For a half, the Jets' defense repelled everything Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw at it. Pittsburgh was limited to three field goals and a three-point halftime lead, keeping it close enough to give Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith a chance to pull out a win.
But there was little margin for error, and one third-quarter breakthrough by the Steelers turned the tide their way.
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It came on third-and-1 when Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie worried about the short pass in front of him and let Emmanuel Sanders get wide open behind him. The 55-yard touchdown pass broke open the Steelers' 19-6 victory Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
It looked at first as though Cromartie bit on the play fake, but he said that wasn't the case.
"No, we were in cover zero , so I'm not worried about the play fake," Cromartie said. "I'm thinking more about a quick [pass] because of cover zero, thinking the ball will come out a little quicker. But it ended up they had time to get the ball down the field."
The Steelers picked up the blitz, springing Sanders in the clear by nearly 15 yards.
"I stayed square too long, and he cut back underneath me [to the inside]," Cromartie said. "I wasn't able to flip my hips fast enough to get back up the field. I got beat inside on a cover zero, which is something we can't do, and they ended up scoring."
It was the only serious defensive mistake of the game by the Jets, but it was enough to put it out of reach for an offense struggling with injuries and the learning curve of a rookie quarterback.
Cromartie swore a knee injury he suffered in practice Thursday was no factor. But he admitted to being shaken initially.
"Honestly, I thought I tore my ACL," said Cromartie, who hasn't missed a game since joining the Jets. "I felt the same pop that I felt in my left one, but it was a freak accident, non-contact. It's just a hyperextension."
Sanders sensed no injury problem for Cromartie, and he's not quite sure how he got open for the game's only TD. "All I know is, when the ball was in the air, I knew I was wide open," Sanders said. "And the rest is history."
The Jets held the Steelers to 73 yards rushing, had four sacks and forced a field goal by the Steelers in the fourth quarter after they had first-and-goal at the 2.
"We still gave up too much," safety Dawan Landry said. "They had a pretty high percentage on third down [6-for-16]. That's something we have to lower."
The Jets are 3-3 heading to a rematch with the AFC East-leading Patriots, but it's hard not to believe they let one slip away Sunday.
"It was disappointing because we were doing such a good job in the first half, making them kick field goals," Cromartie said. "Then they get a big play on third-and-1 and they get a touchdown. That hurts your team."