Zach Wilson wasn’t seeing ghosts in his NFL debut against the Panthers. Instead, his vision was clouded by a sea of white on seemingly every snap.
Wilson’s introduction to a starting defense was a rough one. New York’s prized passer had his way with reserve defenses throughout the preseason, standing in the pocket and going through his reads without much worry. He was not afforded that same luxury against Carolina, as the Jets’ offensive line failed their rookie quarterback for the first half of action.
Led by Brian Burns, the Panthers’ pass rush terrorized Wilson early and often. The BYU product was running for his life at the snap of the ball on almost every snap — much like Sam Darnold in the early days of his Jets career — and did not have the necessary time to get into any sort of rhythm.
As such, Wilson looked like a shell of the player he was in the preseason for the first 30 minutes of New York’s season opener, tossing a bad interception that set up a Panthers score. He also did not get much help from his rushing attack or wide receivers, who dropped a couple of passes.
“That first half, there were so many missed opportunities,” Robert Saleh said postgame. “A lot of dropped balls. Had a couple of potential explosives that resulted in drops. Even in the run game, just not getting the push and the edges that we’ve been accustomed to getting during training camp and preseason games.”
Wilson remained under constant duress early in the third quarter, but he orchestrated a scoring drive that completely turned the tide of his first game with the Jets.
Wilson put the Jets on the board with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Corey Davis with 1:25 remaining in the third. Wilson rolled out and fired a strike to a wide-open Davis in the end zone before using his legs to convert New York’s two-point conversation attempt, making it a 16-8 game.
The most impressive part of the drive? Wilson, despite his pass protection essentially working against him, went a perfect 4-4 for 42 yards.
First career TD pass for @ZachWilson
— New York Jets (@nyjets) September 12, 2021
“Every series is a new series,” Wilson said. “It’s kind of like a new game, almost. Even early on when things were struggling, I felt like we were so close to having that play.”
It was all positives for Wilson from that point on. His late-game efforts were not enough to help the Jets begin the 2021 season with a win, but they did give New York a chance to emerge victorious after being down 16-0.
Wilson found Davis in the end zone again with 1:56 remaining, this time from eight yards out after driving New York deep into Carolina territory. The Jets never got the ball back to give Wilson one last chance at late-game heroics, but he did more than his part to get Gang Green within striking distance after being dead in the water for most of the game.
Wilson wasn’t perfect on Sunday afternoon. He made some questionable decisions and poor throws. The Jets can take solace in what their rookie signal-caller showed late in the game, though. Wilson did not succumb to the pressure with the Panthers breathing down his neck. He fought back with all of his might, showing the intangibles that don’t get as much attention as his big arm or ability to make plays off-script.
“He’s fearless,” Saleh said. “He really is. He’s only going to get better from this.”