PITTSBURGH — Quarterback Zach Wilson’s season debut included a historic touchdown catch, a two-quarter slump that nearly doomed the New York Jets and the biggest fourth-quarter comeback of his young career.
“That was an ugly win, but that was some of the most fun I’ve had playing football,” Wilson said Sunday after a 24-20 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Acrisure Stadium.
It was a wild game.
The Jets led by 10 points in the first quarter and trailed by 10 in the fourth, but Wilson rallied them with 81- and 65-yard touchdown drives on their final two possessions to pull out their second come-from-behind win on the road. Wilson returned to the huddle after a preseason knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery on Aug. 16. With only three days of full practice, he was predictably rusty (18-for-36, 252 yards, two interceptions), but he made several clutch throws in the fourth quarter. Sunday’s game was the first time since 1988 that the Jets led by 10 points, trailed by 10 and won the game, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.
Wilson was nearly flawless in the fourth, completing 10 of 12 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown — a 5-yard slant to wide receiver Corey Davis with 7:31 remaining.
“The young man doesn’t flinch,” coach Robert Saleh said.
Wilson, drafted second overall in 2021, demonstrated toughness and resilience in the final minutes. He completed his last seven passes, including 5-for-5 for 57 yards on the final drive. The Jets took over on Michael Carter II’s interception with 3:34 to play and marched to Breece Hall’s 2-yard touchdown run with 16 seconds left.
Wilson said he didn’t think about his surgically repaired knee during the game. He was under heavy duress by a makeshift line. He was sacked only once, but he was hit six times and pressured 14 times, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
“I thought this was probably the most comfortable I’ve ever felt from a pregame standpoint coming into a game,” said Wilson, who went 3-10 as a starter during a difficult rookie year.
Wilson proved he could catch a pass. In the second quarter, he scored on the Jets’ version of the “Philly Special,” a razzle-dazzle play in which he handed it to wide receiver Garrett Wilson, who pitched it to receiver Braxton Berrios, who threw a 2-yard pass to a wide open Wilson.
He became the first quarterback in Jets history to score a touchdown reception and the first to catch a pass since Geno Smith in 2013. Wilson celebrated with a “Griddy” dance in the end zone.
“Pretty cool,” he said of his touchdown, joking, “I’ve got the best hands on the team.”
The Jets seemed in control with a 10-0 lead, but Wilson threw two interceptions (one off the hands of tight end Tyler Conklin) as the Jets squandered opportunities to put the game away. Wilsons said “there was frustration, but it was the right frustration.” The defense made four interceptions, including two by safety Lamarcus Joyner, to keep the Jets in the game. That gave Wilson two big possessions at the end.
“He never shut down. He never turns it off. You can tell he just believes in himself. He might not have played a perfect game, but it was his first game back and everything,” Hall said of Wilson.
Wilson, showing no ill effects from his knee surgery, escaped a handful of sacks with his mobility. He said he was “in a good spot” with his knee, crediting the training staff for getting him ready. He was on the run because his offensive line suffered another key injury, as rookie right tackle Max Mitchell (knee) was carted off in the second quarter — the fourth Jets tackle to get injured since training camp.
The day began with a surprise move, right guard Alijah Vera-Tucker starting at left tackle. By halftime, only two of the five Week 1 starters were in their original positions — center Connor McGovern and left guard Laken Tomlinson. Led by Wilson, the Jets (2-2) overcame plenty of adversity.
“I thought he played a good game for his first game back,” Saleh said.
The Steelers (1-3) found it hard to swallow. Said safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, “It’s very frustrating. It’s frustrating losing to people that you know that you’re better than, more talented than.”