Zach Wilson: Interceptions/Possible Interceptions

As fans we do have a tendency to play box score scouting, which is to essentially let the final results dictate our perception of a player.  Generally, numbers do paint a true picture, but can omit outlying factors that may have contributed to the statistics.  Look no further than Sam Darnold and his statistics if we want to see a discord between stats and reality.  An offensive system that does not cater to QB development combined with an offensive roster designed to lower the ceiling, and we have an enigma.  The need to evaluate subjective circumstances to objective stats was the task of determining Darnold’s value this off-season. 

In Darnold, we see the objective stats devalue him, but in Wilson’s case, it is artificially raising him.  As far as interceptions count, there should be only two against Wilson (the third was on an end of the half Hail Mary against Coastal Carolina), but the subjective circumstances paint a bleaker picture.  His stats belie his propensity for risky throws, which often succeeded beyond the norm.  Wilson shows a tendency to throw 50/50 balls that rarely get intercepted because the defenses he faced this year could barely match up with BYU.  In the other articles, we have covered a plethora of examples where the defense showed the lack of ability to communicate against late movement, plus the inability to adequately cover the field side receivers.   In today’s article, we are going to look at examples where Wilson threw, or nearly threw, an interception. 

1)

I’m going to say which play this reminded me off.  (*Trigger Warning: Please don’t watch if you suffer from Jets PTSD.  Please alert a loved one before reading on)

1)

I’m sorry. 

There’s a few things wrong with the play, the least of which is the play action to the wrong side.  The running seems to recognize the slot blitz, but Wilson doesn’t adjust the protection, or forgets the adjustment.  Wilson moves on with the play action as if the running back is not in pass protection, which leads to an empty play action.  The running back reads this blitz correctly, and blocks off the slot defender. 

The bigger issue here is that Wilson is locked in on his receiver from the start, and doesn’t see the defender dropping back into the zone.  The one on one read on this throw is perfectly fine from Wilson’s perspective.  The defensive back has his hips open to the field, while the route called is an out route, thus it will be instant separation.  There is absolutely no way the defensive back makes a play on this ball.  The issue is that Wilson is locked in on that combination to the point that he misses the defender floating back and throws it without regard.  It doesn’t cost him here because this is a tough pass to intercept one handed, but the lack of ability here to see the defensive shell changing as the play is unfolding is worrisome. 

From the defensive perspective, they are trying to bait Wilson into this exact throw.  They cover the field side outside receiver in press coverage, and move a safety over without much disguise.  They want the field side outside receiver out of this play.  They want Wilson to see the quick out route as the safe option, and be hurried by the blitz.  Look at the defense from the boundary side here, because they are essentially doubling both of them for a quick pass.  The tight end over the middle has a linebacker in front, and a safety in the back.  The targeted receiver has a defensive back behind him, and the floating lineman (or linebacker) in front of him.  The whole idea is to have Wilson throw the ball quickly, which is the trap that he falls into.  If he trusted his offensive line a bit more, Wilson would have the middle of the field wide open for a sizeable gain, or even a quick outlet pass to the tight end to the left side. 

The difficulty of this pass being intercepted is fairly high, however, it’s falling into the trap that should be more concerning.  There are going to be more defenses in the NFL that will try to play shell games, and it’s important that any young QB recognizes the type of traps that are being presented. 

I’m not sure I will have enough time to break down Justin Fields, but watch the Indiana game, because they are running complex shell games there.  In a few instances, the lineman (or linebacker) drop off to the quick passing outlet, and Fields doesn’t make that throw.  However, I do not want to make this about Fields, so I’ll save it for another time, but if you can, watch that game and notice how often the ends drop back into coverage on those A gap blitzes. 

2)

*Trigger Warning*

2)

I’m sorry, I’ll stop. 

Once again, Wilson is locked on the receiver, but misses the backside defender making a run at the play.  He absolutely doesn’t see the guy, because he essentially floats this ball over the middle trying to make it an easy catch. 

In Wilson’s case this is mostly a high low read based on the defender (safety?) that eventually drives on the ball.  The problem once again is that the defense is baiting this exact combination.  We all see the safety doesn’t go with the high crossing route, and eventually drives on the ball.  On the other hand, watch the high crossing route as well, because they have a safety waiting on the other side to drive on the ball.  Essentially they are double teaming the middle of the field, and letting the outside routes be one on one.  They are letting their cornerbacks handle the deep go routes, baiting Wilson into this throw and he falls right into the trap. 

The other issue with this throw is that Wilson is perfectly protected in the pocket.  He doesn’t even float back like he tends to do at times, yet rushes this throw.  This is a good instance where he should have used his mobility to create time, rather than taking this risky option.  However, since Wilson doesn’t see the blindside defender, this throw wasn’t a risky option as far as his mental processing told him at the time. 

