With the Jets minus head coach Robert Saleh and 14 players on the active roster and Injured Reserve because of the NFL's Covid protocols, interim HC Ron Middleton led the Green & White to a 26-21 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. While Covid dominated the headlines this past week, the matchup was the fourth time in the common draft era that QBs drafted first (Jacksonville QB Trevor Lawrence) and second overall (Jets QB Zach Wilson) faced each other as rookies. And for the third time, the decision went to No. 2 pick as Wilson and the Jets rode big plays to a victory.
The Jets moved to 4-11 and the Jaguars dropped to 2-13.
Wilson Runs Into the History Books
Zach Wilson set a franchise record for a QB running the football, amassing 89 yards on the ground on three carries.
"Wow," he said. "I don't know if that's a good thing for me or a bad thing for everybody else. It worked out. I wasn't planning on running, it just kind of happened. I felt like I needed to take advantage of what the defense was giving me."
It looked as though the Jags had a shot at Wilson late in the first quarter, but the rookie QB had other ideas on a third-and-5 that resulted in a 52-yard touchdown scamper. Wilson stepped up in the pocket to avoid pressure and sprung free, sprinting up the home sideline. A Jaguars defender couldn't get an angle on him at the 28 and then the BYU product did an excellent job tip-toeing before he juked inside and left yet another Jag in his dust.
"It was the longest touchdown run in my whole life," Wilson said. "It's kind of ironic how it all works out in the NFL. They brought man pressure. I had a couple options, the pocket was kind of closing, I tried to step up. I just kind of found a lane. Fortunately we had all our routes going opposite of where I got out. Everyone was in man. There was just no one left in front of me. Once I got to the sideline, I was planning on just stepping out of bounds. He didn't hit me or push me. I kind of just held on to the sideline and kept going right there. By that point, there was really no one left. Fortunately we got one out of it, so it was good."
Wilson's score was the longest quarterback run -- TD or not -- in franchise history. Since returning from a PCL injury, he has rushed for 4 TDs in five games. He also had a 17-yard scramble in the second quarter.
Then on the final play of the third quarter, Wilson's 20-yard run gave him the highest single-game rush output by a Jets QB. While Wilson did most of his damage on the ground, his counterpart, Lawrence, had a solid day through the air while connecting on 26 of 38 for 280 yards, but his final pass from the Jets' 1 fell incomplete in the closing seconds on fourth-and-goal.
"I was just hoping we got a stop," Wilson said. "It was coming fast, they did a good job driving. I was just praying our defense could get a stop right there, so awesome job by them locking it up. It felt good. I wish it could have been easier and not on the 1-yard line, but we got it."
Berrios' Big Play of His Own
After Wilson's run gave the Jets a 6-3 advantage, WR-KR Braxton Berrios answered the Jags' first TD with a 102-yard kick return to give the home team a 13-9 lead. Berrios, who entered Week 16 ranking 1st among qualified players with a 28.7-yard kick return average, produced the Jets' longest play since Joe McKnight's 107-yard kick return at Baltimore in in 2011. Named a Pro Bowl first alternate earlier this week, Berrios was as decisive as ever and got some good blocking from his return team on his way to paydirt.
"I have to give credit to the 10 guys up front," he said. "They created seams and I did my job in hitting them. It just worked out."
This was the first game in Jets franchise history they had a run of 50+ yards and a return of 100+ yards. Berrios also hauled in five catches for 37 yards including a 12-yard reception over the middle on third-and-9 nearing the end of the fourth quarter. The next play, fourth-round rookie RB Michael Carter found a hole up the middle and kicked it out to the sideline for a 38-yard run that put the Green & White on Jacksonville's 7-yard line. The Jets ended that drive with Eddy Pineiro's 20-yard field goal to extend their lead 26-21.
