EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The highest compliment Bill Belichick could pay Jets quarterback Zach Wilson during the week — a time when Belichick hands out compliments to opponents like candy — was Wilson can “make all the throws.”
That was the first sign of trouble. Then came the game Sunday.
Later, after dismantling the Jets 25-6, Belichick made a point to call Wilson a good player. He referenced a deep throw Wilson made in garbage time, proof of the rookie’s rare arm strength and accuracy. But quarterbacking is much more than physical talent.
Belichick knows this. It’s discipline, rapid processing, clean decision-making and performing under pressure — traits rookies often lack. Talent won’t cut it, and predictably Wilson didn’t on Sunday, throwing four interceptions. His woes were a long time coming.
“When you can start off getting an interception on the second play, it makes it tough for the offense; with what they want to do, (with) a rookie quarterback,” Pats safety Devin McCourty said. “It’s just adding pressure.”
Jets coach Robert Saleh diagnosed Wilson’s problems against the Patriots as discipline-related. Wilson played the game he wanted to play instead of the one he needed to play.
“When you have a rookie quarterback, it’s just having confidence that it’s OK to play a boring game of football,” Saleh said. “That’s really it. He is an electric dude. He’s competitive as crap. And he wants to win so bad. But sometimes it’s OK to be boring. That’s probably the biggest lesson that we can take out of this one.”
The Pats recognized this early during their preparation. All week, they referenced Wilson’s aggressive style, his desire to go deep. Translation: he’s going to throw us the ball.
It was similar to how they viewed another young passer, Tua Tagovailoa, prior to their loss to Miami in the season opener. If the Pats could deny Tagovailoa his preferred targets and timing, they would capitalize.
“That’s what Tua do. If he doesn’t have his first read, he’s just gonna throw the ball up,” said Pats corner J.C. Jackson, who had two picks against the Jets.
Sure enough, Jonathan Jones intercepted Tagovailoa in the fourth quarter after the Pats had properly pressured him and forced him to scramble on third-and-long. The Pats didn’t need to wait that long Sunday.
Wilson threw picks on his first two pass attempts. At various moments, he had three completions to three interceptions, then four completions to four picks. Two interceptions were overthrows, the others displays of overconfidence when targeting Jackson.
He almost threw a fifth.
“That’s what defense is all about. Don’t wait on nobody to make plays,” Jackson said. “Just go out there and set the tone and hopefully your teammates feed off that.”
Wilson is an artist who wants to paint with fast, broad strokes. The Pats handed him a tiny brush and let him drive himself crazy. Any rookie quarterback facing the Patriots — who are now 22-6 against first-year passers under Belichick — should start by studying the one on their sideline.
Mac Jones hasn’t turned the ball over once in two games. He’s completed better than 72% of his passes. He’s handled pressure well. He knows how the game must be played for a player of his age and in his position.
“It’s just part of the game, and our defense is really good. It’s a tough defense to go against,” Jones said of Wilson’s interceptions. “I’ve gone against them in practice and probably thrown a lot of picks, too. It sucks.”
Jones said he shared that advice with Wilson at midfield post-game. Moments later, in a small press room underneath the stands, Jackson was asked about the Jets young quarterback. And again, all he could reference was his talent.
“Wilson’s got a strong arm,” Jackson said. “He can really zip the ball in, put it anywhere.”
But despite that obvious talent, did the Pats believe they successfully rattled him mentally?