By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns
It could have been worse. A lot worse.
If not for Lavonte David’s really, really bad personal foul penalty on Geno Smith’s scramble that set up Nick Folk for his winning field goal with two seconds remaining, the rookie’s regular-season debut would have been a total bust.
Instead, Smith undoubtedly woke up Monday with a big smile across his face and an untarnished professional record of 1-0. But if this kid has any brains, he’ll hold off celebrating for a while. It is clear from Sunday’s 18-17 victory over the mistake-ridden Tampa Bay Bucs that the Jets are going to have to win games through defense, and not Smith’s arm this year.
Then again, we all knew that going in, didn’t we?
Not that there weren’t a bunch of positives in Smith’s game. The final numbers — 24-of-38 for 256 yards with a touchdown and an interception — weren’t horrible. Actually, compared to those the doomed Mark Sanchez put up regularly the last two years, they looked perfectly acceptable. Smith obviously needs to learn to keep that ball down when throwing over the middle to avoid nasty picks like the one David grabbed in the second quarter, but even veteran quarterbacks let one go astray once in a while.
The real bones to pick here are the second-quarter fumble and the 18-yard sack he took that same period. Those are two mistakes that should be avoidable even for a rookie. Of course, he could have used a little help from the offensive line on Mason Foster’s round-the-back strip sack at the Jets’ 5 that turned into a Doug Martin touchdown on the next play. But he absolutely had to get rid of the ball on the sack two series later as Foster bore down on him in point-blank viewing range.
The sack, on first down no less, might have ruined an opportunity to capitalize on Dawan Landry’s interception, as it knocked the Jets back to midfield. But the Bucs obliged with a helmet to the head of Jeremy Kerley for 15 yards to the 19. And then something wonderful happened after an offensive holding penalty. Smith found Kellen Winslow twice, for 18 yards, and then 7 for a touchdown to get the Jets to within 14-12.
Smith took five sacks all told. On the plus side, he also led the Jets’ ground game with 47 yards which, if you think about it, really isn’t a plus. Though he can move, Smith is not the prototypical running quarterback. Rex Ryan and Marty Mornhinweg would much rather see him move around the pocket than take off and run. But the mobility Smith showed was encouraging, especially since the Bucs’ defense held Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory to a combined 44 yards on 22 carries.
No, Smith will not win games for the Jets this year. The defense will, and that unit showed well. In addition to Landry’s pick, they held Martin to 65 rushing yards and sacked Josh Freeman three times. And it came up big in the second half when Smith and the Jets’ offense struggled to move.
The Bucs’ offense did even less until it put together a nine-play, 61-yard field goal drive that put the Bucs up 17-15 with 34 seconds left. DE Muhammad Wilkerson looked like a real force with one sack and another that was nullified by a penalty. DT Sheldon Richardson had a big day in the middle with seven tackles and a shared sack with Calvin Pace.
The secondary looks raw, though. Dee Milliner looked like a rookie cornerback, so it will be important for the Jets to win the battles across the line if they’re going to have any early success. Holding Tampa Bay, or any team for that matter, to 17 points and 250 total yards is generally a winning formula.
They did that Sunday. If the defense holds up as well as it did against the Bucs, Smith might just get a chance to learn while winning, which is far better than learning while losing.
If it happens enough, a Jets team that came into 2013 with such low expectations might just shock the world.
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