Wilson showcases this aspect a few times on tape, where the backside defender surprises him over the middle.  He’s much more apt at taking advantage near the sidelines, where it’s likely to be one on one matchups.  It might explain his tendency to make sideline throws at a far greater rate than throws over the middle, because backside defenders aren’t as much of an issue near the sideline.

3)

This is an interception, albeit I don’t put the full blame on Wilson here.  This should have been a penalty on the linebacker, he basically bumps into the receiver throwing him off the route. 

Contrary to the result, this is a good read by Wilson, because he is presuming the WR breaks around the linebacker, at which point he will have inside position on the safety.   He makes the throw quickly because there is a late blitz coming in through the C gap.  Once the wide receiver trips, this play was going to end in a negative fashion, and the safety picked it off. 

The only negative for Wilson on this play is that the ball is a bit behind where I presume the target should be given his route.  However, it’s nearly impossible to tell because the receiver trips, and lunges forward. 

 The whole play is a bit odd because Navy actually does a good job of disguising the defense, and Wilson plays it safe.  Navy is showing a possible blitz from the field side (safety lined up over slot corner), but sends a blitz from the boundary side safety instead.  With Wilson’s first read also to the boundary side on a go route, it is a bit surprising that he didn’t take the go route option without a safety in play.  Instead, Wilson opts for what should be a safer throw, and ends up with an interception.  This is an interception where the blame falls mostly away from Wilson.  

4)

This is an almost interception against Navy, on 2nd and 1.  The main issue here is a miscommunication that I think partially highlights their offense. 

The positive from this play, is the inverse of the first play we highlighted in this article.  The defensive tackle is performing a stunt when he sees the tight end run after a chip release, and occupies the lane.  Wilson isn’t quite looking at that route, but it does bear mentioning that Wilson didn’t take that bait on this play.  Wilson is looking at the field side outside receiver from the start, but the defender is playing it well.  They established inside position, and up until the moment of decision is looking at the QB, before running step for step with the receiver.  If Wilson throws this ball, the defender knows it is coming, and is in good position to make a play on it.  Wilson moves away from that position and goes to his other reads.

The negative on this play is a miscommunication between Wilson and the receiver.  The defender on the boundary side receiver is step for step with him, if not ahead, so the receiver uses the option for a back shoulder opportunity.  Wilson however is facing pressure and throws the ball assuming it’s a go route.  The receiver does a great job to get a hand on the ball and prevent an interception.  This is a timing issue where Wilson doesn’t confirm the route before throwing, partially because he’s coming off his primary read and rushes the process a bit. 

The big issue here is the timing of the decision point for Wilson.  He should have read the in route as being covered, and moved to the boundary side receiver one step quicker, to avoid this confusion.  That extra step caused enough delay that his receiver had to take a different option, at which point it was too late.  Since they are joined at the hip in comparison, this play in terms of delay, reminds me of Justin Fields interception against Clemson to effectively lose the semifinal game against Clemson a year ago.  The delay in moving from read to read, caused the wide receiver to assume a different option, only for the QB to make the decision at exactly the wrong moment. 

One thing to add, watch the right tackle on this play, as a testament to BYU’s offensive line power.  He takes on a defender, and while still engaged to him, just takes that defender and throws him into the blitzer to tackle both of them down.  This is like big brother playing against younger brother and their friend level play. 

5)

I’m not going to bother finding a Geno Smith throw for this, but you know this is a Jets QB throw from the past decade. 

This play is fairly simple to diagnose, Wilson doesn’t account for the backside defender at all.  His first option is the tight end and he’s reading the middle field linebacker, as he bites on the play action.  Once Wilson sees he bit on the play action, he assumes the tight end will easily get by this guy and just throws up a floater.  The linebacker recovers in time to bump the receiver and possibly even qualify for a penalty. 

The egregious error here is once again Wilson not accounting for the backside defender on the play, which leads to an almost interception.  If the middle field linebacker doesn’t bump his own safety on this play, this probably is an interception.  Wilson is locked in on the matchup between the linebacker and the tight end, and makes this throw in that vacuum.  As much as the linebacker bit on the play action, Wilson bit on the linebacker running too far in, and just lobs the throw.  You will see these types of throws when the offense has an offensive lineman in as an eligible receiver, and the whole defense forgets about them only for the QB to lob a pass in for the TD.  Yes, the Jumbo Elliot TD. 

At this point, there should be a small pattern with Wilson and backside defenders in the middle of the field.  Once he’s locked in, he seems to have trouble accounting for them at times.  This isn’t an issue on every single play over the middle, but it props up over the middle more so than sideline plays.  Mixed with his propensity to throw sideline balls, one has to wonder about his ability to make reads in the middle of the field at times.  

