- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Geno Smith called it an intentional throwaway. Rex Ryan said it was a forced pass into heavy coverage. See, this is what happens when a rookie quarterback faces the Pittsburgh Steelers: It's so befuddling that you can't figure out what went wrong, even two hours after the fact.
Makes for a tough autopsy.
No matter how it's defined, Smith's third-quarter interception was the killer mistake in the New York Jets' 19-6 loss Sunday at MetLife Stadium. His pass, on a first down from the Steelers' 23, was thrown into the middle of a Pittsburgh team meeting, a trio of Steelers surrounding third-string tight end Konrad Reuland. The Jets, trailing by 10 points, squandered a chance to make it a one-possession game.
Such is life on the Geno-coaster.
Six days after his electrifying, breakthrough performance in Atlanta on "Monday Night Football," Smith met up with the wrong team at the wrong time. He was intercepted twice, both deep in Pittsburgh territory, and failed to do what he does best -- throw the long ball. He was booted from his comfort zone by a trio of Steelers graybeards: 76-year-old defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, who were in Smith's head all day.
LeBeau, Polamalu and Clark have a combined total of 63 years of NFL experience. Smith has six games. Yeah, it was a mismatch.
"They've played that way, shoot, for 15 years," Ryan said of the tradition-steeped Steelers.
Not recently, though. The Steelers started 0-4, with their once-ferocious defense playing like lap dogs instead of junkyard dogs. Incredibly, they produced zero turnovers in the first four games, threatening to make NFL history with another oh-fer.
Then along came Geno.
In a defense-oriented game, the Jets (3-3) needed their rookie to hang with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but Smith imploded in the second half with his 12th and 13th turnovers -- his ninth and 10th interceptions.
"Well, you can tell those guys had time to prepare," said Smith, alluding to the Steelers coming off a bye week heading into the game.
You give LeBeau two weeks to prepare for a rookie quarterback, and it's like Einstein enrolling in Physics 101. Since 2004, LeBeau's record against rookie starters is 16-2.
The Steelers' No. 1 priority was to take away the long ball, so they relied on a two-deep safety look with their usual array of fire-zone blitzes up front. It frustrated Smith, who was forced to adjust.
Statistically, he entered the game as one of the most dangerous deep passers in the league, having completed 21 of 36 attempts with three touchdowns and four interceptions on throws longer than 15 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information. On Sunday, he was a mere 2-for-10 with an interception.
"They covered our verticals pretty well and carried the seams," Smith said. "I think it's a testament to having guys like Troy and Ryan Clark, who've played in the league and seen those plays time and time again."
Maybe so, but Smith has no one to blame but himself on the first interception.
Under no duress, he launched a laser toward Reuland, who was at the goal line. The seldom-used Reuland was forced into a role because of Kellen Winslow's suspension. Rob Gronkowski could've been the intended receiver, and it still wouldn't have mattered. The throw had no chance.
You knew right there that Smith had left his magic in Atlanta.
"I wish I could take back the throw," he said. "It was an attempted throwaway, and the guy [Clark] who I least expected to even get over there and make the play got over there. That's not to make an excuse. It can't happen. We've said that time and time again, especially in the red zone or in critical situations."
Smith's head coach saw it differently.
"He's going to try to make the throw he thinks is there, but in that case -- obviously hindsight being 20/20 -- you'd have liked to have seen him throw the ball away there and not force it," Ryan said.
It didn't look like a throwaway. A throwaway should sail into the second row of the stands, not the second row of defenders. Reuland said he wasn't sure what it was; the only thing he acknowledged was that he wasn't open.
No matter how you classify it, it was a horrendous play. The Steelers had a hunch it was coming. Cornerback William Gay recognized the formation and shouted, "Verticals!" Clark said he covered tight end Jeff Cumberland, forcing Smith to the outside.
"He floated the ball enough so that I had an opportunity to catch it," Clark said.
There's nothing more deflating than a red-zone interception. The Jets struggled to move the ball and they finally had something going. In a moment, the momentum was gone.
"It's tough. You have to deal with it," Jets guard Willie Colon, a former Steeler, said of Smith's inconsistency. "We have to stay behind Geno. We're a unit. It's not about one guy messing up."
The Steelers, playing for the season, afforded Smith few opportunities. There was one lapse in the second quarter, when they let Stephen Hill get behind them. Smith maneuvered the safeties with his eyes and he had Hill in the clear for what should've been a 77-yard touchdown, but the pass was overthrown.
"I think Geno is going to be a guy who's going to win a lot of games for the New York Jets," Clark said. "I'm excited for him and the organization."
Typical Steelers: Confuse the kid, then compliment him. They have the routine down pat.