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Projecting Zach Wilson's Numbers Against Steelers in Return From Knee Surgery

How will Wilson perform in his first start since he underwent knee surgery in the preseason?

After missing the first three weeks of the regular season while recuperating from a preseason knee injury, Zach Wilson will make his first appearance of the season on Sunday, kicking off his second year in the NFL.

Creating an environment that fosters success for Wilson was the Jets' principle goal of the offseason. That's why they attacked free agency and the NFL Draft in search of playmakers, reeling in a mix of veterans and youngsters to complement their franchise quarterback's skillset on offense.

Now, against the Steelers on Sunday, Wilson will have his first opportunity to utilize those weapons. He'll have a chance to establish the Wilson-Wilson connection with first-round pick Garrett Wilson, who has been spectacular with Joe Flacco under center, while mixing in some passes to tight ends Tyler Conklin and C.J. Uzomah. Wilson will also look to keep the chemistry flowing with returning receivers like Braxton Berrios, Elijah Moore and Corey Davis, who have all been kept relatively quiet over the first three weeks of the year. 

Here's a prediction of exactly what Wilson's numbers will look like on Sunday in Pittsburgh with a quick breakdown of why he'll find success and struggle:

Zach Wilson vs. Steelers: 18-for-33, 227 yards, 2 INT, 2 TD

Wilson is rejoining his teammates and making his 2022 debut at both the perfect time and the worst time.

On one hand, he's coming back against a team that's struggled mightily on defense to begin this season. Pittsburgh has allowed 252 passing yards per game, more than 21 other teams. They're 1-2 with losses to the Patriots and Browns. 

That said, he'll be back under center while the Jets are managing a nightmare scenario at offensive tackle, missing Mekhi Becton, Duane Brown and now George Fant. Rookie Max Mitchell and journeyman Conor McDermott are starting at the tackle spots on Sunday. 

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While Wilson's mobility and elusiveness in the pocket are poised to help this offense and lead to some explosive plays downfield against the Steelers, remember that the 23-year-old is making his first start of the year. There's going to be levels of apprehension as he gets back into the swing of things inside and outside the pocket, testing out his knee. 

Don't be surprised if the Jets work hard to establish the run early on, something they haven't been able to accomplish yet this season. That would make life easier for Wilson when it comes to the play-action pass and finding soft spots in the secondary.

Wilson struggled mightily during his rookie year with discipline, sometimes trying to do too much with his arm talent. Considering he's making his first appearance of the year, you have to figure he's going to try and make plays right away and make up for lost time. That's why he'll throw at least a couple ill-advised passes that lead to turnovers. It wouldn't surprise me if he's hit with a strip sack at one point either, something that happened to Flacco a few times last week against the Bengals.

Still, you're going to see the flashes of brilliance that have the Jets and their rabid fan base excited about the future. Moore will have his first breakout performance of the season, eclipsing the 100-yard mark, while Wilson tests out his new toys, targeting Wilson (the WR) more than anybody else, just like Flacco had done in his place. 

The goal for Wilson on Sunday should be to come out of the game healthy, regardless of the result, and begin to show growth. Sure, competing for a postseason spot later this year would be nice, but development for Wilson and this young roster around him is far more important. Patience isn't easy, but if this unit can figure out how to blossom with Wilson under center, the Jets have the potential to be good for a long time going forward. That path to contention and success still hinges upon Wilson's evolution. 


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