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Corey Griffin, TheJetsBlog.comThe S.S. Geno ran aground early Sunday afternoon, but there was something far more troubling than either of the rookie’s momentum stopping interceptions.
The Jets’ pass defense looked bad, reminiscent of the days Lito Sheppard once roamed the defensive backfield. And while Geno will continue to throw interceptions – because rookie quarterbacks do those types of things – a leaky secondary could do just as much damage as a turnover-prone quarterback.
For the third straight week, an opposing quarterback had his best game of the season, as Ben Roethlisberger completed 23 of 30 passes for 264 yards and a touchdown. His quarterback rating of 113.7 was 10 points higher than his previous best this season and followed Matt Ryan’s 111 rating and Jake Locker’s career-high 130. After keeping Josh Freeman, Tom Brady and EJ Manuel mostly in check to start the year, the Jets’ secondary is beginning to crack and fray.
It would be easy to point to the departures of Darrelle Revis and Laron Landry in the offseason as obvious reasons for the decline. Injuries to Dee Milliner and Antonio Cromartie certainly aren’t helping, either. Cromartie has been visibly limited for much of the season, but he was glaringly so against the Steelers. His lack of makeup speed and inability was never more evident than on Emmanuel Sanders’ 55-yard touchdown reception. After getting beat off the line, Cromartie never came close to tracking down Sanders, who might have gotten away with a double somersault.
While Cromartie would clearly benefit from taking at least one week off, that’s unlikely to happen with the Patriots, Bengals and Saints upcoming. With Milliner and now Kyle Wilson also on the injured list, the Jets can ill afford to sit their top cornerback, even if he is playing on one leg.
One would think the Jets’ dominant defensive line would help, but even the best pass rush can be neutered by a quick passing attack against a sub-par secondary. The Jets were unable to cover Heath Miller and Antonio Brown for long stretches Sunday, with Miller catching six of the seven passes targeted for him and Brown hauling in nine of 11. And when the quick options didn’t develop, Roethlisberger used his athleticism and nimble feet to escape the clutches of fawning defenders. Despite finishing with four sacks and eight quarterback hits, it was a day of missed opportunities more than anything.
Never was this more evident than on Pittsburgh’s second offensive series of the game. Muhammad Wilkerson had the 6-foot-5 Roethlisberger in his grasp in the end zone, but Wilkerson went high and Roethlisberger found a way out of a sure safety. Drop back after drop back, Roethlisberger was under relentless pressure, but continually found a way to get the ball out of his hands. The pass wasn’t always completed, but it didn’t need to be – something Geno will learn over time.
The good news is there’s no one quite like Roethlisberger. His ability to extend plays and make something productive out of a should-be sack will likely land him in Canton. Against almost any other signal caller, the Jets may have had seven or eight takedowns Sunday. They may have even secured that safety and changed the outcome of the game. Instead, they’ve fallen back to .500 and must find a way to fix the secondary before Tom Brady and Co. arrive Sunday.
Say all you want about the Patriots’ “dedication to the run,” but New England is nothing if not adaptable. After having their once-high-powered passing attack stifled in the teams’ first meeting, the Patriots will study the game plan executed by Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley on Sunday. They’ll notice how often Pittsburgh’s wideouts were able to get open out of tight formations. They’ll see that stacking their receivers – or stacking running backs and tight ends – gives the quarterback a quick option in the face of the Jets’ pass rush. If there is something to be learned, something to be gleaned from Sunday’s Steelers win, Brady and Josh McDaniels will find it – and that means Rex Ryan will need an answer before the game even starts.
In January 2011, the Jets went into Foxboro and stunned Brady with a zone-heavy defensive game plan. With the secondary keeping receivers covered for five, six or seven seconds at a time, Shaun Ellis was able to push the pocket and disrupt Brady’s timing. The end result was as shocking a playoff upset as the NFL has seen in the past five years. That was also the last time in the Ryan era the Jets have beaten the Patriots after their first meeting of the season.
Ryan doesn’t need to redesign the defense or paint another masterpiece in six days, but he does need to find some way to patch up a wounded unit. Because if he doesn’t, it may not matter how many interceptions Geno throws.
Corey Griffin is a sports web producer for NBCSports.com. You can reach him on Twitter at @cgriffin415.