For all the relief the Jets experienced after last week's 48-28 beatdown of the Bills, it's a good thing they didn't come away with any illusions about themselves. No sense thumping your chest when you knew the more accurate test of your progress would come against a Super Bowl-caliber team with a two-time champion quarterback, not a home rout of a quarterback-challenged team.
Beating Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills at MetLife Stadium was all well and good. Beating Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers on the road, especially after Pittsburgh lost a hard-fought opener in Denver -- now that would be something.
The Jets got their early-season measuring-stick game and came up decidedly and definitively short. After hanging with the Steelers for the first half, which featured about as good a drive as you'll ever see from Mark Sanchez to start things off, the Jets couldn't keep up with a superior team and were pushed around in a 27-10 loss that left them fully aware of how much better they'll need to be to have a meaningful regular season.
"Hey, there's no excuse," a clearly dejected Rex Ryan said. "The guys got to step up. We just couldn't get it done."
The Jets were without cornerback Darrelle Revis and tight end Dustin Keller, but the Steelers didn't have linebacker James Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu. All in all, it was a fair fight -- one the Jets weren't capable of winning.
They couldn't stop the Steelers on third down; Pittsburgh went 8-for-15, including a backbreaking 37-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace on third-and-16 that produced a 20-10 lead. And the Jets couldn't get out of their own way on third down, particularly in the second half. When Sanchez looks back on this one, this is the stat that will hurt the most: The Jets were 1-for-7 on third down in the second half.
"I know we have the firepower to score points, and that happens when you convert on third downs," he said. "You've got to convert on third down, and you have to stay on the field."
Sanchez struggled, and his primary target, former Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes, had three dropped passes. Holmes did score the Jets' only touchdown of the game, but he came up small when the Jets needed him most later in the game.
Afterward, Holmes seemed unaffected by his performance.
"We didn't have a hard time doing anything," he said. "Today was just one of those days."
Frustrating? "Nothing at all is frustrating," he said.
Sanchez needed to step up in a meaningful way down the stretch, and it simply wasn't there. He had performed admirably in two previous trips to Heinz Field during the 2010 season, once in a huge late-season win and again in the AFC Championship Game. But he was not on his game Sunday and the Jets paid the price.
"We didn't have a couple throws I would have wanted back, a couple of catches we need to come up with on third down that we got against Buffalo," Sanchez said. "I think it was just the execution. They outperformed us. That's the way it goes. But it's the same with . You can't get too high after a win, can't get too low after a loss. Take it on the chin and move on."
Now it's on to Miami in what might be a tougher test than had been expected. The Dolphins were abysmal in Week 1 but crushed Oakland, 35-13, Sunday. Sanchez and the Jets suffered their final moment of ignominy last season against the Dolphins. Another performance like Sunday, and it'll be more misery in Miami.