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Why the Steelers might benefit from facing Zach Wilson

The youngster is battling both rust and his poor play a year ago.

Tennessee Titans v New York Jets Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

Without question, the NFL is based upon star power. It’s no coincidence that the dominant teams that go deep into the playoffs are loaded at every position — arguably none more critical than quarterback.

For the first three weeks of 2022, the New York Jets have had one fewer bright spot on the field, as QB Zach Wilson suffered a torn meniscus and bone bruise on August 12. Around six weeks after arthroscopic surgery, however, the former No. 2 overall pick will return to the gridiron, making his season debut against the Steelers in Acrisure Stadium.

Given that information, this headline might seem paradoxical to you. The Jets should get a shot in the arm, a big boost in momentum, from having their vested leader and franchise talent back, right?

At first glance, yes. Wilson is an incredibly talented quarterback capable of making dynamic plays. He’s also an upgrade over backup Joe Flacco, who didn’t perform wonderfully to open the year. In three games, Flacco threw for five touchdowns to three interceptions, but his 28.7 QBR was the fourth-worst in the NFL.

After those three contests, it’s clear that Flacco was just a placeholder for Wilson to rightly take back his place under center. At the same time, Flacco has something key that Wilson doesn’t regarding Sunday: experience against Pittsburgh.

In his career, Flacco has faced the Steelers 21 times, posting a 10-11 record — and a 5-6 regular-season mark in the Steel City. Moreover, Flacco’s 87.1 passer rating is the third-highest in Pittsburgh all-time, minimum 10 games played where the three rivers connect, while his 405 attempts at the Steelers easily leads all players in NFL history.

Of course, this Steeler team hasn’t exactly imposed its will upon younger quarterbacks in recent years — ask Mac Jones about that just two weeks ago. Historically, though, Pittsburgh factors as a daunting place to play in front of an extraordinarily passionate crowd. Wilson will have to endure that atmosphere for the first time, while Flacco has effectively tuned it out.

On top of never having played in Pittsburgh, Wilson does have to deal with rust. The BYU product practiced fully for the first time all season this week and hasn’t thrown an in-game pass since he suffered his injury in the Jets’ first preseason game.

Having time off affects different players in distinct ways; there is inherently a chance that Wilson could look totally fine and in rhythm from the get-go on Sunday. At the same time, it’s a lot easier said than done to strut onto the field and have instant chemistry with your offense after a long layoff.

In terms of Pittsburgh’s defense, there will be enormous concerns regarding who will be able to keep up with New York’s talented pair of young receivers in Elijah Moore and Garrett Wilson, who likely could feast over the middle of the field. That’s where Wilson did some damage in his up-and-down rookie season, according to his heat map (courtesy PFF).

In the weeks since T.J. Watt’s absence, the Steelers have largely been unable to generate much pressure whatsoever. The team has 22 pressures in Weeks 2-3 but collected 26 in Week 1 alone; along the same lines, Pittsburgh has just two sacks in two weeks.

If Alex Highsmith, Cam Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi and the remaining portion of Karl Dunbar’s defensive line can get home, though, it could spell success. In 2021, Wilson had a 32.5 PFF grade when under pressure, the fifth-worst in the NFL (min. 40 dropbacks under pressure). Likewise, Wilson’s turnover-worthy play percentage (5.5%) under pressure nearly doubled compared to his rate of error-prone passes when kept clean (2.8%).

Wilson will undoubtedly look to begin his sophomore campaign in successful fashion, hoping to quell any doubts about his play from last season and encapsulating the skill he flashed with the Cougars. There’s no doubt he’s a better quarterback than Flacco, yet the Steelers might be able to reap rewards from opposing a shaky, skittish young quarterback rather than a seasoned pro on Sunday.