NEW YORK (AP) — There was a play two weeks ago when Zach Wilson felt the pocket collapsing around him, took off on a scramble and sprinted for a big gain.
The 18-yard run, punctuated by a baseball-style slide, by the New York Jets rookie quarterback against New Orleans was nice. He and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur knew it could've been even better.
“He got an explosive (play), but I thought there was a lot more,” LaFleur said Thursday. “Keelan (Cole) was in a position to go block and I kind of just told him in that moment: ‘There’s more there for you. You’re a better athlete than you’re giving yourself credit for,’ albeit even in the NFL.”
The message to Wilson was to be aggressive. Be smart, of course, but also take the big plays when they present themselves.
Fast-forward to last Sunday when Wilson set franchise records for quarterbacks in the Jets’ 26-21 victory over Jacksonville. He had 91 yards on four carries, including a 52-yard TD run during which he maneuvered out of a sack, tiptoed the sideline near the 25-yard line, stayed inbounds and headed for the end zone.
“He took off, and a little bit of an okie-doke on the sideline,” LaFleur said. “He was expecting to get shoved out, he didn’t, and then he just kept it going. And so, he made a few runs that were big for us.”
Ron Middleton, the Jets' acting coach last Sunday with Robert Saleh sidelined with COVID-19, wasn't surprised.
“The O.C. got on him pretty good and it paid off,” Middleton said. “I think he played free. I think he played with confidence. He was out there and showed his running and athletic ability. I thought it was great.”
It's all in the education of a young quarterback, one who is quickly learning how to help his team with not only his arm but his legs.
“I don’t know if I got on him too hard with it,” LaFleur said. “But, no, just conversations, trying to coach him up. Within the moment, I think that’s where it’s real.”
Wilson was the No. 2 pick in the draft in April for his ability to make all the throws — including off-balance passes that very few quarterbacks can — and make plays out of nothing with his legs.
In the five games since he returned from a sprained knee that sidelined him for four weeks, Wilson has thrown three touchdown passes and run for four scores.
“I was telling someone the other day, it kind of sucks as far as stats go,” Wilson said. “Yeah, rushing touchdowns are great to win the game, but I could care less how many rushing touchdowns I have. I wish they were passing touchdowns. But if it helps us win, then I’ll take them.”
More importantly, he also has just two interceptions in the span — and none in the past three games.
“Zach’s decision-making has been fantastic,” Saleh said. “His off-schedule stuff, he’s starting to look natural. ... He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there. He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.”
The improved play by Wilson over the past several games has coincided with an increased sense of leadership by the rookie.
He was selected a captain by his teammates before the season, but there have been noticeable changes in Wilson's approach as the weeks have gone by.
“You see a guy that’s getting better every week,” right tackle Morgan Moses said. "He’s a professional on and off the field. ... The thing I’m starting to learn about him is that as he’s getting comfortable, he’s learning how to demand greatness from every position.”
And that includes himself. It's a conscious decision by the 22-year-old quarterback, who has been increasingly more vocal in the huddle.
“I’m just trying to show my passion for the game and how much it means to me in critical situations when we’re out there on the field,” Wilson said. "Just the sense of urgency to get things done and to show those guys, in my eyes, just how important it is and that when they know I’m giving it my all, I know they’ll do the same thing for me, which is really cool.
“I feel like that’s something that can always keep improving, but it’s easy when you have a good group of guys in there.”
NOTES: RB Tevin Coleman and DB Zane Lewis, who's on injured reserve, were placed on the COVID-19 list. ... LG Alijah Vera-Tucker, RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, DE John Franklin-Myers and S Ashtyn Davis were all activated from the COVID-19 list, along with practice squad WR Vyncint Smith and DE Hamilcar Rashed Jr. ... S Elijah Benton and WR Isaiah Zuber were released from the practice squad. ... WR Jamison Crowder (calf) sat out practice and could miss his second straight game. ... LB C.J. Mosley, who has a career-high 142 tackles, got practice off as a rest day.
More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL