Grading every Zach Wilson throw vs. Buffalo Bills

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By: Michael Nania

How did NY Jets QB Zach Wilson grade against the Buffalo Bills?

Our QB Grades series continues with Zach Wilson‘s sixth start of the 2022 season.

Wilson looked steady in the New York Jets’ 20-17 upset win over the Buffalo Bills. It seemed like he corrected many of the issues that plagued him over his previous three games. Despite posting modest numbers in the box score, Wilson earned an abundance of praise for his role in the victory.

Was Wilson really that good? Or is his performance against Buffalo being overrated?

The QB Grades series exists to answer questions like those.

Before we get into Wilson’s performance, check out the explanation and glossary below if you are unfamiliar with how my QB Grades series works.

Explanation

My goal with this grading system is to capture the true quality of the quarterback’s performance. Box score statistics are usually misleading, as they do not account for a variety of factors that determine whether a quarterback performed well or poorly on a given play.

After re-watching each play on the All-22 film, I grade it on a 0-to-10 scale. Once I’m finished grading each play, I take the average of all plays to form a 0-to-100 overall score with 50 being approximately league-average (based on my studying of numerous other quarterback performances across the league).

Here are just a handful of the primary factors that are taken into account in the grading of each play, and a basic description of what I’m looking for:

  • Decision-making (Did the QB choose the best available option or did he leave a better play on the field? Regardless of if a ball is intercepted or not, did the QB put the ball in danger of being intercepted?)
  • Throw difficulty (Clean pocket or pressured? Wide open or tight window? Stationary or on the move? More difficult throws are more valuable.)
  • Accuracy/placement (Even if the pass is completed, was the ball placed in the best possible spot or did the receiver have to make an extra effort to catch it? Was the ball placed in a spot that maximized YAC? Did the QB protect his receiver from a big hit?)
  • Game situation – score, time, field position, down and distance (Good decisions based on the clock/situation are crucial. Playing the sticks is also important – it is not a good play to complete a tightly covered 5-yard out on third-and-10 while a 15-yard dig is open, but a 5-yard out on third-and-4 is good.)

Ultimately, it’s all about context. Not all 40-yard completions are created equal. Not all interceptions are created equal. You need to watch a play to understand whether the quarterback did a good or bad job (and exactly how good or how bad it was). The raw result of a play cannot give you that answer.

When we analyze every play on film multiple times and grade the quarterback’s individual effort independent of his surroundings or the on-paper outcome of the play, we get a much better estimation of how well he actually played.

Of course, keep in mind that these grades are subjective. They are but one man’s opinion and are not intended to be viewed as gospel. Feel free to let me know your takes on my grades for these performances.

Glossary

For each performance, I include a few metrics that help explain how Wilson arrived at his final grade.

These are some of the metrics I will break down for every Wilson outing.

Overall grade: 0-to-100 grade based on the average score of all plays analyzed. An estimation of individual performance quality.

Positive plays: Number of plays graded above 5.0: above-average efforts.

Negative plays: Number of plays graded below 5.0: below-average efforts.

Neutral plays: Number of plays graded as a 5.0: plays that are not noticeably good or bad. These are typically lost plays or plays in which the QB can hardly be evaluated: screens, batted passes, miscommunications, and unavoidable sacks are commonly graded as a 5.0.

Positive/negative ratio: Ratio of positive plays to negative plays. Defines the quarterback’s consistency level.

Average positive score: The average score of all positive plays. An indicator of how high the quarterback’s peaks were — a higher score indicates his best plays were often highlight-reel-worthy while a lower score indicates that his best plays were typically unspectacular.

Average negative score: The average score of all negative plays. An indicator of how low the quarterback’s valleys were — a higher score indicates his mistakes were typically minor while a lower score indicates that his mistakes were typically brutal.

Wow Factor: Combination of average positive score and average negative score. An indicator of the combined ability to produce outstanding moments and avoid big mistakes.

7+ plays: Number of plays graded 7.0 or better: elite moments. Big-time plays, if you will.

≤3 plays: Number of plays graded 3.0 or worse: brutal moments. The ones that make Jets fans throw things at their TV.

Zach Wilson’s Grade vs. Buffalo Bills

Let’s dig into everything that went into my 0-to-100 grade for Zach Wilson‘s victorious start against Buffalo.

Was Wilson as solid as most thought?

