Zach Wilson, Jets show life in second half, but fall to Sam Darnold, Panthers 19-14 in opener

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The Zach Wilson and Robert Saleh era has started with a gritty loss.

Gang Green dropped their first game of the season, 19-14, to the Carolina Panthers and their ex-quarterback Sam Darnold.

Wilson finished 20-for-37 with 279 yards, two touchdowns to Corey Davis and an interception in his debut — 174 of those yards and both TDs came in the second half. That second-half surge, however, came too little to late.

The No. 2 overall pick showed toughness throughout his first start as he was consistently beat up in the pocket. The offense couldn’t get much going early because of its failure in the trenches.

Wilson was under constant duress because of an atrocious performance from the offensive line. The BYU product was sacked six times and rarely had a clean pocket, which led to a plethora of inaccurate throws. Wilson was under pressure on 14 of his drop backs, according to NextGen Stats.

But the young quarterback didn’t make any excuses about the protection issues.

“Experiencing stuff in your face, you got to play, as far as the quarterback position,” Wilson said. “You can’t just say ‘it’s pressure in my face I can’t do my job.’ That’s why quarterback is a tough position. ... I’m just gonna keep working to get better.”

Jets head coach Robert Saleh didn’t call out the offensive line for the protection issues, instead focusing on the entire offense.

“I’m never just gonna blame the offensive line,” Saleh said. “When a lot of those breakdowns happen, there’s route running, there’s quarterback getting rid of the ball. Then there’s credit to those guys, they get paid too. And they won some one on ones and did some things schematically, that were pretty darn good. But at the end of the day, protections got to hold up, but it’s a collective effort not just not just solely on the offensive line.”

As kind as Saleh is to his offensive line, it’s still the main reason why the Jets offense couldn’t move the ball until late in the second half. Wilson’s second touchdown pass of the afternoon came on a broken play when he rolled right before firing a 22-yard missile to Davis in the back of the end zone.

The offense’s struggles started at the onset. On just the sixth play of the game, Panthers defensive end Brian Burns went unblocked and crushed Wilson, which halted the momentum on their first drive.

That issue carried throughout the game.

There were many moments when Wilson was pressured and immediately scrambled to create a play. But those moments usually ended in incompletions. The offensive line couldn’t hold up in pass protection or create running lanes.

The Jets running attack was nonexistent. It mustered just 45 yards on 17 carries. The Jets to be a run-first team, but when the offensive line can’t create any running lanes, that’s the result.

On the flip side, their defense played better than what the stats indicated.

Darnold, traded to the Panthers just before the draft for three picks after three mostly miserable seasons in green and white, finished with 278 yards passing and had two total touchdowns. Christian McCaffrey, who had 21 carries for 98 yards and nine catches for 89 yards, was the weapon Darnold never had in New York.

But the majority of the Panthers production came in the first half, when the Jets defense allowed 272 yards.

That group allowed 16 points and Darnold was able to put up 234 yards passing and both his touchdowns. His only touchdown pass of the day was to Robby Anderson as the former Jets hooked up for a 57-yard bomb.

“I mean, I’m sure later tonight or tomorrow when I’m watching the game I’ll start to feel that, but it was just good to get a win,” Darnold said of playing against the team that drafted him third overall of of USC in 2018.

McCaffrey had 91 yards receiving and 33 rushing in the first half.

The Panthers offense was allowed to get whatever it wanted up to that point.

In the second half, the Jets defense made adjustments as they only allowed 147 yards. It also executed on third downs as the Panthers offense went 2-for-8. That effort kept the game close and helped the Jets offense eventually score 14 points in the final 16 minutes of the game.

That was a solid effort for the Jets, which kept the game closer than it should have been. C.J Mosley said the defense didn’t do anything different but simmer down. Mosley saw today’s performance as a positive for future endeavors.

“I think overall we kind of calmed down a little bit,” Mosley said. “It was a great first game to get on the road for our team to really see what it’s gonna be like when we go on these road games. ... So now he’s got to make sure that we watch our film, correct our mistakes and have short term memory.”

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