As the Jets return to Pittsburgh this Sunday, it is worth remember their trip to the Steel City in Week 15 that turned around a season that appeared to be in freefall. One play in particular seemed to turn the tide.
The Steelers had just taken control of the game with a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half to take a 17-10 lead. It was Pittsburgh's first lead of the game. Brad Smith's opening kickoff return for a score had given the Jets an early lift, but their defense didn't look like it could stop a nosebleed early in the second half. The Steelers had scored their last three times with the football.
The Jets drove it to Pittsburgh's 7 to set up a 4th and 1. They decided to go for it trailing by a touchdown, and Pittsburhg holding momentum.
The Jets entered the game reeling, having dropped a pair in a row. The offense had not scored a touchdown in those two losses, the 45-3 humiliation at Foxborough and a week later at home to the Dolphins.
The Jets went to a jumbo formation with three tight ends, one of whom, Robert Turner, was really an offensive lineman. Mark Sanchez appeared to hand the ball off to Shonn Greene. The offensive line got a push, and Greene powered his way through far enough before being tackled to pick up what appeared to be a first down. It looked this way to fans at home. It even looked this way to the camera crew which followed Greene's progress.
Greene, however, did not have the ball. Mark Sanchez had executed an excellent fake that fooled everybody. He kept the ball and ran left on a bootleg. The entire Pittsburgh defense sold out on the run, and Sanchez walked into the end zone with nobody near him for a touchdown to tie it.
It was a brilliant call. What made it so brilliant? Cimini noted after the game that the Jets handed the ball off running short yardage plays out of that formation almost exclusively. The Steelers knew that from their film research. That is why they sold out. Sanchez's excellent fake left them with no chance to stop the bootleg. Brian Schottenheimer had been so frustrating up to that point because he threw wrinkles into his offense that were never going to fool a defense. When a coordinator puts in a wrinkle, this is the kind it should be. It recognizes a tendency the defense might key on and burns a defense for doing so. It is not just mixing things up for the sake of mixing things up as he had been doing. There was a logical flow to the call.
It worked so well that he can even be forgiven for sending Robert Turner into the flat as a receiver instead of Dustin Keller, which is sadly still a case of Schottenheimer outthinking himself, not putting his most reliable guy into a certain spot for the sake of trying to fool the opposition.
The Jets went on to win the game with a Nick Folk field goal, a Jason Taylor safety, clutch punting from Steve Weatherford, and a defense that bent but did not break at the end. New York went on to win three of the next four after it to reach the AFC Championship and earn a return trip to Pittsburgh. One can only wonder what would have happened had that play not worked. The Steelers would have taken the ball back with all of the momentum. They might have controlled the game and given New York a third straight loss. The Jets would have been reeling. The Playoffs would have been in serious danger. The offense might have gone through a third straight game with no touchdown and not entered this game on the kind of roll it is on.
In fairness, the offensive line did a great job on the play, and Greene would have had the first down had he gotten the ball. The defense thought he had it and made him the focus. He still got there. Would the Jets have punched it in, though? We'll never know, and we thankfully will never have to know.