Time to find out.

  • Nania’s Overall Grade: 66.0 – (Average: 50, Great: 60+, Elite: 70+, Poor: <40, Awful: <30)
  • Plays graded: 31
  • Neutral plays: 3
  • Positive plays: 24 (77.4%) – (Average: 50%, Phenomenal: >60%, Poor: <40%)
  • Negative plays: 4 (12.9%) – (Average: 30%, Phenomenal: <20%, Poor: >40%)
  • Positive-negative ratio: 6.00 –  (Average: 2.00, Phenomenal: 3.00+, Poor: <1.00)
  • Average positive: 5.71 – (Average: 5.90, High: 6.00+, Low: <5.80)
  • Average negative: 3.25 – (Average: 3.80, High: 4.00+, Low: <3.60)
  • Wow factor: 8.96 – (Average: 9.70, High: 10.00+, Low: <9.40)
  • 7+ plays: 2 (6.5%) – (Average: 8%, Phenomenal: >12%, Poor: <4%)
  • ≤3 plays: 2 (6.5%) – (Average: 8%, Phenomenal: <4%, Poor: >12%)
  • Box score stats: 18/25 for 154 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT (6.2 Y/A, 101.1 QB rating). 2 sacks for 18 yards. 5 rushes for 24 yards.

“Now that is what we need to see!”

I found myself uttering that phrase so many times when watching Wilson’s film against the Bills. Time after time, Wilson looked like a composed NFL quarterback in situations where he would have looked lost one week earlier.

This is the most consistent game I have seen Wilson play in the NFL. Out of all 19 games I’ve graded him in, I have never given him a higher percentage of positive plays (77.4%) or a lower percentage of negative plays (12.9%). His 6.0-to-1 ratio of positive plays to negative plays is a new career-best by a wide margin, beating out his 4.75-to-1 ratio against Miami four weeks earlier.

From a mental standpoint, Wilson was absolutely dialed-in. He made the correct decision on nearly every rep of the game. Out of the 31 plays I graded, there was only one play in which I deducted points for his decision-making. That’s astoundingly impressive for any quarterback in any game, let alone a second-year passer who was making bad decisions on a frequent basis just one week earlier.

Wilson’s highs in this game weren’t all that high since most of his throws were low-difficulty (average positive score of 5.71), and his four negatively-graded plays leaned toward the costlier side (average negative score of 3.25), so that’s why his overall grade did not reach the 70.0+ range despite his remarkable consistency. Regardless, an overall grade of 66.0 is still excellent, especially against the Buffalo Bills’ elite defense.

This game was a massive step forward for the youngster. Just as his season was going off the rails, he got himself back on track with a signature performance. Wilson badly needed this kind of outing.

Wilson’s overall grade of 66.0 against Buffalo ranks as the fifth-best score I have given him in his career, trailing his 2021 games against the Eagles (68.9), Jaguars (74.1), and Buccaneers (76.1) in addition to his 2022 game against the Dolphins (76.0).

Zach Wilson’s film vs. Buffalo Bills

Let’s take a look at some of the key plays from Wilson’s performance against Buffalo.

For each play in the breakdown, I’ll list the grade I gave him for that play. Anything above 5.0 is positive and helps push his overall game grade above 50.0, and vice versa for anything below 5.0.

2nd & 14 – Qtr: 1, (13:26) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass incomplete deep right to D.Mims.

Right off the bat, you could see that a much different Zach Wilson had shown up to MetLife Stadium than the one that was running around like a chicken with his head cut off against New England.

On the Jets’ very first passing play, Wilson stands tall in the pocket and confidently fires a deep shot to Denzel Mims. Watch how he hangs tough and throws with ideal mechanics despite the pocket caving in on him. This level of poise is exactly what the Jets were not getting from Wilson over the previous few games and need to see more of going forward.

It falls incomplete, but I think this is a great ball. Mims gets slowed post-release by the cornerback’s physicality, and he still ends up getting two hands on it. Based on what Wilson sees upon the release, this is good placement.

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Mims’s speed actually declines from 17.57 mph when he crosses the 25-yard line to 17.49 mph when he reaches the 34-yard line. He picks up his speed after that point, but his lack of increase in speed during that portion of the route encapsulates what our eyes show us: Mims did not get to the spot as fast as Wilson anticipated. That’s on him. Wilson drops the ball in exactly where he is supposed to.

