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Steelers Film Room: Garrett Wilson is a Nightmare to Defend

The Pittsburgh Steelers have their hands full against a rookie that is already one of the most difficult matchups on their schedule.

Week 4 against a rookie wide receiver is no easy task for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If you were someone that was following along with the site's draft coverage in the spring, you probably remember me raving about Garrett Wilson's skill set. The Ohio State product was WR1 on my initial receiver rankings released prior to the NFL combine and he held on to that crown throughout the cycle. 

Here is an excerpt from my writeup on him coming out of college which explains why I fell in love with his talent: 

"Wilson separates at a very high-level thanks to his wicked quickness and is explosive getting in and out of his breaks. He's also shown to be calculated in his release package off the line of scrimmage. His change of direction and stop/start ability shows up when he's got the ball in his hands after the catch making him an exciting weapon." 

So far, through three contests of his NFL career, Wilson's performed exactly how I and many others expected him to, quickly acclimating himself quite well to the professional level. The 10th overall pick currently leads the New York Jets in catches (18), yards (214) and touchdown receptions (2). The jump in competition hasn't seemed to faze him much as he's already put some really solid corners on blast with impressive wins on reps in single coverage.

In his first NFL action against the Baltimore Ravens, Wilson already looked different from most rookie receivers. On third and ten in the first quarter, Wilson ran a sail route from a slot alignment. Well covered initially, he works back to the football as Joe Flacco encountered pressure forcing him to check down underneath. 

Wilson makes fellow rookie Kyle Hamilton look foolish in open space before making another defender miss, nearly converting this into a first down. Good things tend to happen when the Jets are able to get the ball into his hands, as he can effortlessly turn something into nothing in an instant.

Many of his pre-draft critics wondered if Wilson would be able to be a true number one receiver and a significant threat in the red zone due to his slender frame. Where he makes up for this is quickness to pair with a calculated release package. 

New York isolated him to the field side and Wilson displays patience at the line of scrimmage, utilizing a foot fire release, threatening the corner inside with a jab step before striking back outside for the fade. This is easy money for the rookie, as you rarely see receivers that are able to create that much separation in such a short amount of time in the red zone, which makes for a simple pitch and catch for his quarterback. 

The Jets will motion him around the formation and early on, they've been able to hunt favorable matchups with him aligned in the slot where most of his production has come early on. 

On this rep, the Jets come out in empty and motion Wilson inside into a stacked alignment leading the Browns to "banjo" with Greg Newsome picking up Wilson in man coverage. The rookie gives a skip release off the line of scrimmage, jab steps outside before quickly breaking off a slant route in the middle of the field. 

Newsome has inside leverage by default, making this win even more impressive for the rookie given the difficulty of the coverage and the caliber of player he was going up against. 

Early in the Bengals matchup, the Jets found themselves in need of a third-down conversion and caught Cincinnati in man coverage. With Wilson lined up in the slot, he was able to win off the line of scrimmage without being fazed, running an over route to empty grass with Joe Flacco found his man in stride. 

This play is designed to create a pick with the mesh between the two crossers but Wilson's pure speed is more than enough to run away from Bengals slot corner Mike Hilton. This turns into an explosive play after a gain of 23 yards to move the chains. 

After watching all of his reps through three weeks, it became evident that Wilson's numbers don't do him justice. He's been the victim of some poor displays of accuracy from backup quarterback Joe Flacco and other times where he wasn't the primary read. 

A good example of that came again in the Bengals game as he was once again matched up against Hilton in the slot. Able to explode off the snap and stack Hilton with ease, Wilson shows a nuanced head fake inside before breaking outside on the sail route. Unfortunately, the protection just didn't hold up long enough for the play to develop and this throw ends up well off target of what should have been another first down through the air. 

There are plenty more examples on film but none more damaging to the stat sheet than a missed touchdown opportunity. 

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The Jets decided to isolate Wilson on the backside of a 3x1 formation. Wilson is going to run a whip route and completely break off the cornerback. He's a cool salesman on the rep, making the defender feel threatened inside before dropping his weight and shifting back outside. There's some pressure in Flacco's face but this is a throw absolutely has to be completed at the NFL level. 

Against the Steelers in Week 4, Wilson could potentially be getting an upgrade via Zach Wilson, who's close to returning from injury. The number two overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft had a rough rookie season, mostly due to the fact that he struggled mightily to navigate the pocket as most of his highlights came from scramble opportunities. There's no denying his talent, however. I would even argue that baseline quarterback play would be a jump over what the Jets were getting from Flacco in the first three weeks. 

This will be the first real test to see what this young duo could look like in a true game setting. 

The Steelers have shown to be a little more willing to deploy man coverage this season, with a 33% usage rate which is up from 26% in 2021, according to Sports Info Solutions. With that being said, they must be mindful about leaving Wilson singled up one-on-one. Without Ahkello Witherspoon, arguably their best man cover guy, out with an injury, the Steelers will already need to get creative in the back end. Regardless of who's lined up across from him, Wilson is going to have a real advantage in terms of athleticism as that's not really ever been the calling card of Cam Sutton or Levi Wallace.

Despite the quarterback change, there's a good chance that when the Jets need a play in crunch time, the ball is likely headed towards No. 17. It's worth noting that both of his touchdown scores thus far came on third down, while leading the team in every notable category on such plays. 

It's only been a handful of games but Wilson's already showing signs of potentially morphing into a true number one receiver and the guy that can be depended on in big moments.

This Jets team is relying on a bunch of youngsters in general, but overall, they're still an onside kick away from being 0-3 for a reason. They're very much still a year or two away from being considered a potential threat in a loaded AFC conference. 

Already in the cellar of the divisional race, Week 4 can best be categorized as a "must win" for the home team. Neutralizing Wilson is a good way to ensure they come away victorious. 

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