Jets’ Robert Saleh walking tightrope with Mike White comments

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The Jets pulled off one of the most stunning wins in recent team history with a 34-31 victory over the Bengals on Sunday. Here are some thoughts and observations from the game:

1. Mike White’s stunning performance in the win over the Bengals now opens the door to a potentially fascinating decision for the Jets’ brass. Does Zach Wilson automatically get his job back when he’s healthy?

There are a lot of layers to this decision, which makes it even more interesting. The Jets made it clear at the beginning of the season that their priority was developing their young players this year with Wilson at the top of that list. By that logic, he should be on the field as soon as he’s ready to play.

However, no one can deny that the Jets offense looked better than it has all year on Sunday with White at the controls. White looks like the better quarterback right now. That does not mean he is the better quarterback long term. Wilson has skills that made him the No. 2 pick. He just needs to learn to play the position. The Jets must decide if he should do that from the bench for a little while or if he needs to be on the field.

Jets Mike White
Mike White (l.) and Robert Saleh (r.) during the Jets’ win over the Bengals on Oct. 31, 2021.
Robert Sabo

Jets coach Robert Saleh surprised me when he opened the door to this conversation in his postgame comments when he said “anything’s possible” about White possibly getting an extended run as the starter. I figured he would go into coach-speak mode and at least say, “we’re not even thinking about that right now. Let us enjoy this win.” But he didn’t and now the conversation has some fuel.

The Jets are fortunate that they have their next game on Thursday night and that Wilson is not ready to play this week. There is no decision to make. White is the starter. It also gives them a chance to see if Sunday was a fluky performance by White or if they have something there.

Jets Mike White Zach Wilson
The Jets are lucky they play on Thursday and don’t yet have to make a tough decision on Zach Wilson.
Bill Kostroun

For me, this is a tricky one for Saleh. Wilson is the future of this team. Developing him is a huge priority. But Saleh needs to be able to look at everyone in the locker room and tell them he is putting the team in the best position to win games. Players know who should play. If the locker room feels like White is the best quarterback, they will not react well to Wilson being handed back the job just because his knee is healed.

This all may be moot if White struggles against the Colts. I don’t think he throws for 400 yards again on Thursday but a 250-yard, two-touchdown performance sure would make next week interesting.

2. White got most of the attention after the game and rightfully so, but the defense also played a huge role in this win. The biggest positive I saw from the defense was their two stops in the fourth quarter. For years, even when the Jets defense has been pretty good, they have stumbled in the fourth quarter when they needed a big stop. Rex Ryan’s defenses did it. Todd Bowles’ defenses did it. Gregg Williams’ defenses did it. Saleh’s defense did it in London last month against the Falcons after the offense had cut the score to 20-17.

But on Sunday, the Jets defense had not just one, but two big stops. After the Jets cut the score to 31-26 with just under five minutes left, Shaq Lawson made a really smart play to intercept a Joe Burrow pass and give the offense the ball back at the Bengals’ 14-yard line.

After the Jets took the 34-31 lead, the Bengals got the ball back with just under four minutes left. After allowing a first down, the Jets got Cincinnati off the field, with Sheldon Rankins sacking Joe Burrow on third down.

Jets Shaq Lawson
Jets lineman Shaq Lawson (#50) celebrates his interception with his teammates.
Robert Sabo

That sealed the win, allowing the Jets to run the clock out.

It should be a huge confidence booster for this young defense and a real positive sign that the Jets did something that has been tough for them for years to pull off.

3. Well, we finally got to see what the Jets offense is supposed to look like. The Jets played a version of small ball on Sunday, hitting a lot of singles and doubles and not swinging for the fences. The question now is did Mike LaFleur call a more conservative game or did White take the short throws that Wilson has not? If it is the latter, Wilson can learn from watching White how to not force things and take what the defense gives you.

The Jets offense played a much better game all around. The line had one of its better games, backs and receivers broke tackles and gained extra yards and LaFleur added a few gadget plays also.

4. Speaking of LaFleur, he deserves kudos for Sunday’s game. He has taken a lot of heat this season and he proved that he can do the job on Sunday. I thought his game plan was sound. He came out throwing the ball and attacking the Bengals defense despite having a backup quarterback and not having his No. 1 receiver in Corey Davis.

The entire Jets coaching staff deserves credit for getting the team to rebound from the humiliating loss in New England. There are going to be growing pains with this young team and this young coaching staff. That is clear. But on Sunday the pains took a week off and you just saw growing from them.

Revealing stat

The Bengals were 11-point favorites on Sunday. It was the Jets’ fourth-biggest upset, per Pro Football Reference. The biggest is Super Bowl III when the Jets were 18-point underdogs against the Colts. The second was last year’s 23-20 win over the Rams, who were 17.5-point favorites. Third was a win over the Bills in 1992 when the Jets were 17-point underdogs.

Surprising snap count

Elijah Moore only played 30 snaps (36 percent). He had his best game Sunday and it felt like he played more. The Jets need to start getting him on the field more.

Game ball

Who else? Mike White had a game for the ages, completing 37 of 45 passes for 405 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.

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