This should have been intercepted. 

6)

This is another pass that barely escapes being intercepted, as it falls out of the defender’s hands.  There isn’t too much to dissect here, Wilson faces pressure and tries to throw a screen pass over a jumping defender.  The pass sails too high, the running back barely touches it, and the defender drops an interception. 

One of the issues with Wilson has been his tendency to float back in the pocket at times in the face of pressure.  He does it again on this play, albeit it doesn’t quite matter because the blocking on this play seemed doomed from the start.  The center hands off the defensive tackle expecting the right guard to slide over, but the guard is late, thus a tackle runs through the middle.  The fullback (or tight end) to the right of the right tackle basically just ignores the blitzing linebacker as well. 

However, the possible interception falls on an errant throw from Wilson as he just floats it too high.  This isn’t an issue of missing the backside defender or taking risks, this is just a bad throw.  

7)

This is another almost interception, although part of the problem was being hit while he was about to throw. 

The main concerning aspect of this is the empty play action here, which again raises the question of Wilson recognizing the blitz and setting protection.  The running back recognizes the blitz and moves directly to the spot, while Wilson still goes through the play action causing a slight delay.  Most QBs in college do not do well with setting protections at the line, but it’s concerning to see the running back realize it, yet Wilson performing as if the play action is still in on.  

A linebacker gets through the offensive line (looks like a tight end that was blocking), and hits Wilson as he’s throwing.  Wilson tries to release the ball quickly, but doesn’t have that much zip on it, and is almost intercepted twice.  The main issue is the play action may have caused a slight delay in processing time, which may have led to this pass. 

The secondary issue is Wilson not moving around in the pocket on this play, because this is an excellent opportunity to step to the side and then find a passing lane.  It’s this aspect of pocket maneuverability that remains a question mark because he’s very much used to having clean pockets.  He shows flashes of being able to maneuver in the pocket, but having the ability to sidestep defenders is key for playing in the NFL.  It’s especially true playing for the Jets, behind guards (*checks notes*) to be determined and to be determined. 

8)

If you play with your friends in your backyard, chances are you will try to emulate some of your sport’s best players.  In this instance, Wilson tries to emulate a no look shovel pass from Patrick Mahomes, and almost turns the ball over. 

This play is a run call from the start, as you can see everyone else gets into a blocking position down the field.  However, the defense is draped all over the running back, at which point Wilson should just hold onto the ball and try to get however many yards he can manage on his own.  Instead, Wilson tries a no look pass without any real benefit deep in his own side of the field.  Wilson has more than ample space to run to the outside and get a few yards, but bypasses that option for this shovel pass. 

This is just a terrible decision. 

9)

I’ve seen this exact play dissected by about 4 different people, yet I still don’t understand it.  Wilson looks in the vicinity of a wide open route, and somehow moves on for a route that is perfectly covered.  It is once again far hash mark to the field side outside receiver, albeit this is just a terrible throw.  There’s not much to make sense of this play, he looks at open area, moves away from it, in a clean pocket, to throw a terrible interception.  The defender is looking back at Wilson, while being right next to the receiver, thus a back shoulder pass is the worst decision here. 

This is just a theory, and just something that I feel might be happening with Wilson.  He reminds me a bit of Ryan Fitzpatrick (with a better arm) where his mind is somewhat made up at the line of scrimmage, and the actions he takes are designed with that play in mind.  For example, in this instance his main priority would be holding the safety away from the outside receiver, thus he looks him off.  This could explain why he’s looking at a wide open area and moves on, because his intention for this play is the outside receiver as the first read.  Fitzpatrick had a tendency to pre-determine targets at the line, to the point where Gailey ran a bunch of mirror concepts so he could just pick a side.  The good part of this theory is that Wilson learns how to manipulate defenders because he realizes the actions necessary to set up those passes.  The downside is of course he pre-determines the throws which means he may not be as apt in going through the progressions, and be vulnerable to be baited in the NFL, much like Fitzpatrick. 

This isn’t a deeply analyzed theory because it’s hard to tell progressions without actually knowing the play call.  This is just a thought I had while watching some of his 2020 tapes, because there are a few throws (some good, some bad) where he seems to have reached his decision point before turning fully towards the receiver. 

Overall, Wilson shows a tendency to miss the backside defender, especially over the middle.  As much as the Geno Smith clips might be traumatic, Wilson does not stoop to that level.  However, it is concerning because with better competition, those interception numbers could have been much higher.  The stats make him look like a safe passer with a cannon of an arm, but he takes much more risks than those stats would lead you to believe.  Wilson’s ability to detect the backside defenders (especially ones that peel off coverage) is going to be crucial in his development.  

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