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Jets’ loss to Bengals is proof they can’t count on return of Zach Wilson to solve all their problems

NJ.com 9/26/2022 Andy Vasquez, nj.com
New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2), head coach Robert Saleh and quarterback Joe Flacco (19) during practice on Thursday, September 15, 2022 in Florham Park, N.J. © Andrew Mills/nj.com/TNS New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson (2), head coach Robert Saleh and quarterback Joe Flacco (19) during practice on Thursday, September 15, 2022 in Florham Park, N.J.

The losing isn’t the biggest problem for the New York Jets right now.

That’s a strange thing to say about a team that has missed the playoffs in 11 straight seasons. But it’s also the truth.

On the surface, Sunday’s 27-12 loss against the Bengals is not an alarming result. Cincinnati was desperate to avoid falling to 0-3 in their first three games since losing the Super Bowl. And the Jets are a young team, still trying to find its footing, and playing without its starting quarterback.

This game, this entire stretch to start the season, was always going to be an uphill battle.

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Would anyone have been alarmed 15 days ago to find out the Jets started the season 1-2?

No. Given the Jets’ circumstances, one could argue that getting their first win in September since 2018 is a sign of progress. And with Zach Wilson likely to return Sunday against the Steelers — Saleh says he’s expecting it, but stopped short of saying Wilson had been cleared to return from his preseason right-knee meniscus tear and bone bruise — it would be easy to throw the first three weeks out and say “the season starts ... now.”

But after watching the Jets unfurl a football-field-sized red flag with Sunday’s performance, it’s clear that Wilson isn’t going to fix this, because it’s not just one player, or even a few players, who are contributing to this team’s downfall.

This is on everyone. The vets, the rookies, the big names, the small names, and the coaching staff, too.

“It wasn’t good,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said of the wide-ranging mistakes.

No, it most certainly was not. And that’s why the problem is bigger than simply winning or losing. Or who is at quarterback. The problem is that the Jets are more talented, they’re playing teams that are giving them a chance to win these games, and yet they’re still finding a way to do the thing that has defined the last decade of this franchise: invent ways to lose.

And what makes it even worse is that no one seems to be able to explain why it’s happening or what they need to do to fix it.

“I think we need to have a meeting as the defense, because this is unacceptable,” cornerback D.J. Reed said when asked how the Jets turn the page from here. “The errors are unacceptable. From the coaches, from the players, [from] everybody that’s a part of this, including myself.

“It’s unacceptable, so we’ve got to have a meeting and just talk about everything. We’ve got to cut it out and get it right. That has to happen. Has to happen.”

It would be one thing if the Jets’ consistent self-sabotage through the first three games was a product of having so many first- and second-year players on the field. And yes, the Jets’ youngsters have made mistakes that have contributed to them being in this undesirable spot through three games.

But when the mistakes of the rookies pale in comparison to ones that veterans are making – in key spots early and late in the game – well, we did mention this game was one, giant red flag for the Jets.

Defensive end John Franklin-Myers set the tone early, forcing Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow into an insane third-down throw that was nearly intercepted late in the first quarter. But Franklin-Myers, who chased Burrow to the sideline, put a hit on the quarterback after he let the ball go at the end of the play. The refs could have let it go, but they didn’t. And so the drive stayed alive after a roughing the passer penalty.

“Honestly, I thought I got there in time,” Franklin-Myers said. “I didn’t finish him by any means. Again, even Joe [Burrow]was like, ‘What?’ Like surprised that they called that. … It is what it is, hindsight is 20-20. I could’ve not touched him at all. I could’ve tried to stay off the ground. He was falling on the ground already, but just a mistake on my part and I have to do better in that sense.”

A few plays later, the Jets had another chance to get off the field on third down, but safety Jordan Whitehead tried to lay out receiver Tyler Boyd. But Whitehead couldn’t bring down Boyd, who rumbled bounced away near the first down marker and rumbled into the end zone for a 56-yard touchdown reception.

“You can big hit and wrap up at the same time,” Saleh said of Whitehead. “He knows that.”

That miscue led to another red flag moment: Quinnen Williams and defensive line coach Aaron Whitecotton getting into a screaming match on the sideline.

Williams claimed he was just challenging the coaching staff to put more responsibility on the defensive line. And that was likely mostly true. But the argument shows the underlying tension that everyone is feeling right now in the Jets’ locker room.

Despite all the early issues, the Jets still had a wonderful opportunity to get back in the game late. Down 27-12 with just more than 10 minutes remaining in the game, the Jets had second-and-6 from the Bengals 14 and a real chance to make it a one-score game. But after quarterback Flacco fired the ball over receiver Corey Davis’ head and out of the end zone. But Davis and Bengals cornerback Eli Apple got into it after the play, and Davis grabbed Apple by the helmet.

The flag was swift, and costly. Instead of facing third-and-6 from the 14, the Jets faced third-and-21 from the 29.

“Two guys jawing back and forth,” Saleh said. “[You’ve got to] keep your hands down and nothing would have happened, but I think because he grabbed [Apple’s] helmet, that drew the penalty. It’s two guys jawing at each other, and he has to be smarter.”

The Jets couldn’t turn third-and-long into a first down, or a touchdown, and they wouldn’t get another chance to get back in the game.

“It hurts,” Davis said. “It’s not like I did it on purpose, I just lost my cool. I know I can’t let that happen.”

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But it did happen. And now the Jets find themselves in a difficult position, with something very much wrong but no clear answers on what they need to do to fix it. It would be easy if it all fell on Flacco’s inept play, or mistakes from their young players who are still learning the ropes.

But like Reed says, everyone has played a role in these early-season miscues.

“Our vets made critical mistakes at critical times,” Saleh said. “It has to get fixed.”

Everyone can agree on that much. And there’s still time to fix it.

But the Jets better do it quickly because if the veterans keep making the same kind of mistakes that have defined this lost era of Jets football, it’s going to be hard to blame anyone but Saleh and his staff for not figuring out how to get it fixed.

Injury update: Two Jets didn’t finish Sunday’s game: Left tackle George Fant (knee) and linebacker Quincy Williams (ankle). Saleh provided no further details on the injuries only to say both were being evaluated.

Williams’ ankle injury looked serious as he was carted off the field with an air cast over his left leg. Williams was outside the Jets locker room in walking boot Sunday and will almost certainly miss significant time, but we should get more information from Saleh on Monday. Fant left the game early in the second half after giving up a strip sack on the opening drive of the third quarter.

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Andy Vasquez may be reached at avasquez@njadvancemedia.com.

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