What a difference a week makes.
After all the drama surrounding the Jets last week, about the losing streak, about talking too much, about Sal Alosi, about a large part of the nation doubting the Jets, Gang Green responded with a 22-17 win on the road in Pittsburgh.
It wasn't pretty, but when have the Jets ever played pretty football? The main issue heading into the game was just how the Jets would score points on Pittsburgh. The news of Troy Polamalu's injury relieved some doubts. But after not scoring a touchdown in the last two games, Brad Smith returned the opening kickoff 97 yards to end that ignominious streak.
The Jets earned their 22 points creatively. Smith's kickoff set the tone. The sole offensive touchdown was on a 4th-and-1 Mark Sanchez quarterback bootleg. Nick Folk made both of his field goal attempts. Finally, Jason Taylor notched a safety to cap the score at 22.
The defense wasn't lights out, but like the offense, it was good enough to win. On the final drive of the game, when Ben Roethlisberger drove his team down the field for a potential game-winning score, he went all the way to the 10-yard line, before the Jets finally stopped the Steelers at the goalline.
This was a slugfest, with both teams being able to move the ball okay offensively. But when it counted, the Jets made a few plays late and Ben Roethlisberger's pass as time expired fell incomplete. If the Steelers completed that drive with a touchdown, there would be a ton of second-guessing and panic this week. Instead, the Jets snuck away with a huge conference win against the likely AFC North champions, despite being outgained by 102 yards.
Most of the targets of criticism during the week responded strongly. Sanchez was on target almost all game, scoring the team's only offensive touchdown. Brian Schottenheimer made some great playcalls in key spots, most notably the aforementioned Sanchez naked bootleg. The special teams unit was stellar, as Brad Smith scored a touchdown and 3 of Steve Weatherford's 4 punts were downed inside the 20.
This wasn't a great overall performance, but it was refreshing to see the team compliment each other so well. Special teams made an early statement, the offense answered after the Steelers scored after halftime, and the defense not only held onto the lead but extended it with Taylor's huge safety. The team was well-prepared and, for the most part, well-coached.
The biggest issues with the coaching staff almost all have to do with clock management. Rex Ryan has yet to show he's a competent time manager as head coach. Where's Dick Curl when you need him? At the end of the first half, the Jets ran a conservative, half-hearted effort to move the ball down the field. With 29 seconds left and two time outs, the Jets got the ball at their own 37. Rather than try to move the ball down the field and add some points before the half, the Jets threw a 6-yard pass in the middle of the field, didn't call time out, and went into halftime without even trying. If you're going to throw the ball, go all out. If you're not calling time out, don't throw the ball short in the middle of the field, just run it. Tipped passes and mistakes can happen.
They should have tried to move the ball and get the lead. Pittsburgh was to receive the ball in the 2nd half, the Jets should have tried to steal some momentum. It's not as if Sanchez was playing poorly.
Then, later in the game with the lead, the Jets ran three pass plays that fell incomplete, stopping the clock. Run the ball any of those plays, and the Steelers likely don't have time for their near-comeback. Facing a 2nd-and-5 from the Steeler 32, the Jets ran back-to-back passes, then punted. With such good field position and the lead, the Jets should have run at least one of those plays. Maybe you pick up a few yards and get in more comfortable field goal range. Maybe you pick up the 1st down. But at worst, the clock keeps running, and brings you closer to the end of the game. Then on a 3rd-and-3 with 2:24 left, the Jets threw the ball again. I didn't hate the playcall, but getting another 20 seconds off the clock would have been huge. If you throw, you better complete the pass. Stopping the clock three more times than necessary gave Pittsburgh enough time to scare the living daylights out of Jets fans.
3rd down defense was also a problem. The Steelers had their way with the Jets on 3rd down, going 11-17. This extended drives, kept the defense on the field, and almost cost the Jets the game. On the final drive alone, the Steelers started at the 8 yard line, and the defense let them march 82 yards. That included 3 third down conversions, most notably a 3rd-and-24, in which Emmanuel Sanders was left wide open in the middle of the field for a 29-yard gain. That's inexcusable. The Jets have struggled in 3rd and long situations all season long, and that was one of the most glaring examples.
Still, you have to hand it to the Jets. Against a difficult opponent, albeit one struggling offensively and missing its defensive captain, the Jets suffered adversity and came out ahead. They ran the ball better than expected, as LaDainian Tomlinson looked good on his 11 carries for 45 yards. The receivers didn't drop any passes. Braylon Edwards, in particular, had a big game, posting 100 yards on the day. Drew Coleman sacked Roethlisberger twice and forced two fumbles.
After this, the Jets travel to Chicago to face the Bears. Lovie Smith's team clinched the NFC North title on Monday night, but they still are fighting for seeding. Still, coming off a short week after playing on a basically frozen field, the Bears could have a bit of a letdown. Just like last week, the Jets will be facing a tough defense that thrives on stopping the run. The confidence Sanchez gained this week will have to carry over next week, as the Jets need to be able to pass the ball and beware of turnovers to win. Chicago tackles very well and knows how to force turnovers as well as any defense in the NFL, so if the Jets play mistake-free football again, they should be able to win their 7th game on the road. Like this week, however, it will not be easy.