Jets confident against Steelers despite record
The numbers certainly aren't encouraging for the New York Jets, who stumble into their Week 5 game at the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-1) on Sunday with a 1-3 record through the first quarter of the season.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown nine interceptions over the past two games, has 11 turnovers overall on the season, and a defense that has allowed 17 completions of 20-plus yards and seven of 40-plus through four games may be minus cornerback Darrelle Revis, who is dealing with a hamstring injury. It's an ominous backdrop entering Heinz Field, where Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 18 touchdown passes over his past five games -- including at least three in each of those outings and five against Kansas City last Sunday night.
Then there's the historical weight: only 14 percent of the teams to begin a season 1-3 since 1990 have gone on to reach the playoffs. Still, coach Todd Bowles believes the Jets can compete with anyone as his team prepares for the Steelers before returning home to face the reigning NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals.
"We're close," said Bowles, whose team has been outscored by a combined score of 51-20 over the past two weeks. "We've made some plays. We made some strides from the Kansas City game to the last game. We've got to clean up some mistakes. We can't beat ourselves."
The Jets enter Sunday's game with a minus-10 turnover margin, while the Steelers are plus-1 on the season and riding high on a wave of confidence after a 43-14 beat down of the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 4. The Steelers are well-balanced on offense, and may lean more on the two-headed ground game of Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams to protect Roethlisberger from a very talented defensive line.
Pittsburgh has struggled in protection at times this season, and the offensive line was banged up in the Kansas City game.
Steelers left guard Ramon Foster could miss his second consecutive game due to a chest injury, while coach Mike Tomlin deemed right tackle Marcus Gilbert as "highly questionable" with an ankle injury suffered against the Chiefs. Gilbert's backup, Ryan Harris, also left that game with a leg injury. That could leave former undrafted rookie and practice squad member B.J. Finney at left guard and untested Chris Hubbard at right tackle to deal with a defensive line that features Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Leonard Williams and former Steeler Steve McLendon.
"We have faith and trust and belief in whoever the next man up is," Roethlisberger said. "We've been able to do that and proven that over the years here. Guys prepare themselves to be ready to go. We'll have faith and trust in whoever needs to be out there.
"With that being said, we're not going to be ridiculous. If there are times when we have to help someone's way, we'll do it."
The Jets have to get to -- and bring down -- Roethlisberger quickly because every cornerback is allowing completions on at least two-thirds of the passes thrown his direction. Marcus Williams is the best of the lot giving up a 67 percent completion rate, and the Jets will be exposed any time Roethlisberger has time in the pocket or is able to extend plays.
"I think it's issues (where) some guys aren't as vocal when they need to be," Bowles said of the communication breakdowns the secondary has continued to experience. "Those are things that can easily be cleaned up and they see it on film. We see it on the sidelines and we have some things in place to try and take care of that.
"One hand washes the other, but the biggest thing is we can't have guys running free in the secondary. I can see if they're getting beat one-on-one or those types of things. We have guys running free in the secondary and we can't have that."
One way the Steelers combat aggressive defensive fronts is to maximize Bell's versatility. Returning from his three-game suspension last week, he lined up in the backfield, in the slot and even split wide as a receiver. Playing for the first time since a season-ending knee injury last Nov. 1, Bell played in 52 of a possible 59 snaps against the Chiefs.
"It's pretty unique," Tomlin said. "But we're going to see a guy in (Jets running back) Matt Forte who's probably done it for over a decade. I thought a lot about Matt Forte as I stood at Le'Veon Bell's pro day and watched his balanced skill-set. In the running game, in the passing game, route running, ball handling and so forth. I thought about Matt Forte a lot, so we're excited about having Le'Veon Bell at our disposal. But, we also understand what we're facing on the other side of the ball as we go into the stadium this week."
Forte's versatility is equally important to the Jets. In addition to leading the team with 288 yards and three touchdowns on 81 carries, Forte has teamed with backup Bilal Powell to catch 26 passes for 186 yards. Utilizing safe underneath routes can help Fitzpatrick establish a rhythm and some confidence after appearing tentative against Seattle last week following a six-interception outing the previous week.
The Jets are also short-handed at receiver, with Eric Decker and Jalin Marshall still recovering from shoulder injuries that sidelined them last week. With teams focusing on Brandon Marshall, Quincy Enunwa leads the team with 23 catches for 243 yards and a touchdown. Fitzpatrick is also increasingly looking to stretch the field to speedy rookie Robby Anderson, who got past Seahawks Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman last week only to have Fitzpatrick over-throw him.
If there's a silver lining to the historically dim playoff aspirations of 1-3 teams, it may be that the Jets have done it twice -- in 1991 and 2002. And the Chiefs reached the postseason after beginning last season 1-5.
"We've shown that we can play against playoff teams," Marshall said. "But we haven't shown that we can beat them yet."