FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets will take their rusty quarterback and their rusty left tackle and head to the Rust Belt this weekend with the hope of finding the offense they imagined in their minds and on their whiteboards from March to August.
The transformation won't be immediate, but second-year quarterback Zach Wilson's highly anticipated return should allow them to open up the playbook on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Acrisure Stadium (1 p.m. ET, CBS). While he lacks Joe Flacco's savvy and experience, Wilson's mobility could be a game-changer for the Jets (1-2).
"Zach is a different player than Joe, so obviously the plan is going to be a hair different in certain ways," offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur said Thursday.
Wilson hasn't played a game in 49 days, dating to the preseason opener in Philadelphia. That night, on his ninth play, he suffered a meniscus tear and bone bruise in his right knee, a non-contact injury that required arthroscopic surgery. By the time he steps on the field Sunday, he will have had only three full practices.
While his timing, anticipation and endurance figure to be compromised after such a long layoff, Wilson believes he's better equipped to handle the return than he was last Nov. 28, when he played after missing four games with a sprained knee. He "felt a little bit weird about it, especially since he never wore a brace before," LaFleur recalled. Wilson wasn't 100%, evidenced by an occasionally clunky gait.
This time, "you wouldn't even know he had the surgery," LaFleur said.
Some might question whether Wilson should play this week, considering the venue and the fact that career backup Conor McDermott will be protecting his blind side, but the Jets said the injury is fully healed, and they believe it's time to start the clock on Wilson's second year, rust be damned.
"Yeah, he’s going to have to feel his way through, but like everything else, the expectation is he comes out and he plays to the best of his ability," coach Robert Saleh said. "Whatever that is, it is, and you’ll be proud of it. Then, from there, we just find ways to get better."
Translation: The bandage always stings when it's ripped off, whether it's now or in a week, but it has to be done.
It's on LaFleur to create a game plan that protects Wilson and doesn't ask him to be Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes. It's not an impossible task. After all, Pittsburgh no longer is the Steel Curtain, especially without star pass-rusher T.J. Watt (torn pectoral muscle). The Steelers are 0-6 when Watt doesn't play, dating to 2017, with an average of 26 points allowed and only 1.7 sacks per game.
A few thoughts on Wilson's potential impact:
• Escapability. Wilson said he has no intention of altering his style to protect his knee, which he claims is 100%. That's good because his ability to scramble and execute designed runs and run-pass options (RPOs) brings a different dimension to the offense, which was limited by Flacco's statuesque presence. Wilson isn't Lamar Jackson (who is?), but he can make a play with his legs. Look at his post-injury performance last season.
In Weeks 12-18, Wilson was third in quarterback scrambling yardage -- 157 yards and four touchdowns. Perhaps it's no coincidence that his best games occurred during that stretch.
"We've never been in a stadium against him, and so there's some unknowns there," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "That's life. That happens, particularly in the early portion of the season in terms of first-time exposure to guys. ... His mobility is different. We'll weigh how that could factor into the play, whether it's in schematics or whether it's those things that he's capable of doing to extend plays or create plays."
Quarterbacks have to be playmakers. See: Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow, who frustrated the Jets last week with his clever movement in the pocket. The Jets hope Wilson can do some of that, buying time.
• A balanced attack. The Jets were too pass-happy with Flacco, who leads the NFL with 155 pass attempts. Now is the time to dial it back and put the ball in the hands of their young running backs, Michael Carter and Breece Hall, who are averaging a combined 4.9 yards per attempt.
Wilson's return is a great opportunity for LaFleur to get back to the core principles of his offense -- a strong running game and play-action passing. He also can move the pocket, adding bootleg passes and quick screens to his menu of playcalls. They're asking for trouble if they make Wilson drop back as much as Flacco.
• Blindside protection. The spotlight will be on McDermott, who replaces the injured George Fant (knee). McDermott is a third-string left tackle whose claim to fame in six NFL seasons is that he caught a touchdown pass as a tackle-eligible. A heckuva grab, by the way. In his six previous starts, the Jets allowed 23 sacks, though not all were his fault.
McDermott received unwanted attention last week on social media for getting overmatched on a sack by Trey Hendrickson, but it was his first game action of the season. He didn't play in the preseason because of an ankle injury, so he was understandably rusty. He should be better with a full week of practice reps. It should be noted that he started in a win over the Steelers in 2019.
• Two-TE package. This is a good week to unleash the two-tight end offense that was hyped in training camp. Tyler Conklin has 18 catches, but C.J. Uzomah (one catch for 5 yards) has been a non-factor.
Their usage of "12" personnel (one RB/two TEs/two WRs) is down from last season, but now they need an extra tight end to help McDermott in pass protection. In other words, they should attach Uzomah to McDermott's left hip, another body on Wilson's blind side.