Zach Wilson: Concerns Under Pressure

One of my main concerns with Wilson is his transition to the NFL is his ability to adjust to pressure.  His OL was legitimately great in comparison to the competition, which meant he had clean pockets far more often that any other prospect I remember.  Of course, that is subjective but it is just an anecdotal observation.  These are a series of plays where I’m concerned about Wilson’s decision making under pressure and how he will translate to the NFL because he’s going to face these kinds of pressures on a regular basis playing behind the Jets’ offensive line.  In terms of pressure, I am really only looking for pressure that isn’t intended, so if he needs to throw a screen pass and the line lets the defenders move up the field, it’s not counted. I’ve also tried to discount pressure where he has 5 seconds to throw, and then eventually someone comes close to him for a pressure.  Also, as mentioned in the other articles, there are good examples of him performing under pressure as well.  This one deals with some of the negatives that I noticed.  

1)

The first one we are looking at here is essentially a throw-away pass against Boise State, where the linebackers run a stunt on the blitz.  There is one tight end there to block the C gap, but two defenders rush it, thus allowing for a free runner at the QB.  Wilson sees the rush, looks outside, and throws away the pass.  This is a great decision by Wilson, I’m not complaining about this decision at all. 

Here’s why I wanted to highlight it, because this is the exact type of situation where there seems to be this idea that Wilson’s quick release, quick processor will find the quick hot throw, or escape the pocket.  There seems to be a narrative that his ability to make off-platform throws, various arm angles, and improvisation helps him transition to the NFL and facing pressure.  It is a very good skill to have, but it’s masked by lack of consistent exposure to quick pressure.  First of all, if you watch Jets film, blitz stunts, blown assignments are very common for the offensive line we employ, and QBs going back to Geno Smith were constantly under quick pressure. 

In a normal pocket, let’s presume only one linebacker blitzes, this will most likely be a back shoulder pass to the field side outside receiver.  The defender is in the perfect position for it, the receiver is already looking at the ball, and there is no one else in the vicinity.  However, in a clean pocket, making that throw is a great pass, but it does not mean he can do it under pressure.  I wanted to dispel this notion that because he does not need to plant his foot as much, and can make throws off-balance, that it doesn’t translate as much as I’ve seen with the hype under pressure.  It’s similar to the Darnold draft as well, when one of the talking points revolved around his off-platform ability, how he didn’t need a clean pocket to function.  Fast forward three years, and yeah, he needs a clean pocket to function, regardless of his improvisation skills in college. 

This is where I think Justin Fields is a better fit on the Jets, or any team that has a bad offensive line because his running threat gives pause to overload blitzes, or he could avoid the first rusher on himself.  It doesn’t happen all the time, but he has a better chance of using his athleticism to regulate pressure or wriggle free than Wilson.  It is not always, and it’s not saying Wilson won’t be able to do it, but I’m saying he has a better chance.  Pure arm wise, the better fit is Wilson, but I think overall athletic fit for the Jets is Fields (if we pick him, I will break down his film as to why).  Now, if we argue that we are going to build a green wall as the offensive line, then that changes the equation.  If we are dealing with the notion that the offensive line is going to be top 5, you can probably make a better argument for Mac Jones over the rest.  

Once again, the throw away is the right choice here.  I’m just laying the base for the hype to be contained on Wilson’s quick release/improvisation skills negating pressure.  It’s a major concern because I don’t think he faced pressure quite as often as others (asides from Mac Jones).  He’s done well under pressure (I’ve seen the PFF stats too), but I think part of that deals with pressure before a throw which may have taken 4 seconds to formulate.  I do not have the stat, but I would love to know his stats on quick pressure and how he fared. 

2)

This is a bizarre play, and in retrospect, I should have put this in the baffling decisions article.  On the outset, this seems like a throw away, or a bad pass.  The bizarre aspect is that this is a play at the end of the half, and there is 4 seconds left on the clock when the ball is snapped.  Pretty much all of the choices in this route combination don’t work because none of them could be completed with enough time remaining for another play.  I’m presuming the call was either a quick pass, or take the deep shot down the boundary sideline, but pressure got to Wilson before he could pull the trigger. 

