To a certain degree, the Jets and the Falcons are in parallel positions entering Week 5. Robert Saleh and Arthur Smith are both first-year head coaches who are at the helm of 1-3 clubs. But Saleh and the Jets have a rookie QB at the controls in Zach Wilson while Smith and the Falcons are guided by veteran Matt Ryan, who is in his 14th season. The two teams converge on North London on Sunday when they meet at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Wilson is coming off his best game as a professional as he passed for 297 yards and 2 TDs in the Jets' 27-24 OT victory over the Titans last Sunday. For his play, Wilson was named NFL Pepsi Sugar Free Rookie of the Week, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur was commenting on the ongoing learning process between signal-caller and gunslinger.
"One thing that I'm still trying to figure out with Zach, and trying to get him comfortable is what's the balance between getting a quick, short completion as opposed to letting him just go right away," LaFleur said. "And every quarterback is a little bit different with that, that I've been around. That will still just be a work in progress to see how we can get him in a rhythm right from the get-go."
Through four games, Wilson and Jets have yet to score a point in the first quarter. But he led a TD drive in the second quarter against the Titans before getting hot in the second half. Not only did he complete all four of his 20+ yards throws against Tennessee for 156 yards and a TD, but he also connected on 14 of 18 of his passes that covered seven-or-fewer air yards.
"Just with the confidence down the field, whether he's having, in his standard, a rough day or a good day, the kid's not going to lose confidence," LaFleur said. "Every play is going to be a new play for him, and he feels like he can make all the throws and that's where sometimes we got to pull back and say, 'It's OK to play a little boring here because these guys are confident, too.' The defense, they're in the league, too, trying to make plays."
Wilson will attempt to make plays against a scuffling Falcons defense that favors zone coverage in the back end and allows a league-high 32 points a game. The still dangerous Ryan (minus No. 1 target Calvin Ridley) will face a Jets defense that racked up seven sacks of Titans QB Ryan Tannehill last week and is tied for sixth in QB hits with 27.
"Whether they're running games, which is guys lining up in certain spots and crossing and running around and trying to pick you, or different things that way, I think they do a nice job with that," Ryan said of the Jets' pressure. "They match that up with just penetrating and pinning their ears back and rushing, so I think it's a good mix of the two. The thing to me is I think they play with great effort and it continues to show up on third down. They do a really good job of staying on the same page. If it's a penetrating call, they all penetrate. If it's a game call, they all kind of play in synch. They're well-coached that way."
Well-coached by Saleh, DL coach Aaron Whitecotton and DC Jeff Ulbrich. Ulbrich served a number of number roles from the Falcons in 2015-20 and Ryan has a "ton of respect" for him and he's appreciated the effort the Green & White have put on film.
"They're playing hard," Ryan said of the Jets. "You look at on the defensive side of the ball, they're playing pretty well. It's a front four and a linebacker crew that does a great job vs. the run and the pass. I think they've done really well on third downs, they've been effective in pressure and playing tight man coverage and just being really good in third-down situations. I've been impressed watching them."
The backdrop for this interconference contest will be the North London home of Tottenham Hotspur, an asymmetric bowl with a seating capacity of more than 60,000. It was designed like a concert hall with great acoustics, so the place could be jumping Sunday and the Jets want to be bouncing off the walls by kickoff.
See the Top Images from the Green & White's Practice Across the Pond Before the Week 5 Game Against the Falcons
Saleh said Friday: "I'm biased. I know soccer, European football is considered the No. 1 sport in the world, I think football is the best sport in the world in terms of just the energy, the fanbase, the absolute love and passion fans have for it, especially in the States. And to see it growing internationally and to see the interest just goes to show it's a universal sport. And I think the goal is to hopefully get this brand growing worldwide. I think it's pretty cool."
After starting 0-3, the young Jets have an international opportunity to head to the bye on a two-game win streak.
"When you have a young group and they have early success, you never know what it can snowball into," Saleh said. "They become invincible. You guys were all young once, we'd jump off a roof, didn't think twice about it, right? But it's the same thing. They get the ball rolling, they get confidence and all their athleticism just pops out and you just see the speed elevate."
The Jets are playing faster and last week they saw the collective result for their effort. If they can play a sound game again in London, it would be a modest win streak for a team just starting its ascent. No matter the outcome, the club that is embracing the grind will be forced to sit one out next week.
"You wish the bye was a little bit later, especially with a 17-game season," Saleh said. "But they usually give those bye weeks to teams who they're expecting to make a playoff push and that's something that we're going to earn."