By Ernie Palladino
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Put it this way: the Jets already have won three more games than anyone could have rightfully predicted.
Sunday’s 19-6 loss to the Steelers was just another step in the growing process for Geno Smith. But the good news is that he has a decent offensive line in front of him, something for which that quarterback on the other side of the MetLife Stadium walkway would give his valuable right arm at this moment.
True, those two interceptions in a game that was well within reach were bad. The defense had done a good job in holding the previously winless Steelers to one touchdown the whole game. And indeed, when Smith threw his first one to Ryan Clark, who picked his pass from the Steelers’ 23 at the 1, the Jets were still only 10 points down at 16-6.
They still had plenty of time to score two touchdowns, as that one came midway through the third quarter. And even though Scott Suisham would add his fourth field goal at 12:12 of the fourth, the Jets still could have won the physical slugfest.
But, as rookies will, Smith reverted from the hero whose performance last week in Atlanta earned him the AFC Offensive Player of the Week to the rookie that he is. His first pick was bad — a throw into triple coverage that resulted in the Steelers’ first turnover of the season. But the second, with 2:59 remaining, was even worse because it killed any hope of a comeback.
Sensing a hit by Jarvis Jones, Smith forced a throw from the Pittsburgh 12 to Stephen Hill. Instead, the ball went straight to linebacker Lawrence Timmons at the 3, and that was the end of the Jets’ last meaningful possession of the game.
For all that went wrong — Smith was sacked three times, and Antonio Cromartie let Emmanuel Sanders beat him inside on a 55-yard touchdown catch — some of Smith’s problems were the fault of the coaching staff. Rex Ryan and Marty Mornhinweg called a conservative game, so much so that they hamstrung Smith from what he does best.
That’s throw the ball down the field. When Smith has time, he throws an excellent ball. Yet, he didn’t even throw to a wide receiver until the second quarter. And he didn’t complete a pass to one until Jeremy Kerley’s catch in the final minute of the half.
Ryan should know by now that a rookie quarterback needs all the help he can get. He must feel comfortable back there. And he must be allowed to play to his strengths, since he has neither maturity nor knowledge to make radical alterations.
Smith showed how he could move the team in the final moments of the first half. When Ryan finally loosened the reigns, Smith hit four-of-five passes for 45 yards in the seven-play, 51-yard field goal drive. He threw a wonderful 20-yarder to Hill, who rewarded him with a tremendous sideline catch as Troy Polamalu tried to cave in the receiver’s ribcage.
Mornhinweg didn’t put Smith in enough of those situations, which means Mornhinweg didn’t put Smith in good enough position to succeed. So he and Ryan must take a big part of the blame for 267 net yards, two Nick Folk field goals, and a scoreless second half against a Steelers defense that had allowed a 27.8-point average through its first four games.
Still, be happy. A 3-3 mark at this points looks a whole lot better than the 0-6 their blue-clad stadium co-tenants are stewing about. Of course, .500 could turn into a losing record next week against the Patriots.
It certainly will if Ryan and Mornhinweg stay conservative. For better or worse, they have to let Smith look downfield.
It’s what he does best. For now, they have to play to Smith’s strengths.
He’s just not ready for the rest of it. Not yet.
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