Here is what concerns me about the pressure, and it deals with the situation as well.  Wilson has more than enough space to step up in the pocket, buy time, and possibly set up a throw down the field.  Instead, he sees the pressure and throws the ball away, which also allowed him to be hit directly, when he could have avoided it by moving up in the pocket.  I don’t understand this play call nor decision making here, because it was just a bizarre play.  I even went back and forth with the tape to see if this was the end of the second quarter or not, and it is indeed the end of the half. 

This is one of the more long developing pressures, but I put it here because it was more about situational awareness being thrown out during pressure.  Although this could be just a bad call on the sideline from the coaches.  My presumption is that they were trying to set up the play where everyone is focused to the field side, and then sneaking the boundary side go route in as a one on one match up.  I don’t quite understand the defense here as well, as they aren’t playing further back. 

3)

I’ll say this is a bad, great, bad play in terms of emotions as you watch it unfold. 

The first bad:  Wilson floats back in the pocket as he is wont to do, which leads the defensive end right up the field.  In this case the defensive end does not quite take advantage, but unless you have an amazing OL (or playing against the Jet’s pass rush), defensive ends will make you pay if you do this consistently.  Speed rushers will move up the field and have the tackle on an island, vulnerable to a various sets of moves.  If Wilson maintains pocket integrity, he will be protected far better.  This is a major issue with Wilson (others do it too, not to this extent) and something he has to work on before starting in the NFL. 

The great: Wilson steps up and moves up in the pocket, which is exactly what he should do if the defender is parallel to you or behind you.  It allows him to buy some time, build momentum towards a throw, which is exactly what he should be doing.  This is a great sight to see because Wilson does have a tendency to float backwards against pressure and throw off balance at times.  This is also a major concern for Trevor Lawrence as well. 

The second bad:  He throws this into double coverage.  As I talked about in the interceptions article, Wilson seems to have an issue with blindside defenders.  He seems to get fixated on one-on-one match ups and completely neglect the blindside defender.  In this instance, Wilson doesn’t see the safety on the play, and throws what could have been an interception if the safety picked up the ball faster. 

Wilson has the easy outlet pass for some relatively small yards but takes the risk down the field.  The play ends up being a positive because a defensive lineman hit Wilson after the throw to draw a penalty. 

4)

This is a play where there is unexpected pressure because the left tackle basically gets pushed right into Wilson.

The main aspect of this play is Wilson’s progression issues, and how he does not play within the structure.  I included the end zone view here to show Wilson’s head turned towards the field side outside receiver.  Notice the timing of the stems for the routes all over the field.  The tight end in the middle breaks first along side the tight end emerging from the middle to run the quick out route.  Behind the tight end in the middle, there is an in breaking wide receiver route.  The go route to the field side is the last one, because the receiver turns his head after all the other routes have already gotten to their stems. 

Wilson starts off this play looking directly at the field side outside receiver, when his progression should have led him elsewhere first.  If he follows the normal progression, he will see the tight end is open on this play as he’s getting pressured.  It does not serve any purpose to stare down the outside receiver when he doesn’t reach the stem of his route (or the point where he looks for the ball) after the other routes.  You can notice Wilson gets away from that route right before the pressure because it’s well covered, and he needs to move on.  However, the pressure comes at an unexpected moment because the left tackle gets pushed into him.  

Once the tackle is pushed onto him, this is just a broken play and he is running around trying to find an angle.  The other aspect of this one is the low throw, as it is ruled an incomplete pass.  I can’t tell if it’s too low to catch, skips, or if it goes through the receiver’s hands.  However, notice that Wilson throws this pass of his back foot, and it does not quite get there.  It is great to see off balance jump throws that seem great when defenders aren’t around, but it doesn’t always translate to throws under pressure.  This example reiterates the issue I was talking about in Play 1, where his ability to throw off platform does not mean it always translates pressure situations.  A lot of the hype seem to be centered around Mahomes/Rodgers type capability, but those guys are on another level.  No one says “Oh I hope he’s risky like Johnny Manziel” because that’s the negative side jump throws and arm angles.  Do not get me wrong, Wilson’s ability to release the ball quickly is a great asset, and so is his ability to make off-platform throws.  I’m saying those assets are limited when under pressure, which he will likely face in the NFL, and a lot of fans seem to think he will make Mahomes in the Super Bowl type throws because of those skills. 

