The New York Jets (3-3), coming off a triumphant comeback win on Monday Night Football, blew a chance to solidify themselves as a legitimate playoff contender in Week 6, falling at home to the previously winless Steelers (1-4).
Rookie quarterback Geno Smith put forth his best performance as a pro on the national stage in Week 5 but regressed into the turnover-laden player who struggled mightily through the first four games of the season.
Smith chucked two ill-advised passes into thick coverage deep inside Steelers territory in the second half of the Jets' defeat, promptly eliminating any chance the team had at achieving another comeback win.
The second-round pick is enduring predictable sequences of ups-and-downs as the Jets signal-caller. He features incredible arm strength to complement game-winning intangibles. Smith has led the Jets to three fourth quarter wins in 2013.
In essence, the Jets have won three games because of Smith's gameplay, instead of in spite of it, which was often the case when former starting QB Mark Sanchez was running the offense.
Smith's numbers through six games are pedestrian; however, he boasts enormous upside and could potentially be the Jets' long-term solution at quarterback.
Smith has racked up 1,490 passing yards and seven touchdowns in six starts, good enough for a 74.7 quarterback rating.
He's completed just 59.5 percent of his pass attempts, though, a startling figure for a guy who connected on 71.2 percent of his throws as a senior at West Virginia.
The most intriguing element of the Jets drafting Smith was his seeming aptitude to protect the football.
He threw just 20 interceptions in three full seasons as a starter at the collegiate level but has already hurled 10 picks as a pro. He's also coughed up the football four times on the ground.
The learning curve continues to be a difficult process for Smith to conquer.
He's displayed flashes of brilliance—like his last second game-winning drive at the Georgia Dome in Week 5—but has also looked terribly incapable of sustaining consistent productivity from the pocket.
The interception that Smith chucked into triple coverage near the right end zone pylon in the third quarter of the Jets' most recent defeat was inexplicably bad.
That decision couldn't simply be defined as an ill-advised throw. It was a head-scratching mistake which essentially sealed the deal for the Steelers.
The Jets needed to come away with points on that drive, down 10 in the face of a Steelers passing attack that was clicking on all cylinders.
If the Jets are going to beat their archrival, the New England Patriots, in Week 7, Smith needs to demonstrate better ability to protect the football. It's a seemingly simple concept, although it seldom occurs.
Smith has been turnover-free in just one game so far this season.
His aggressive style of play effectively mirrors offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's attack-oriented style of play-calling. However, Smith needs to quickly learn that pushing the envelope against thick coverage is a lose-lose situation.
In addition, Smith needs to better adapt to pressure-cooker situations when the pocket collapses.
He's been blatantly vulnerable to being hurried in pass situations, a weakness that Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau exposed with a makeshift pass rush on Sunday.
The Steelers entered Week 6 with just four total sacks on defense but registered three on the stat sheet against the Jets.
New York is hard-pressed for playmakers on offense, increasing the necessity for Smith to perform at a high level.
It remains unknown if supposed No. 1 wide receiver Santonio Holmes will play on Sunday against the Patriots. Second-year wideout Stephen Hill, who has shown signs of significant improvement, suffered a concussion in the Jets' Week 4 loss at Tennessee.
Hill was the victim of a vicious hit by explosive safety Troy Polamalu near the end of the first half. The speedy receiver has caught just 18 passes on 34 targets this season, a substantial issue for a team that needs its fastest player on offense to be a constant downfield threat.
Smith had an opportunity to connect on a long touchdown pass to Hill with the Jets trailing 6-3 in the second quarter but overthrew his man by a yard.
Smith was promptly sacked on the subsequent play, a mid-range third-down attempt which allowed LeBeau to dial up the pressure.
The Jets will look to rebound against the Patriots, who feature a mediocre defense that yields a ton of yards on the ground. New England ranks 24th in the league against the rush, giving up 118.8 yards per game.
New York will be forced to regroup after losing tailback Mike Goodson, who suffered an ACL and MCL tear against the Steelers, for the season. Goodson played in just two games for the Jets in 2013, racking up 61 rushing yards on seven carries and two receptions for 19 yards.
The game plan against the Patriots should showcase a healthy dose of dependable running back Bilal Powell, who continues to impress by averaging 4.1 yards per carry on 87 attempts this season.
RB Chris Ivory should also endure an increased workload in Week 7.
He's carried the ball just four times in each of the Jets' past three games but is a valuable component of the team's offense and will likely be more heavily utilized in the wake of Goodson's season-ending injury.
A productive run game would serve the purpose of easing some pressure off of Smith, who has completed more than 67 percent of his pass attempts in just two games this season.
The Patriots are relatively effective against the pass, giving up 228.8 yards through the air per game. Smith is averaging 248.3 passing yards per contest, a number that has remained mostly static on a week-to-week basis.
Smith will likely need to rely more on tight end Jeff Cumberland against New England due to a multitude of injuries on offense. Cumberland has caught 11 receptions for 198 yards and two touchdowns in five starts. He's only been targeted 13 times but boasts the highest pass completion percentage of any Jets receiver at 84.6.
At 6'4'' and 260 pounds, Cumberland is a versatile player who excels in run blocking situations and also features above average route-running skills.
The Jets need Cumberland to produce on offense in Week 7, although the Patriots were stout in defending Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham last week.
Graham led the NFL in receiving yards through the first five weeks of the season. Stopping Graham was an obvious point of emphasis for the Patriots in practice leading up to their Week 6 clash with New Orleans.
Graham was held without a catch on six targets, promptly slowing down the Saints' potent air brigade.
In the Patriots only loss, their defense gave up a combined total of nine receptions for 77 receiving yards on 11 targets to Bengals tight ends Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham.
It's ultimately pertinent for the Jets to efficiently run the football and find a way to get Cumberland involved on offense, especially considering the team's banged-up core of wide receivers.
If New York fails to take advantage of the Patriots' suspect rush defense, they'll be staring down a 3-4 record, which would put them three games behind New England in the AFC East.
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