The Jets safety position was decimated by injuries, the team was coming off back-to-back losses, and their last road game was a 45-3 debacle against the Patriots. But against the Steelers on Sunday the Jets defense stood tall and some of its unheralded heroes made crucial plays to seal the 22-17 victory.
"This one here, you're playing an outstanding football team," head coach Rex Ryan said. "We knew what we were coming into. We knew that it was going to be everything we had, that we had to play at our very, very best, and we did. You talked about everybody, both sides of the ball and special teams. Everybody contributed to this victory and it was hard-fought."
Cornerback Drew Coleman may have had the most impressive and impactful game, leading the team in tackles with 10 and also strip-sacking Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger twice in the fourth quarter. Darrelle Revis, Coleman's fellow cornerback and an Aliquippa, Pa., native, had seven tackles and also made a key pass deflection over the middle in the second half of the Jets' 10th win of the season.
"It was a great win for the organization," Revis said. "This was a must-win for us and we needed it. When adversity struck, we responded very well."
That adversity came in the form of missing starting safeties Jim Leonhard and Eric Smith due to injury and the Steelers and their historically clutch quarterback driving the length of the field in the final two minutes. Pittsburgh had two shots at the end zone in the final 10 seconds and a touchdown would have clinched a dramatic Steelers victory. But the Green & White defense stiffened when it needed to, and cornerback Marquice Cole was a factor on both of the final plays.
"All week everybody talked about Roethlisberger making plays with his feet," Cole said. "We had a good call initially to cover the tight end, but then Roethlisberger turned into Roethlisberger. Definitely to be able to contribute to a big win and for them to have me in the game in a situation like that felt great."
Roethlisberger tried twice from the Jets 10 to find his big tight end, Matt Spaeth, but Cole was in coverage on both plays, adding an essential pass deflection on the final play to his two tackles on the night. He was one of many Jets defenders who had a hand in the outcome. Safety Brodney Pool had five tackles, linebacker Bryan Thomas added a sack and cornerback Dwight Lowery had a great pass deflection over the middle.
One play that made perhaps the most difference was the safety that linebacker Jason Taylor caused late in the fourth quarter. The score was 20-17 when Taylor stuffed a Mewelde Moore running play in the end zone, creating a five-point cushion that forced the Steelers to go for a touchdown instead of only a game-tying field goal on their final drive.
"That obviously changes both sides," Ryan said, "what you're going to do on both sides, with our offense how we'd approach that, and how we'd approach it on defense. But yes, it was huge. What we talked about with Jason Taylor, he just makes plays and that was another example of it."
Taylor, who also returned to his native Pittsburgh, was in on two tackles for loss and enthusiastically made the safety signal after his crucial tackle behind the goal line. After the game, however, he was humble about his own play when asked about how important it was to force the Steelers into a situation where they needed a touchdown instead of a field goal.
"It didn't close the game but it helped change the situation down the stretch," Taylor said. "It seems like a cool play but it's my job. I haven't made enough of those. I need to do more."
Seven different Jets had five or more tackles and six passes were defensed by five different players. The Green & White defense gave up more yardage than usual, 378 yards, but held Roethlisberger to 52 percent passing and made just enough plays to gut out an essential victory.
While the Jets didn't clinch a playoff berth Sunday, their victory brought them one step closer to achieving that goal. With a road game at Chicago next Sunday and then a home game against the Bills, Ryan's crew will have two chances to seal a spot in the postseason. This win against the Steelers was a statement game, and the Jets defense stepped up big-time to help the team leave the chilly conditions at Heinz Field with a victory.
"It's huge. It's huge to come out and play like Jets," Cole said. "Football is football. This is the NFL. Every game's going to be a big game and you've got to bring your 'A' game. So to come in here and win is huge."