Miramar’s Geno Smith’s growing pains
By William C. Rhoden
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Jets feel disrespected and discounted. They also feel embarrassed and frustrated. Week to week, their mood changes. It changes because they have moonwalked through their first six games, shuffling forward at the same time that they are drifting backward.
A promise tumbled forth from Coach Rex Ryan’s mouth last week. There would be no let-down, he vowed, after their most recent foray into the realm of great expectations, a last-second victory in Atlanta. And indeed, Ryan was correct.
The Jets’ 19-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday was not a letdown. It was the continuation of a pattern established in Week 1, when they began alternating wins and losses, embarking on a season that has been one part joy ride, one part demolition derby. They flash enough promise to dismiss grave preseason projections as laughable, and then they issue a convincing rejoinder to fans clearing their January weekends for playoff games at MetLife Stadium. For this pattern to hold true next week, the Jets must topple A.F.C. East leader New England.
“We talk about wanting to be a playoff team,” linebacker Calvin Pace said. “But to be a playoff team, you’ve got to win more than one game. If you win one, lose one, you’re going to end up 8-8. We have to be better than that.”
Even before Sunday, the Jets knew that. It was just that the notion had been just reinforced, in blunt fashion, by a Pittsburgh team that hardly resembled the winless outfit that bumbled through its first four games.
All week, the Jets scoffed at that record. They knew that the Steelers were better than 0-4. The Jets saw urgency, a desperate team, a proud franchise seeking equilibrium. They praised the elusiveness of Ben Roethlisberger, the presence of Troy Polamalu and the cunning of Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh’s revered defensive coordinator. By late Sunday afternoon, they were still doing that.
“I felt like everything we wanted was there for us,” guard Willie Colon said, “and we slipped up.”
Roethlisberger neutralized the Jets’ aptitude for shoving him into difficult down-and-distance situations by again and again extricating the Steelers with completions on second- and third-and-long. He shredded the Jets for 264 yards, on 23-of-30 passing, and the game’s only touchdown, a 55-yarder to Emmanuel Sanders on Pittsburgh’s first possession after halftime. Polamalu delivered a crushing hit on Stephen Hill, temporarily knocking him out of the game. LeBeau devised a crafty game plan to bewilder Geno Smith, who threw his first of two interceptions Sunday to a player, Ryan Clark, whom Smith said he “least expected to even get over there and make the play.”
One week Smith can dazzle, engineering a fourth-quarter comeback to lead the Jets to a rousing win on national television. The next he tosses two interceptions, both on ill-advised throws, both in the red zone, and he is back to being a rookie quarterback.
Smith’s three-touchdown, zero-turnover performance against the Falcons came a week after he committed four turnovers, leading to 28 points, in a debacle of a loss at Tennessee, which came a week after an encouraging display against Buffalo.
There is an indisputable link between his fortunes and those of his team. The Jets are aware of his relative inexperience but unwilling to tolerate it as an excuse.
“It’s always those two or three plays in every single game that seems like we’ve got to avoid,” said Smith, who completed 19 of 34 passes for 201 yards and those two interceptions. “Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t.”
Examine, then, their drives in the second half, which they began trailing by 9-6. Their seven possessions resulted in punt, interception, punt, punt, punt, interception, end of game. What propelled the Jets in Atlanta was their offensive efficiency, scoring on all three of their first-half possessions and six of nine over all. On Sunday, the Jets could not exploit seams in the middle of the field because those seams did not exist.
They adopted a conservative approach against LeBeau’s defense, favoring runs and screens and short passes to downfield throws. Smith’s first completion to a wide receiver came with 19 seconds remaining in the first half. Of his 12 first-half pass attempts, 5 came on the final drive, a 43-second march that produced a 39-yard field goal by Nick Folk that sliced Pittsburgh’s lead to 3 points.
The turning points Sunday occurred four minutes apart, and they were unmistakable. On their first drive after halftime, the Steelers faced third-and-1 at their 45. Sanders shook Antonio Cromartie, playing three days after hyperextending his right knee in practice, with a juke inside and zipped downfield to await the pass from Roethlisberger. It reached him at the Jets’ 20, and Sanders somersaulted into the end zone. “He cut right back underneath me, and by me staying square too long, I wasn’t able to flip my hips fast enough to get back up the field,” Cromartie said.
The Jets responded with a sustained drive before Smith made his first poor decision since the Tennessee game. From the Pittsburgh 23, Smith threw toward the goal line, toward the backup tight end Konrad Reuland, into triple coverage. Smith said he was trying to throw the ball away. He did not. It landed in the arms of Clark, who recorded the Steelers’ first takeaway of the season.
In every section of MetLife Stadium, Terrible Towels twirled — as they did late in the fourth quarter, when a few thousand Pittsburgh fans descended to the bottom rows of the lower bowl and serenaded their team with chants of, “Here we go, Steelers.”
It was a sobering moment for the Jets at the end of a week that toyed with their emotions. They began it defiant, bursting with swagger and adamant that their three victories (against teams that entered Sunday a combined 3-11) were not diluted. They finished it in relative silence, humbled and chastened — not for the first time and, presumably, not for the last.