5)

This is a simple play action roll out with a flood concept, where he must pick from four options.  The pressure comes from the chip release where the defender overpowers the tight end, leading to a slightly early decision point. 

As soon as that defender clears the chip block, Wilson needs to make a decision.  He has the outlet pass to the running back open.  He has the tight open in front of him as well, which he eventually tries and fails.  He also has a deep crossing route that is coming open, which once again would be a magical throw off balance.  However, because there is pressure Wilson does not attempt this pass, but rather does a decent job of eluding the first rusher. 

The big problem with the throw is that Wilson short arms the pass, because he is afraid of his own throwing motion with a defender in his blind spot.  That is the worst part of this play, because for as much as he can throw off balance or improvise, he will need to learn how to deal with a crowded pocket where guys might be behind him.  This issue stems from the clean pockets he’s used to, and you somewhat see the same issues in Darnold.  At times he speeds up his delivery because he sees ghosts behind him, because the pressure takes a toll. 

This is another play where the unexpected pressure causes him to have issues with decision making, because he has open guys on the play.  This isn’t the Jets situation where pressure is combined with covered receivers, and the QB is scrambling to find any option.  He has 3 clearly open guys on the play, but he does not pull the trigger.  One thing I do want to add is the play action against thin air again.

6)

This pressure comes from the defensive tackle basically just beating the center, who does get called for a holding call as well on the play.  This is an errant throw from a busy pocket. 

The good:  Once again, Wilson shows good mobility by stepping up in the pocket, which is exactly the right move here.  The defensive tackle has him to his right, so he needs to step up in the pocket.  Part of the issue here is created by Wilson’s propensity to float back in the pocket, which allowed the defensive end to rush up the field, and block off an outside escape route. 

The bad:  Wilson starts off looking at the outside receiver because there is a corner blitz from that side.  Therefore, it’s actually a good sign that Wilson notices that side before because he knows the receiver has a good chance of being open against a safety, especially considering the route.  However, once again, he throws off balance from the pocket and it just sails.  Again, having the ability to throw off balance doesn’t mean he’s perfectly fine throwing off balance under pressure. 

7)

Overall, I like most of this play, as the unexpected pressure is created by a linebacker just blowing up a block. 

I’m not the biggest fan of rolling out to the left by taking a loop, but Wilson escapes the pocket away from the linebacker to buy some time.  He is pretty much locked into the field side outside receiver here, but that is also partially because he needs to escape the pocket.  Once the linebacker breaks through, his only viable option is the outside curl route, thus we cannot blame him for staring him down. 

I love the anticipation on the throw, because Wilson reaches his decision point (partially forced there by the defender) right before the receiver makes his cut.  That is exceptional anticipation for the college level.  However, with a defender near his blind spot, Wilson short arms the ball once again.  This is a concern if Wilson alters his throwing motion to the point that he cannot be nearly as accurate.  In the NFL, he’s going to have defenders in his blind spot more often, and he needs to adjust to being in a pocket where he doesn’t have all the room. 

8)

This is a similar C gap stunt we saw earlier in the article, and Wilson fixated on the field side outside receiver.  There is not much to dissect here, this is another example of him speeding up his process and making an errant throw.  The good aspect is that once again, the decision point of this throw comes right before the receiver makes a break, but the throw is off-line. 

Overall, the main point of this article is to point out that he does have exceptional improvisation skills, but that does not make him immune to pressure.  It’s a major concern for his transition to the NFL because he’s not going to have the ability to escape the pocket as much in the NFL.  It’s concerning that he short arms a few balls when he has defenders in his blind spot.  At one point, I was going to skip this article, but saw folks saying his improvisation will help negate initial offensive line struggles, and I disagree.  He does not showcase the athleticism to be high end mobile in the NFL, but rather a scrambling QB.  He needs to adjust to throwing passes with defenders in his blind spot more often.  It is not to say that other QBs don’t have to make that adjustment as well, but they faced pressure more often than Wilson (except Mac Jones), thus have more experience. 

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