New York Jets' protection issues could be pain in neck for Zach Wilson

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The New York Jets' offensive line is getting the brunt of the criticism, but Sunday's six-sack debacle wasn't solely the responsibility of the big fellas. It was a combination platter of:

  • A rookie quarterback in his first game.

  • A formidable defensive front, courtesy of the Carolina Panthers.

  • And, yes, a Jets' offensive line that was lacking in continuity.

The result was a pain in the neck -- literally. After the 19-14 loss, QB Zach Wilson remarked that his neck was sore -- "a little whiplash," he said.

Wilson showed plenty of toughness, bouncing up after 10 quarterback hits, but he won't last long in this league if the punishment continues. The Jets have to get it fixed quickly, especially with the New England Patriots coming to town for the home opener Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS). If New York doesn't block better, Wilson could have his own "seeing ghosts" episode, a la former Jets quarterback Sam Darnold from the 2019 season.

"I'm not going to blame the offensive line," Jets coach Robert Saleh said, claiming a number of factors contributed to the pass-protection issues.

The Jets might have to shuffle the lineup because left tackle Mekhi Becton was carted off with a right knee injury. The team didn't provide an update; the NFL Network reported that preliminary tests showed an MCL sprain -- which would be good news because it's not a season-ending injury.

Without Becton, the Jets would start George Fant at left tackle and Morgan Moses at right tackle. General manager Joe Douglas has invested a lot of resources into rebuilding the line, so there can be no excuses about having to play with holdovers from the previous regime. This is his line.

Jets center Connor McGovern said they weren't surprised by anything on Sunday and that they expected heavy pressure because of Wilson's inexperience. It's the oldest trick in the book: Blitz the rookie.

"We knew they were going to heat us up," McGovern said. "It's what happens when you have a younger quarterback."

Actually, the Panthers didn't blitz as much as McGovern probably thought. In fact, four of their six sacks came on four-man rushes, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, which is rather troubling.

A film review of the sacks reveals there were more culprits than the offensive line. A closer look at the six pack of sacks:

No. 1: This was a communication breakdown, probably on Wilson, because defensive end Brian Burns was unblocked. How could they fail to block the Panthers' top pass-rusher? In many cases, it's the responsibility of the quarterback to adjust the protection. Wilson never saw him coming from the front side.

No. 2: Fant, who started at right tackle over Moses, whiffed on linebacker Haason Reddick, an undersized but slippery pass-rusher.

No. 3: Defensive tackle Marquis Haynes beat Becton, but this wasn't solely the fault of the left tackle. This was a borderline coverage sack.

No. 4: Wilson held the ball way too long and ran around, trying to make something happen. He should have thrown it away to prevent the loss.

No. 5: This was a jailbreak, pure and simple. The Panthers rushed seven and the pass protection was overwhelmed. Linebacker Shaq Thompson finished it off for the sack.

No. 6: Defensive tackle Derrick Brown split McGovern and rookie left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker for the sack. The Panthers stunted on this play; their stunts caused problems throughout the day. That could be attributed to a lack of continuity. Remember, the starting five on the offensive line had no game reps together in the preseason.

In the end, it was a bad mix of mental mistakes and physical breakdowns. If they don't get it right, Wilson will have more than a sore neck.