson never dropped his head. He never complained to his linemen, and he never lost faith. He made a glaring mistake, but he fought back. He led his team to victory. That was most important aspect of the win. Players will remember that. The confidence they have in their young QB grew like the Grinch’s heart after a Christmas miracle. Next time they are down they will know they can come back because they saw it before.

There were so many aspects of the game that made for a special win.

This was a pure team win because it was done with the help of nearly every player.

The offensive line was near horrific the entire game, letting pressure on Zach Wilson almost as he took the snap. Running lanes for backs were nonexistent. But when the team was down late the line did their best work. Even when the Steelers knew the Jets were going to pass, they gave Zach Wilson the most time he had all day. They also opened enough holes for the Jets running game to work for the winning score. It was a tough day all around for the offensive line, but in the end they did enough, under extreme circumstances to make the difference between winning and losing. That effort will help that line grow in the future.

I thought the way Zach Wilson played was outstanding, not because he was so perfect on the day but the way he handled himself and the confidence he showed on the field. Remember Zach hasn’t seen live action this year since the first preseason game when he was injured. That is a long time between snaps. Additionally he was playing on the road in a hostile environment and knew that the offensive line was short handed. Yet he showed a lot of leadership, kept fighting no matter what. I think Zach did a little growing up in front of our eyes on Sunday. You could say he showed some moxie.

After the Steelers scored with 13:36 left in the game and the crowd now howling, Zach led the Jets on a 6 minute, 5 second TD drive that lasted 11 plays and 81 yards to get the Jets back into the game. He hit Corey Davis on a nice adaptation of a whip route on a fourth down throw. Then after the third defensive INT he led the Jets on a 10 play 65 yard drive to score leaving 16 seconds on the clock. He did so calmly like he had all the confidence in the world. It will not be overlooked by his teammates. This was a day of growth for Zach Wilson.

The defense wasn’t great. They bent, but they didn’t break, holding the Steelers to only 17 total receptions and a 3.8 rushing average on the day. They had 4 interceptions and forced two fumbles which I will take every week. There is definite room for improvement, but they hung tough. Quinnen Williams had a sack, 7 tackles and a TFL, and rookie Jermaine Johnson had a sack, 4 tackles and a TFL on limited snaps which is a nice job.

Special teams were finally special for a change. Greg Zuerlein was perfect on extra points (3) and FGs (1) and forced a touchback on every kickoff except the pooch kick after the Jets had a kickoff from the 45 because of penalty; the return was only 7 yards. Braden Mann had a great day with 5 punts that averaged 47 yards apiece and two inside the 20 yard line.

There were some troubling aspects of the game as well.

The roughing call on Mitchell Trubisky near the end of the half was egregious by a veteran player. I thought the call was a poor one. It was a 50/50 type thing, but Carl Lawson is a veteran and he should know better. You never give the refs the ability to call a penalty when you are on the road. It happens more times than not, especially playing a team with great history like the Steelers. He is supposed to be a leader. That was a stupid penalty that gave the Steelers 3 free points and some momentum going into the half. Robert Saleh has to come down on players for doing these things. He needs to call him out in front of the team and make him apologize for his stupidity. Plays like that can lose you games.

Mike LaFleur called a decent game, but he needs to scale down the wild plays he throws into the game plan. The Philly special that scored the first TD was well-designed and executed, but the fake sweep throw back to Zach Wilson was foolish and almost caused a disaster. You tempt fate when you make players who are not used to catching the ball do so. Also with the pressure Zach Wilson was getting, I want to know if there is a screen pass in his playbook because we never saw it.

Lastly shame on Joe Douglas for doing such a poor job of not bringing in talented tackles for the offense. He is a former offensive lineman who was suppose to value the linemen on the offense. He had two starting offensive tackles with checkered injury histories at the start of training camp. Mekhi Becton played on half a game in 2021 even though he was supposed to be out only 8 weeks. He never made it back for OTAs or minicamps and started the year on the PUP list. Fant did well last year but he, has played 90% of the snaps in only 42 of 84 career games (50%) so the need was definitely there. Fant also started the year on the PUP list, never a good sign. I had been screaming even before OTAs to bring in some quality backups, but all we started the year with was a rookie 4th rounder who was never meant to see the field.

The Jets had to resign Conor McDermott (eating $450,000 in dead money when we cut him) who couldn’t make the team and start the rookie at right tackle; the same rookie who was responsible for the whiffed block in the preseason which caused Zach Wilson to run for his life on the play of the meniscus tear. When you start bringing in a 37 old Duane Brown and a player like Cedric Ogbuehi you are asking for trouble. Brown cost the Jets a two year $20 million contract that will never see two years but will leave a boatload of dead money next year when he could have re-signed Morgan Moses who did a good job last year. He liked being with the Jets, and the team (with the injury histories of their tackles) could have told him he could win a competition for a starting job. Moses signed for $15 million over 3 years with the Ravens when the Jets showed no interest; stunning. I’m sure Joe Douglas will be on the phone continuing to look for replacements. In case Joe is reading this, here are the names of guys you should call: Eric Fisher, Daryl Williams, former Jet Brandon Shell and Bobbie Massie. They are the best of what is left, hopefully one can get up to speed.

All in all it was a great win for the Jets with lasting implications for the future. If Zach Wilson can continue to grow, the offense should be better (if we can get even average offensive line play) and better. This is a year to start showing some growth as a team, and this win was a good start. The Jets are 2-2 with Miami coming to town. A win would at least tie them for 2nd place in the division. The next 3 games are against some very tough teams so the Jets will need to continue to grow. Steel sharpens steel so I hope the Jets are up to the task.

Go Jets.