Rex Ryan diagnosed today's Jets game accurately: "tough sledding." The Steelers at home. The Steelers in their home opener. The Steelers coming off an opening-day loss. No Darrelle Revis, no Bryan Thomas, no Dustin Keller. All those things made a Jets win in Pittsburgh today a difficult proposition.
The visitors from the East may have thought it was going to be a sleighride instead as they struck for a Mark Sanchez-to-Santonio Holmes touchdown pass and a Nick Folk field goal on their first two drives for a 10-6 lead.
But it was all uphill and deeper snow from there as the Jets offense lost its ability to move the ball against the Troy Polamalu-less and James Harrison-less Pittsburgh defense, Ben Roethlisberger's Steelers offense scored two unanswered touchdowns, and the Jets fell as they often do at Pittsburgh, 27-10.
"You have to give Pittsburgh a ton of credit," Ryan said. "They outplayed us in all three phases of the game. It came down to we couldn't get off the field on third down and we couldn't stay on the field on third down. That's really where you look at it."
Big Ben eluded several blitzes and promising pass rushes to complete 24 of 31 for 275 yards and his two TD passes without a pick. Sanchez, meanwhile, completed just 10 of 27 throws for 138 yards and no completions to a wideout from the first quarter until after the final two-minute warning.
"You can prep all you want, but there's nothing you can do," said Garrett McIntyre, who got the first two sacks of his pro career vs. Big Ben. "He steps up, he steps out, he steps sideways. It's amazing what he does back there."
The Steelers (1-1) have improved their record over the Jets (1-1) to 18-4 overall and 9-1 in the Steel City. Head coach Rex Ryan saw his personal mark when his teams play the Black & Gold fall to 2-10.
"I think it was just execution," Sanchez said. "Everything we prepared for, a lot of pressures that looked the same as we saw in practice. ... For the most part the guys kept me upright. We've just got to be better throwing and catching."
The throwing and catching issues led directly to the offense's 1-for-7 on third-down plays in the second half while keeping the defense on the field in allowing the Steelers to go 4-for-8 in the final 30 minutes.
About the best thing that can be said about the day is that with New England's failure to top Arizona at home and Buffalo's and Miami's opening-day-bounceback victories, the entire AFC East is knotted up at 1-1 records, in time for the Jets to head to Miami next Sunday and try to improve their record to 2-1 and their division mark to 2-0.
Today's crucial play came six minutes into the third quarter. The Steelers were facing third-and-16 at the Jets 37. The Jets had a blitz on and it almost got to Roethlisberger. Except it didn't. Big Ben stepped up, then loaded up and found Mike Wallace in the end zone. CB Antonio Cromartie overran the play, with the touchdown call being upheld after a mandatory review in the booth. The Steelers opened up their biggest lead of the game, 20-10.
"The third-and-16 killed us," Ryan said. "That was a backbreaker. Obviously when Ben avoids a sack and throws a jump ball up there and Wallace does a great job of getting both feet in bounds. I thought that was a killer play in the game."
Tim Tebow, who played only on the punt team in the first half, came on for his first offensive snaps and promptly ripped off a 22-yard run and handed to Joe McKnight for 12 more. But a 6-yard loss by Shonn Greene brought Sanchez back in and the drive stalled.
A promising defensive stand near the Pittsburgh goal line was wasted when Jeremy Kerley committed the game's first turnover, muffing away a punt to Ryan Mundy, with the Steelers taking over at the Jets 42. And on the first four series of the second half, the Jets punted all four times as Sanchez's accuracy and his receivers' sure-handedness from the Buffalo game and the first two drives today dwindled away.
Finally, the Steelers grinded their way against a tough Jets defense led by Muhammad Wilkerson, Bart Scott and Thomas fill-in McIntyre to a clinching 2-yard TD run by Isaac Redman with 3:34 to play. The drive lasted 14 plays, 75 yards and 10 minutes, 13 seconds and it told the Jets that they were right. The sledding here got tougher as the day got longer.
A Promising Start
The Steelers got the ball first and marched with fits and starts to Shaun Suisham's 45-yard field goal 5:53 into the game. The Jets showed strong run defense (four carries, 0 yards) but soft pass defense until Garrett McIntyre, making the fourth start of his career, took Roethlisberger down for the first sack of his career and the Jets' first sack of the season to force the field goal.
The Jets responded in the way they had to if they intended to compete with the Steelers and their Terrible Towel-twirling fans — they marched 90 yards to a go-ahead 14-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez to Holmes on a slant in front of Ike Taylor. Big play on the drive: Sanchez on a pump-fake 45-yarder to Jeremy Kerley.
There was only one more series in the opening frame as Pittsburgh drove again into Jets territory. But the run defense stepped up and stopped the hosts once more, with rookies Quinton Coples and Josh Bush dropping Chris Rainey for a yard loss to set up Suisham for another 45-yarder on the first play of the second quarter, making it 7-6, Jets.
Sanchez moved the offense again, with help from the Steelers. LB Lawrence Timmons crushed the QB with helmet-to-helmet contact on third down, giving the Jets 15 yards and a first down. Then Holmes drew his second penalty of the game on the Black & Gold, a holding on Taylor.
Bilal Powell's running — he had four carries for 21 yards on the drive — got the Jets into the red zone at the 19. But an incompletion when Jeff Cumberland didn't turn around for a third-down jump pass from No. 6 brought on Folk, who hit from 38 yards out for a 10-6 lead. It marked the first time the Jets had scored on their first two drives in a game since the 2009 regular-season finale, the "Win And We're In" triumph over Cincinnati.
On the Green & White's next defensive series, Pitt went 3-and-out, with Sione Po'uha, in his first game since last year due to his low back injury, falling on Roethlisberger for the third-down sack. But the Jets gave it back with a 3-and-out and Robert Malone's first punt of the game for a touchback.
The Steelers took that punt 80 yards to their first touchdown of the game, a Ben Roethlisberger flip off play action to TE Heath Miller past LB David Harris. That also gave them their second three-point lead of the game, 13-10, with 1:03 left in the first half.
Time for a Jets one-minute drill? No, the offense ran twice to exhaust the final 57 seconds of the half, knowing they would get the ball to start the third quarter — and that they would have 30 minutes to overcome a three-point deficit, not to mention the Steelers' massive homefield advantage.
"You've got to give them credit," Ryan said. "The Steelers played an outstanding game."
The last time the Jets had a longer completion to a WR than the 45-yarder to Kerley, it was Sanchez to Jerricho Cotchery, now a Steeler, in the 2010 playoff win at New England. ... Shonn Greene left the game in the first half with a head injury but returned for the Jets' first two carries and their first first down of the second half. ... Powell was the Jets' leading rusher for the first time in his career, gaining 33 yards on nine carries.
Rookie WR Stephen Hill, two-TD star of the opener, had one downfield ball thrown to him and couldn't hold it. "They pressed me the whole game, but we just had to execute," Hill said. "Their defense played very well. Our hats off to them. Now we've just got to get in the film room."
The Jets defense clamped down on the Pitt running game to the tune of 66 yards on 28 carries but too often couldn't find the handle on Roethlisberger as he extended play after play. S Yeremiah Bell and LB David Harris tied for the game high with 10 tackles each. ... The Steelers were occasionally incensed at replacement ref Jerry Frump's crew, which hit the hosts with 10 penalties for 107 yards and five penalty first downs for the visitors.