I love the decision, I love the poise, and I like the accuracy. It was a promising play to start the game. And it certainly turned out to be a sign of things to come; not in terms of the downfield aggression (the Jets didn’t try any more deep shots), but in terms of Wilson’s confidence in the pocket. Grade: 7.0

1st & 10 – Qtr: 1, (4:31) Z.Wilson pass short right to G.Wilson to NYJ 31 for 15 yards (D.Hamlin, T.Edmunds).

Once again, Wilson displays toughness in the pocket. Get ready to see a lot of that on this film. There is a blitzing defensive back coming at him, directly in the throwing lane, but Wilson hangs in there and trusts Michael Carter to make the block. Wilson throws with some anticipation (beginning his windup prior to Garrett Wilson’s break) and hits Garrett on the money. Grade: 6.0

3rd & 5 – Qtr: 1, (1:14) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass short right to G.Wilson to BUF 35 for 2 yards (D.Hamlin; T.Edmunds) [D.Jones]. NYJ-Z.Wilson was injured during the play.

One of the greatest benefits of the quick-game passing attack Mike LaFleur cooked up for Zach is that it emphasizes his knack for throwing with unique arm angles. Zach is great at adjusting his release point to sneak the ball around defenders. It’s a skill that frequently comes into play on screens, RPOs, and other quick throws. With the Jets calling many of those plays in this game, we got to see a bunch of sweet arm angles from Zach.

Knowing he is going to take a hit from a defender coming unblocked up the middle, Zach again stands tough and focuses on his mechanics. He flicks a slick sidearm around the edge defender to hit Garrett on the screen.

A lot of quarterbacks probably would have admitted defeat on this play and thrown the ball in the dirt, but Wilson’s arm-angle ability allowed him to give his guy a chance. Grade: 6.0

3rd & 7 – Qtr: 2, (10:53) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass incomplete short left to D.Mims (T.Johnson).

The first of Wilson’s very few negative plays. He’s got Mims on the 8-yard hitch for a first down, and it should be an easy throw as Mims creates good separation and the pocket is clean. Wilson misses high; too high for even the 6-foot-3 Mims to have a reasonable chance at it. Jets punt. Grade: 3.0

1st & 10 – Qtr: 2, (6:30) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass short middle to G.Wilson to NYJ 34 for 9 yards (C.Benford; T.Edmunds).

More arm-angle action! Zach keeps the ball, drops his elbow, and whips the throw around the defender to connect with Garrett. Great grab by the rookie. Grade: 6.0

2nd & 6 – Qtr: 2, (:52) (No Huddle) Z.Wilson pass short right to T.Conklin to BUF 16 for 7 yards (J.Johnson; T.Bernard).

Another example of fluid decision-making. Wilson peeks to Mims outside and quickly turns it down, coming back inside to Tyler Conklin. Seeing the space that Conklin has, Wilson immediately starts his windup. He places the ball in a good spot for Conklin to catch it and turn upfield, leading him to the first down. Grade: 5.5

1st & 10 – Qtr: 3, (14:56) Z.Wilson pass deep left to G.Wilson to NYJ 39 for 19 yards (J.Johnson).

Great pre-snap recognition makes this happen for Zach. The Bills initially show two-high coverage, but once Elijah Moore goes in motion, the safety to Zach’s left starts to creep toward the line of scrimmage while the safety to his right starts to drop into the deep middle. This alerts Zach that Buffalo is rotating into one-high coverage post-snap, which should leave Garrett open on the post route. He just has to make sure he checks it post-snap since he is going to momentarily take his eyes off the defense with the play fake.

The ball is snapped and Zach executes the play fake. Once he comes out of it, Zach whips his head around to the left side and confirms that things played out as expected. They did – the Bills rotated into one-high coverage and the post route is open. Zach launches the ball to Garrett and hits him in stride, using some more sidearm action in the process. Grade: 6.0

2nd & 9 – Qtr: 3, (10:45) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass incomplete short right.

This play is a perfect encapsulation of the mentality shift that Wilson underwent between the New England game and the Buffalo game.

Wilson goes through his reads and doesn’t see anything open prior to the time that pressure arrives. One it’s time for him to respond to the pressure, he just cuts his losses and throws the ball away. He easily could have tried to play hero ball, but he made the smart play instead. You love to see it.