"It was a great playcall," Carter said of his run. "It was right on time. The guys blocked up it front. Nick Bawden had a key block and all I had to do was squeeze through the hole. It was small, but I squeezed through it. Coaching myself up, I probably should have stayed in bounds there. I'm glad I have a defense that I can lean on. I'm just so thankful."
Carter was not to be outdone, averaging 7.4 yards a carry and reaching double digits (118) for the first time in his pro career.
"We had some guys step up," Carter said. "Up front, especially. They blocked until they couldn't anymore. I have to give a lot of credit to God and the guys up front and the receivers blocking out wide."
After spending the past eight seasons as the Jaguars' tight end coach, Middleton took an aggressive approach against his former team. The Jets made it a two-score game early in the fourth quarter when Wilson backpedaled seemingly forever before finding reserve T Conor McDermott in the back of the end zone for a 1-yard TD. It was McDemott's first career TD in his 34th career game.
"Well I heard the playcall and I just got so excited," he said. "We've been running it all week and when the ball was snapped and I released, I realized there was no one on me. I saw Zach start scrambling and right when he pulled up, we made eye contact. I called for it, he made an unbelievable throw and I just did my best to catch it."
Middleton added: "It's been in the gameplan for four or five weeks straight now. Feeney has been that person that would've been in that position and he's been beginning. It just so happens this week is the first week that McDermott was that guy. McDermott has been saying all along that he's an ex tight end. This guy even came to me and was like, 'What kind of release should I use on it? Should I go out and in or just swim him?' But I'll tell you, we've ran this play twice in practice this week and Zach has thrown it to him both times with no pressure, no ad-libbing at all and he looked very natural catching the ball. He made a hell of a catch today, man. I'm just so happy for him."
On five occasions, the Jets went for it on fourth down and converted on three of those attempts. After two fourth-down conversions on the Jets' final drive of the half, Wilson threw incomplete to Denzel Mims on a fourth-and-goal from the Jacksonville 2. Then past the midway point in the third quarter, Middleton attempted a fake field goal that was thwarted when P Braden Mann was stopped one yard shy of a first down at the Jacksonville 3.
"Yes it was [something we talked about]," Middleton said. "We were going to be aggressive, but we weren't going to be foolish. Every time we went for it on fourth down, it was discussed. It was our game-analysis person, Matt Burke, was giving information and all the decisions were based on that information. It was as a staff that we were going to be aggressive, but again, not foolish."
On the fourth play from scrimmage, the visitors got a first down when S Andrew Wingard took a direct snap and got 4 yards on a fourth-and-2.
See Best Images from the Game at MetLife Stadium
The Jets inactives were WR Jamison Crowder,RB Austin Walter, RB La'Mical Perine and S Elijah Riley. Rookie Jason Pinnock and Will Parks started at safety. Each defender finished with 4 tackles. … Veteran LB C.J. Mosley led the defense with 9 tackles and his strip-sack of Trevor Lawrence in the second half was recovered by DL Ronnie Blair deep in J-Ville territory. … Dan Feeney made his first start of the season, taking over for Alijah Vera-Tucker at LG and Greg Van Roten made his 10th start of the season at RG, replacing Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. … Vera-Tucker and Duvernay-Tardif were out of the lineup and on the NFL's Reserve/COVID list. … S Kai Nacua, who was signed earlier this week, made his Jets debut and had a pair of tackles … CB Bryce Hall broke up what would have been a long touchdown in the first half from Trevor Lawrence to WR Laquon Treadwell. … CB Justin Hardee and WR Jeff Smith returned to the lineup after a stint on the reserve/Covid list. Jags RB James Robinson exited in the first half with an Achilles tendon injury and did not return. .. Dare Ogunbowale took his place in the lineup. … RT Morgan Moses exited the game in the second quarter with what looked like a leg injury but returned later that quarter. … The Jaguars also entered the contest without a number of key regulars including DE/OLB Josh Allen, LB Myles Jack and WR Laviska Shenault Jr.