New York Jets QB Zach Wilson medically cleared, will start against Pittsburgh Steelers

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson, cleared to start Sunday after missing three games with a preseason injury, said Wednesday he has no intention of altering his playing style to protect his surgically repaired knee.

"I'm full go. I'm going to play ball how I can," Wilson said after his first full practice in seven weeks. "If somebody comes up, [I'll] make somebody miss, get out on the edge, extend plays when I need to, hang in the pocket. I'm playing exactly how I should be."

Wilson tore a meniscus and suffered a bone bruise on a noncontact play in the first preseason game. Afterward, coach Robert Saleh chided the second-year quarterback for not running out of bounds. On Aug. 16, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, the same knee he sprained last season, which caused him to miss four games.

Barring a setback in practice, Wilson will "absolutely" start against the Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2) at Acrisure Stadium, according to Saleh.

"He's very comfortable," Saleh said. "He's in a great mental state. Everyone is comfortable with where he's at physically."

The former BYU star, drafted second overall in 2021, was initially expected to miss two to four weeks. On Sept. 7, four days before the opener, the Jets announced that Wilson would return for Week 4 at the earliest.

"It's the happiest I've been in a month," Wilson said.

The Jets went 1-2 during Wilson's absence, with Joe Flacco leading them to a stunning comeback victory over the Cleveland Browns in Week 2. Flacco is fifth in passing yards (901), but he has led the offense to only five touchdowns in three games, including two in the final 1:22 of the Cleveland miracle.

Wilson said he tried to learn from Flacco, a 15-year veteran, but there's bound to be rust after missing so much time. Wednesday was the first time since training camp that he participated in 11-on-11. For the previous two weeks, he was limited to individual drills and light 7-on-7 work after practice.

"I feel like I understand the learning points even though I wasn't playing," Wilson said. "So now it's, how can I apply those without having the reps?"

Trying to manage expectations, Saleh said the Jets can't rely on Wilson to carry the offense. After all, he has only 13 career starts and didn't play particularly well as a rookie -- throwing only nine touchdown passes and 11 interceptions.

"It's exciting to get him back out there," Saleh said. "But at the same time, it's not all about Zach. It's making sure we're executing on all cylinders."

Wilson returns to a unit that has struggled to protect the passer -- allowing nine sacks. Left tackle George Fant (knee) was placed on injured reserve Tuesday, meaning career backup Conor McDermott will get the nod in his place. McDermott, re-signed after being cut at the end of the preseason, struggled in last week's 27-12 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Saleh said the unsettled situation at tackle didn't cause any hesitation in returning to Wilson.

"His knee is 100 percent," Saleh said. "As far as the tackles are concerned, we've got all the faith in the world in the guys we do have. Max [Mitchell] is playing really well, and McDermott has played a lot of good football."

The Jets face a Pittsburgh defense known for its exotic pressure packages, but it hasn't been the same without elite pass-rusher T.J. Watt (torn pectoral muscle), who was placed on IR Sept. 15. The Steelers are 0-6 without Watt, dating to his rookie season in 2017.

Wilson downplayed the offensive line situation, saying he's just excited to be back. Teammates picked up on that vibe.

"When we started [practice]," center Connor McGovern said, "he had the biggest smile I've seen in a long time."