There’s a time and place to try and make something out of nothing. This was not it. Wilson does a great job of recognizing that and making the best available decision: living to fight another down. It’s a negative play in the box score but a positive one in real life. Grade: 5.25

3rd & 9 – Qtr: 3, (10:38) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson scrambles left end to BUF 36 for 13 yards (K.Elam).

On second down, Wilson showed progress in his willingness to throw the ball away, which was a key problem against New England. On the ensuing third down, he showed progress in another area of concern from the New England game: his willingness to tuck the ball and run when it’s the best available play.

Wilson goes through his progressions on third-and-long. Nobody is open. But even after completing his reads, he is still extremely well-protected, enough so that he has plenty of room to step up and run if he wants to. Give credit to Connor McGovern for blasting a defender into the ground. That’s why there is so much running room.

At the point where Wilson completes his reads, the running lane between him and the first-down marker is still somewhat trafficked, so it’s really not an obvious call that he should go for the run here. The deciding factor for Wilson is that he sees Buffalo is in man coverage, which means the defenders do not have eyes on him. With this in mind, Wilson sees the leverage of the route concepts in the running lane and anticipates that space will naturally clear out. So he decides to go for it. He steps up in the pocket and gets the job done himself.

Wilson is a good athlete. He needs to use his athleticism as a runner more often. Great work on this play. Grade: 6.5

3rd & 6 – Qtr: 3, (6:29) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson sacked at BUF 28 for -10 yards (V.Miller). FUMBLES (V.Miller) [V.Miller], touched at BUF 28, RECOVERED by BUF-A.Epenesa at BUF 29.

More so than the eventual fumble, the bigger sin for Wilson here is missing an open Mims on a slant from the left side.

Wilson starts his progression on the left side but hardly considers Mims, as he moves off him quickly. Wilson continues reading from left to right and gets through all of his reads. But even after he completes his reads, he’s still protected and actually does turn his eyes back to Mims.

At this point, Wilson is looking at an open Mims and has time in the pocket, but he decides to start scrambling rather than attempt the throw; likely because his internal clock tells him it’s time to move. This is an understandable decision considering Wilson had been standing there for a relatively long time on a concept that is supposed to be quick, but you’d like to see him hit that throw to Mims nonetheless.

From there, it’s just somewhat of a tough break. Wilson tries to make something happen on third down and scrambles into wide-open space, not knowing Von Miller is coming after him on his blindside. Miller catches Wilson with one hand on the ball and knocks it out.

I don’t think this is a horrendous play by Wilson, but it’s a costly negative nonetheless. You want to see him hit that throw to Mims first and foremost. After that, I don’t necessarily blame him for scrambling or even getting sacked, but I would like for him to have two hands on the ball in that situation. He is leaving the pocket late in the play without being fully aware of his surroundings. That’s a spot where protecting the ball should be prioritized. Grade: 3.0

3rd & 3 – Qtr: 3, (4:47) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson scrambles right end ran ob at BUF 7 for 5 yards (T.Bernard).

Wilson again uses his legs to move the chains. He reads the right side of the field and sees that neither Conklin or Garrett are open. Meanwhile, an enormous B-gap opens up in his field of vision. Seeing the open space right in front of him and knowing that his two primary reads are covered, Wilson instinctively takes off. Grade: 6.0

1st & 10 – Qtr: 4, (13:33) Z.Wilson pass incomplete short middle to D.Mims.

This is a laser beam from Wilson. He threads the needle on a tightly covered in-breaking route from Mims, hitting him squarely on the hands, but Mims fails to come up with it.

I love tight-window throws. When a quarterback executes a low-percentage pass, he deserves a lot of credit for it. Wilson was on the money with a very tough throw here. Grade: 7.0

3rd & 8 – Qtr: 4, (12:45) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass incomplete short left to T.Conklin.

A second costly third-down miss from Wilson, along with the Mims misfire early on. This time, Conklin wins on an out route and Wilson puts the ball way too far out in front.

It looks like Wilson hesitates when Conklin throws his signature rocker-step at the top of his route to shake the defender. This throws off the rhythm between Wilson’s lower and upper body, causing him to yank the ball with his upper body. I’m not sure why Wilson appears to be caught off-guard by this, because Conklin does it a lot. He even did it on the second touchdown he caught from Wilson against New England last week.

