Sunday's matchup between the Jets (4-8) and Texans (7-5) at MetLife Stadium will feel like a reunion for some and QB Zach Wilson, who will return to the starting lineup after a two-game demotion, is carrying a healthy chip to the table for the December get together.
"I am going to have more fun than I have ever had, in a professional way," Wilson told reporters this week. "At the same time of course, there is a chip of just feeling like I need to prove something, feeling like this team needs to prove something, this offense needs to prove something."
Wilson Asked for the Ball
With Zach Wilson out of the lineup, the Jets produced just 12 points in home losses to the Dolphins and the Falcons. A day after HC Robert Saleh contemplated his starter for Week 14, Wilson, who served as the team's emergency third QB against Miami and Atlanta, walked into his head coach's office and said he wanted the rock.
"I don't want to say I was shocked, but it was pretty cool Monday after the game for him to walk into my office and basically ask for the ball," Saleh said. "I thought that was cool. I wasn't ready to make a decision at that point, but it definitely helped."
On Wednesday, Saleh told reporters Wilson would make his 10th start of the season. The Jets have lost five consecutive games and have scored 3 offensive TDs in their six contests since the bye. Wilson will match up with a Texans defense that is 12th in scoring (20.8 pts/g) but 26th in the league against the pass (245.2 yds/g). While the Jets want to win the turnover battle every week, Saleh's directive to Wilson was clear — "let it rip" and have confidence from the outset.
"That's what we've been trying to preach to him is start fast, that it's OK, it's a good thing he gets better as the game goes on," Saleh said. "It would be even awesome if he can start fast and get better from there. We think if we can do that, it can be something special."
Former Apprentices Have Liftoff in Houston
Robert Saleh has special relationships with Texans HC DeMeco Ryans and Houston OC Bobby Slowik. They both were hired by Saleh as defensive quality-control coaches when the Saleh was selected by 49ers HC Kyle Shanahan to be San Francisco's defensive coordinator in 2017. Saleh was the Texans linebackers coach in 2006 when Ryans took home the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors with 156 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
"He recognized quickly that not everybody is him and so he learned by asking questions, watching tape, seeking guidance," Saleh said of Ryans' coaching career. "The right way not to cookie cutter everybody but teach within their skills and he mastered it quickly, learned the scheme, understood how to be a coordinator quickly, gets his head job. He's going a great job and he's going to continue to do a great job because he's going to continue to evolve not only as a man but as a teacher and a confidant."
While Ryans, promoted to 49ers LB coach in 2018, would eventually succeed Saleh as San Francisco's defensive coordinator when the latter left for the Jets, Slowik flipped to the offense for Shanahan in 2019. He worked his way up and Ryans pegged him as his first offensive coordinator when he was hired last January.
"It's like shoot, he knows every single wrinkle of our defense," Saleh said of Slowik. "But he's been a defensive guy his whole life, so he understands all the nuance and he knows exactly what he's looking at when he watches the tape and you can see it in his play design. So, it's pretty cool to see how he's evolved in his career and the way he's coaching C.J. Stroud. He's doing a fantastic job, and the young man can play football."
Relentless Group vs. Prized Rookie QB
Rookie C.J. Stroud, an Ohio State product selected No. 2 overall two years after Wilson was taken No. 2, is on pace to pass for more than 5,000 yards. He has 20 TDs and just 5 INTs and has become one of the NFL's biggest stories while helping the surprising Texans remain in the playoff conversation.
"He processes fast, he plays fast, he plays big, he plays strong, he plays confident," Robert Saleh of Stroud. "His arm talent is good as anybody."
Stroud will face a defense as good as any. The Jets are No. 2 in yards per play (4.67) and yards per pass play (5.67), No. 4 in INT rate and No. 5 in red-zone defense (42.4%). Stroud averages 295 yards per game, but the Jets' defense has gone 30 straight contests without allowing a 300-yard passer. Stroud, who will operate without fellow rookie Tank Dell (709 receiving yards, 7 TDs) after Dell fractured his fibula, averages 295 pass yards per game.
"It's a relentless group," Saleh said of his defense. "They're a year older, they're a year better, a year faster. It's exciting. They're built the right way man. They line up, they play, they don't care, they just ball and I love watching it. And they're all coming back when you look at the way it's all structured. It's a really young group, very talented group, a hungry group. As far as differences, another year in the system, another year of efficiency in playing fast. What is encouraging is we've done it against all the great quarterbacks too and still have been able to put up good numbers from a defensive standpoint. Still got five games to go, we still got to stack up these great days and do our best to finish strong."
The Texans won't overlook the Jets. DeMeco Ryans knows a good family scrap is on the horizon as Saleh will have his club up for battle.
"We're not going into this game thinking their record doesn't say who they truly are," Ryans said. "You have to be dialed in. We have to be on our game to go and play against these guys because I know they'll be a tough opponent."