For Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith, the battle was taken to a new front in Detroit tonight.
The two quarterbacks battling for the Jets' starting job each got some snaps with the first offense in the preseason opener against the Lions, and there was a little bit to love, a little bit not to love through the first half, at the end of which the Jets found themselves trailing the hosts, 20-7 en route to a 26-17 loss.
Sanchez opened with a play to bedevil Jets fans, a screen pass intercepted by a defensive lineman and returned for an opening-drive touchdown. But No. 6 made amends on his last drive of the night, an 80-yarder culminating with his 26-yard TD strike to TE Jeff Cumberland.
"Marty [Mornhinweg] gets the calls in quick and he's pushing us up to the line — I love that aspect of it," Sanchez said. "We even had a little no-huddle in there. Other than one crappy play, I didn't think it was too bad."
Smith, with two drives behind the first offensive line and 1½ behind the twos, didn't turn the ball over, but he wasn't able to move it much, either. And he did turn an ankle early in the third quarter as he gave way to Greg McElroy middrive. Smith was in for 13 plays and despite 6-for-7 passing generated just two first downs, one of them by penalty.
"I didn't have any butterflies," Smith said afterward. "I haven't reviewed the plays yet but just my viewpoint of it, I was making the right reads, the right checks, being quick in my decision-making. I think I did a good job getting the ball out of my hands."
Here are some details on how the QBs revved their engines in the first half in the Motor City. (We'll update this story through the night with final score and stats, information on how Greg McElroy and Matt Simms battled in the second half, and quotes.)
Sanchez Screen Wasn't the "Ansah"
Sanchez took the offense's reins for its first drive 2:20 into the game. He got started well, completing a third-and-9 pass to rookie free agent WR Ryan Spadola for Sanchez's first completion of the game and Spadola's first of his NFL career.
But on the next play, a familiar sight: Sanchez dropped back looking to find his screen target. Instead he found rookie DE Ziggy Ansah, who took the interception untouched 14 yards for a 7-0 Lions lead just 3:42 in. It was the opponents' first INT-return TD since last August, when Giants rookie CB Jayron Hosley picked Sanchez and went 77 yards for a score.
"On those screens, you've got to find a way to either change your arm angle, or something," head coach Rex Ryan said, "but we can't throw picks there, there's no doubt about that."
Sanchez described his opening-drive interception as "a pain in the butt."
"Those kind of things happen when you play long enough," the fifth-year QB said. "You can't dwell on it and let it affect you're next throw. When that stuff happens, you've got to bounce back."
Drive No. 2 for Sanchez was similar, as Sanchez bailed the Jets out with a nice third-and-10 over the middle for 18 yards near midfield. But a near-interception intended for TE Kellen Winslow and a short third-down pass for Jeremy Kerley led to a Robert Malone punt.
Sanchez's third and last series of the game started with 4:42 left in the first quarter. It opened with a nice out route to Winslow, who took it up the left sideline for 24 yards. The drive moved across midfield and appeared to stall — until Sanchez found Jeremy Kerley open down the middle on third-and-11 for 24 yards to the Lions' 16. Two plays later he hit TE Jeff Cumberland, turned loose down the seam, in stride for a 26-yard touchdown.
"I was proud of the way the whole team didn't flinch," Sanchez said. "The touchdown drive was perfect. We spread the ball around a lot. I thought Cumberland made a hell of a move on the guy and made a great catch."
It was the end of a summer drought for Sanchez and the first offense, who scored a touchdown for the first time in their last 19 drives dating to the 2011 preseason Game 3 vs. the Giants.
And it was the end of Sanchez's night. He produced a TD and an INT for TD on three drives, 10-for-13 passing for 125 yards. Even more impressive: On third down he was 4-for-4 for 62 yards and three first-down completions.
Smith Steps Up in the 2nd Quarter
Then it was Geno's turn.
Smith came in for the first drive of the second quarter. His first pass was a sparkling success, an on-the-money ball for Gates that gained 15 yards to midfield. But his second pass was a 5-yard completion to Bilal Powell to set up third-and-11, and his third pass was batted down in the backfield.
The second-round rookie's second series, also with the first offense, had a first-down completion of 7 yards to Stephen Hill but nevertheless produced a three-and-out.
After a Shaun Hill 15-yard TD pass to Matt Willis over CB Darrin Walls gave Detroit a 17-7 lead with 2:09 to go, Smith had been set up for his first live two-minute drill. This drive was behind the Jets' second O-line and offense. And it went nowhere for a second consecutive third-and-out.
Smith came out for the first drive of the third quarter, also with the second offense, and with the aid of a horsecollar-tackle 15-yarder moved the offense to midfield. But on the next play he scrambled, appeared to twist his ankle as he fell forward, and McElroy came on to finish the series.
Smith said he was "in complete disbelief" about hurting his ankle in his first game as a pro.
Would he have come back on the field and continued playing if this was a regular season game?
"Oh definitely," the rookie QB said, adding that he had gotten retaped on the sideline before walking under his own power into the locker room.
Smith's lines for the night: 13 plays, 3½ series, two first downs, two three-and-outs, and 6-for-7 passing for 47 yards.