Wilson’s got to confidently go through with his motion and just put it on Conklin here. Conklin had won the outside leverage by the time Wilson began winding up, so there was no need to hesitate. Grade: 3.5

3rd & 5 – Qtr: 4, (2:08) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson pass short right to D.Mims to BUF 6 for 12 yards (K.Elam).

The Jets grounded-and-pounded their way down the field on their go-ahead fourth-quarter drive, but when they needed Wilson to come through, he did.

Wilson finds the matchup he likes: Mims on a slant from the outside. With Braxton Berrios also running a slant from the slot, Wilson knows Mims will have room to the inside. Wilson throws with anticipation and fires a rocket that hits Mims right on the numbers. Clutch. Grade: 6.5

3rd & 2 – Qtr: 4, (1:50) (Shotgun) Z.Wilson sacked at BUF 10 for -8 yards (D.Hamlin).

Wilson’s final play of the game was a cherry on top of his decision-making clinic.

It’s a tie game on third-and-goal from the 2-yard line with 1:50 on the clock. The Jets are simultaneously trying to punch in a touchdown and milk clock prior to giving the ball back to Buffalo. This is a pivotal moment of the game and it’s important for the quarterback to know the situation. Wilson does.

The Jets take their final shot at the end zone with some RPO action. Wilson keeps the ball, but both routes are smothered. Nothing is open.

Wilson doesn’t try to force the ball into the end zone, which would risk a turnover while stopping the clock. And he doesn’t throw the ball away, which also would stop the clock.

Instead, Wilson makes the best available decision: absorbing the sack to force the Bills into using their final timeout.

You have to watch the game to accurately evaluate the quarterback’s performance. The box score says Wilson cost the Jets eight yards on this play. The film says Wilson did the best thing he could possibly do to help the Jets win. Grade: 5.25

Zach Wilson’s Buffalo game has the chance to be a turning-point performance

It is impossible to script a better bounce-back game for Wilson after the three-game stretch he just had.

You might be thinking, “Well, that’s a ridiculous statement. He threw for 154 yards and one touchdown. Wouldn’t it be better if he threw for 350 and five scores?”

In response to that, I quote the mantra of Jets X-Factor’s own Joe Blewett: “Process > results.”

Ignore what the box-score stats say: Wilson was very effective against the Bills. He was a maestro under center, conducting a rhythmic offense with tremendous confidence, consistency, and poise. Ultimately, he was one of the main reasons New York beat the NFL’s current Super Bowl favorites.

Yes, obviously Wilson could have posted better stats and more highlights. He could have had some crazy highlight-filled game loaded with explosive bombs and flashy off-schedule plays.

But those things are not what we need to see from Wilson to feel confident that he is developing into a reliable long-term starting quarterback. The physical ability is there for him. It always has been and always will be. We know this.

What we need to see is that Wilson’s process is getting better. If his process improves, good things will happen for him and the Jets.

In other words, decision-making is what stands between him and greatness.

The only question that really matters for Wilson each week is this: “Is he making the right decisions?”

Against Buffalo, the answer to that question was a resounding yes. That’s why this performance is so promising. It featured sustainable progress in areas that are crucial to his development.

More than anything else, this is what really encouraged me about Wilson’s Buffalo performance: It was a direct response to all of the weaknesses he displayed over the previous few games. Wilson was clearly making a conscious effort to address his most prevalent problems, and he did a fantastic job of pulling it off.

Staying tough in the pocket and making throws in the face of pressure? Check.

Running for the first down when he’s supposed to? Check.

Throwing the ball away when he’s supposed to? Check.

Avoiding interception-worthy throws? Check.

Getting the ball out quickly? Check.

As I said… you could not have scripted a better response to the disastrous New England game. It only took one game for Wilson to prove he is capable of fixing every issue that was holding him back.

The key word in that previous sentence is capable. It takes more than one game to prove you have definitively progressed.

Wilson’s performance showed that he certainly has the potential to establish himself as an improved quarterback by the time his second season concludes. Now, the key is to take what he did against the Bills and replicate it on a weekly basis. He’s got to string these games together after the bye week.

The New England experience prompted Wilson to transform himself into a new version of himself against Buffalo. If that same version of Wilson is the one we see on a consistent basis going forward, this Patriots-Bills stretch will be looked back upon as the turning point of his career.

Next Article: What is going on with Zach Wilson? | NY Jets Film 

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