They knew they had him.
For all the poise Geno Smith has shown in his erratic rookie season, the Steelers saw trepidation in his throws. It was only a matter of time, they told themselves, before he would succumb to their relentless pressure. And they were right.
Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons didn't hesitate when asked the question Sunday at MetLife Stadium. Yes, the Steelers had rattled Smith in front of his own fans in a game the Jets needed to win to cement their legitimacy.
"Yeah, of course,'' Timmons said. "When the outside linebackers like LaMarr [Woodley] and [Jason] Worilds and Jarvis [Jones] started getting hits on him, you could really tell he was throwing the ball a different way.''
The final stats confirmed Timmons' statement. After putting up the best performance of his career last week, Smith threw two interceptions to cap a listless offensive performance by the Jets in a 19-6 loss to the previously winless Steelers.
On the same day former defensive great Marty Lyons was inducted into the Jets' Ring of Honor, Rex Ryan's club put up little fight. And on the horizon are the 5-1 Patriots.
"It's a must-win for us definitely if we want to win the division,'' Stephen Hill said of facing the Patriots, who defeated the Jets, 13-10, in Week 2. "It's definitely a 'hunger' game and we have to go out there and, as we say, 'eat.' I feel like it's our only chance, trying to get to the playoffs. We definitely have to win this division game next week.''
But before the Jets (3-3) can focus on the Patriots' high-powered offense, they must dissect what went wrong Sunday.
"We were beat by a team that was better than us today,'' said Smith, named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week after his performance against the Falcons on Monday Night Football.
In the aftermath of another head-scratching defeat, stunned silence filled the Jets' locker room -- save for a smattering of expletives hurled into the air out of frustration. Rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson sat in front of his locker, staring off into space, before shooting down interview requests. Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson scowled as he got dressed and said nothing as he walked past reporters toward the exit. And frustration was evident in the gravelly voice of Willie Colon, who spent seven years with the Steelers before signing with the Jets this past offseason.
The true culprit was consistency -- or lack thereof -- said the right guard. "That's our biggest issue,'' Colon said. "We're not a consistent team.''
Pittsburgh (1-4) hadn't forced a turnover since the last game of the 2012 season, but coordinator Dick LeBeau made sure to dial up the pressure on Smith.
With the Jets trailing 16-6 in the third, the rookie -- on first-and-10 at the Steelers' 23 -- threw into triple coverage along the Jets' sideline and safety Ryan Clark picked it off.
More puzzling than the throw itself was Smith's explanation.
"I wish I could take back the throw,'' he said. " . . . The guy who I least expected to even get over there and make the play got over there. I was trying to throw it over their heads.''
Smith's second interception, with just over three minutes left, obliterated all hope of a last-ditch comeback. It also might have cost Mike Goodson the rest of the season. The speedy running back, who made his season debut last week against Atlanta after a four-game suspension, injured his left knee while trying to make a tackle after Timmons picked off Smith's pass.
"When you get hit, you don't throw the ball the same,'' said the linebacker, who made his first interception of the season. "You don't follow through as much.''
Ryan praised Smith for withstanding the hard hit from Jones on the second interception. But when asked if he can live with Smith's two turnovers because he's a rookie, he quickly said no. "We have to get better,'' Ryan said. "And I believe we will.''
Although Smith's picks may have cost them the game, Colon stressed, "We're a unit. It's not about one guy messing up. Every guy has to take ownership of anything that goes bad out there . . . We've just got to pick each other up and move forward.''