Today the Jets showed they had something that had been missing for several weeks — steely resolve — and wanted something that had been eluding them for just as long — respect.
They showed resolve and got respect with their first-ever victory in the Steel City in eight visits since the teams first met in 1970. Their inspirational, snow-splashed 22-17 triumph was as gritty as the city they were visiting and as pretty as anything they've turned in this season under head coach Rex Ryan and quarterback Mark Sanchez.
"This football team is resilient. We had some adversity that we're dealing with it, but our team responded," Ryan said. "This win may surprise a lot of people, but it never surprised us. It was hard fought — we knew it would be, but I'm proud of our guys that we got the win. Same Old Jets, we went down to Pittsburgh and got a win."
Sanchez shrugged off the snow and questions about playing in the cold (today's game was played in a 16-degree wind chill), footwork and accuracy all week to lead the Jets to three scoring drives, including their first red zone TD in three weeks, on crisp, efficient passing plus his masterful fourth-down keeper in the third quarter.
Nick Folk's field goal put the Jets ahead with 10:07 to play. Then Steve Weatherford's pinpoint drop punt was downed by Marquice Cole at the Pitt 3. That set up the unexpected — Jason Taylor ripping through the middle of the line to throw down Mewelde Moore in the end zone for a safety. With 2:38 to play the Jets opened a 22-17 lead and had the ball.
"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."
Finally, the visitors from the East had to weather one last field-length gasp by Ben Roethlisberger and the offense. He shrugged off two sacks to lead the hosts to the visitors' 10 in quest of a game-winning TD. But the Jets rushed three and dropped eight in coverage, forcing Big Ben into two end-of-game incompletions, the final one deflected by DB Marquice Cole before TE Mike Spaeth could grab it to secure the win.
"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."
The victory put the Jets back in the right frame of mind, at 10-4 for their first 10-win season since 2004 and their seventh after 14 games in franchise history. They didn't clinch that playoff berth today but they could well do it next week at Chicago or in the regular-season finale at home against the Bills.
The Sanchez scamper was a landmark achievement. It was the Green & White's first offensive touchdown in 12 quarters, or 178:55 of clocktime. It was also the Jets' first offensive TD in the city of Pittsburgh in nine years. To be fair that's only parts of four games since the last one, the Curtis Martin-to-Wayne Chrebet halfback option in 2001. But it's still a drought of 205:27 of clocktime ended.
It all came after the Jets opened the game with Brad Smith's second kickoff-return touchdown in four games. Then they climbed back into a tie with Sanchez's masterful playfake on fourth-and-maybe-16-inches at the Steelers 7. As the CBS camera and many in the pressbox followed Shonn Greene into the line, Sanchez peeled off around his left end untouched for the 7-yard score.
"We practiced it against our defense," Sanchez said. "It just caught them off guard. It was a great call at the right time. It was a good play by Schotty."
The Steelers played the game without two of their injured and deactivated two stalwarts, safety Troy Polamalu for the D and TE Heath Miller for the O, but they were still tough as steel nails as advertised. The Jets scratched and clawed to gain yards against the Steelers' top-ranked run defense.
And when Roethlisberger overcame a slow passing start with some outstanding third-down throwing to their first lead of the game, 17-10, on Rashard Mendenhall's 2-yard TD burst through the middle of the line on the first drive of the third quarter, it looked as if the Black & Gold had righted their ship and were sailing to 11-3. But the Jets had other big ideas.
It all began with B. Smitty. The Steelers won the opening coin toss, deferred (sound familiar?) and Shaun Suisham kicked off. Brad Smith took it at the Jets 3, found a crease created in part by blocks from Rob Turner and Tony Richardson, and shot the rapids down the right side for the quick score and a 7-0 lead.
"You could feel a little bit of momentum building our way," Smith said. "I think our guys fed off of that."
The bolt from the green did many things. It was the third opening-kickoff return for TD in franchise history. It was the Jets' first first-quarter TD in 10 games. And it gave the Jets their first lead since the end of the Thanksgiving night triumph over Cincinnati.
That return was the only score of the first frame. The Jets offense appeared to have a first down on a Sanchez-to-Santonio Holmes completion to the 6 but LG Matt Slauson was flagged for hooking the blitzing Lawrence Timmons on the play and the Jets wound up punting.
Weatherford's punt was a dandy, his seventh inside-the-20 and fourth-inside-the-10 in the last two games, downed by Joe McKnight at the Pitt 4.
But that set the stage for the Steelers' march to a tie game. Roethlisberger was on fire as he went 4-for-4 on third-down conversion passes, including a third-and-18 18-yarder to Hines Ward and the tying TD strike of 9 yards to backup TE Matt Spaeth in front of Bart Scott just over the goal line. So after 16 plays and 96 yards, it was knotted at 7 halfway through the second quarter.
But the Jets had a response that helped them retake the lead. It was a Sanchez-to-Braylon Edwards 38-yard completion over CB Bryant McFadden to the Steelers 11. That set up Nick Folk's 25-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead. Another non-touchdown drives into the red zone, but in this case the Jets would take it.
However, the Steelers took the initiative late in the first half to tie it up again. Big Ben moved the home team from its 23 to the Jets 24. One of the late plays was a fake spike play, but unlike Dan Marino-to-Mark Ingram in 1994, WR Mike Wallace couldn't pick up the flight of Roethlisberger's throw and it fell incomplete. Two more incompletions led to Suisham's 42-yard field goal with 33 seconds and the teams went into their Heinz locker rooms tied at 10 for the intermission.
It wasn't a perfect 10 of a first half, but all things considered it was an interesting, close-to-the-vest first 30 minutes. And in the second 30 minutes the Jets needed just one more point than their hosts to show that they came to Western Pennsylvania mountains with the steely resolve they needed and displayed throughout the second half.
Sanchez finished 19-for-29 passing for 170 yards, no TDs passed for (but one run for) and no INTs. ... Edwards had 100 yards on eight catches. ... The others with opening-KO TD returns in franchise history: Bobby Humphery at Cincinnati in '86, Leon Washington vs. Washington in '07.
After going 12 seasons without a defensive safety, Taylor gave the Jets their second in four weeks, to go along with Trevor Pryce's deuce vs. Cincinnati. ... The Jets cleared 100 rushing yards on Shonn Greene's 5-yard run before the two-minute warning. ... Wallace, the Steelers' speedy WR, surpassed 1,000 yards for the season with a third-quarter catch. ...
Mendenhall became just the second back (Maurice Jones-Drew) to reach 100 yards on the ground against the Rex Ryan Jets in regular season play, hitting the century mark on 17 carries. ...
The Jets had their usual gameday captains but only one, former Steelers Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes, went out to midfield to represent the Jets for the opening coin toss.