PITTSBURGH -- The back-to-reality moment for the New York Jets occurred early in the second quarter, when Mark Sanchez roamed outside the pocket and got hit by a speeding truck named Lawrence Timmons.
It was helmet-to-helmet, Timmons crashing into the left side of Sanchez's head for a personal-foul penalty -- and a probable fine from the NFL. "A good shot, no doubt," Sanchez said later, insisting it had no effect on him.
There's no way of knowing if it did or it didn't -- it looked like it did -- but this much is certain: It was the demarcation point. It was when the Jets' offense went from wow to woe, becoming the unit everyone expected in the preseason -- nothing special.
Things change fast in the NFL. After five terrific quarters of quarterback play, Sanchez morphed into John Starks, circa the 1994 NBA Finals, misfiring on just about everything. He missed on 16 of his last 22 pass attempts, as the Jets got manhandled Sunday by the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-10, at Heinz Field.
Facing a defense that didn't have its two biggest stars, safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison, the Jets erased the feel-good vibes from their opening-day domination of the Buffalo Bills. This was closer to what they really are -- a flawed offense that needs an 'A' game from all facets to have a chance.
This was a 'D' game across the board -- dreadful.
"We have to be better, throwing it and catching it," said Sanchez, oversimplifying the problems.
Their future opponents, starting with the Miami Dolphins, will go to school on what the Steelers did to the Jets' wide receivers. Unlike the Bills, who played E-Z Pass coverage on the outside, the Steelers got physical with receivers, jamming them at the line. It threw the entire passing game out of whack, leading to mind-boggling inefficiency.
After a 90-yard touchdown drive to open the game, in which he completed four of five passes for 80 yards and a touchdown, Sanchez encountered an epic struggle. The man couldn't complete a pass. He went 0-for-the-second quarter -- six incompletions. At one point in the second half, he went 51 minutes in real time without a completion, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Sanchez finished 10-for-27 for 138 yards, tying his lowest completion total since his rookie year and his third-lowest yardage total since that 2009 season. It was Tebow-esque.
"Needed a couple of more completions," he said. "Gotta find more completions."
The Jets were doomed by a domino-effect of problems. Concerned about pass protection, they played at times with six linemen. Well, not really, but they used backup tackle Jason Smith as the only tight end on some passing plays, keeping him in to block -- and effectively removing a potential target. Clearly, they missed tight end Dustin Keller, who sat out with a hamstring injury.
That put tremendous pressure on the wideouts to get open, and they couldn't. Rookie Stephen Hill, so brilliant in the opener, was only a rumor. He was targeted only twice and was held without a catch. Welcome to the varsity, kid.
"They did a great job of press coverage and we knew that was going to be a challenge," Rex Ryan said. "These guys have really big, physical corners, and they did a great job of being physical with us."
Sanchez still had Santonio Holmes, but their chemistry was about as good as it was last December -- which is to say it was non-existent. He completed only three of 11 passes to Holmes, just 1-for-8 after the opening drive. Two incompletions resulted from miscommunications.
So what else is new? Since 2010, the Sanchez-Holmes tandem has produced five incompletions on miscommunications, tied for the most of any quarterback-receiver combo in the league during that span, per ESPN Stats.
This, of course, was news to Holmes.
"We didn't have a hard time doing anything," he said. "Today was just one of those days. ... Nothing is frustrating to us."
Offensive coordinator Tony Sparano has to take a hit here, because he failed to make the proper adjustments. How can an offense look so good on the opening drive -- eight plays, 90 yards -- and disappear into thin air? He was outcoached by Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who certainly could dispute Ryan's "I'm-the-best-defensive-coach-in-the-league" claim.
Why didn't Sparano try bubble screens to get the ball in the hands of his receivers? The Steelers struggled last week on those plays in Denver.
Why did he wait until the third quarter to get Tim Tebow into the game? Tebow, who ran for 22 yards on his first play, might have provided a spark against a Pittsburgh defense that still has nightmares of Tebow from last year's playoff game. Evidently, Sparano doesn't trust him much.
Sanchez took some of the blame, saying he should've taken some check-down options instead of trying to force the ball downfield. The end result was 4-for-12 on third down, and two of those came on third-and-1s.
The only positive was that the offense didn't commit a single turnover, disproving Sparano's theory that flawless ball security all but guarantees success. If you stink, you stink, whether you hold the ball or not.
Afterward, veteran guard Brandon Moore bristled when asked to assess the offense after two weeks.
"You mean, are we going to stink up the rest of the season like we stunk it up today?" he asked, not appreciating the line of questioning. "If I did [think that], I wouldn't come to work tomorrow. I guess we'll see the rest of the season and how we do next week."