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December 13, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Squandered Opportunities
Coach On The Couch

BY SEAN LAHMAN
December 13, 2004

If the Jets were looking for evidence that they can compete with the best teams in the league, they found it in Pittsburgh yesterday. They outplayed the Steelers and bested them in most of the standard measures of performance - time of possession, yards of offense, sacks, third-down conversions. All of that ceased to matter, though, when the Steelers surged ahead in the only measure that matters, the score.

After the game, head coach Herm Edwards insisted that there was no solace in having played well. One got the sense that this loss was even more frustrating because the Jets had every opportunity to win but simply didn't get the job done.

In the first half, the Jets held Pittsburgh to 59 yards total offense by containing the Steelers' tough running game and forcing rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger into passing situations. Big Ben responded like, well, a rookie, completing just 3 of 11 passes and throwing an interception.

Yet the Jets trailed 3-0 at halftime because their offense seemed bent on self-destruction. The Jets, who came into the game as the NFL's second-most disciplined team (an average of 5.5 penalties a game), were flagged 12 times in the first half, and it seemed as if most of those penalties came at the worst possible time. Consider:

* A 39-yard pass to Santana Moss was called back by a delay of game penalty.

* Jonathon Carter's 45-yard kick return was brought back because of a flag for holding.

* Tight end Anthony Becht was called for holding, negating a 30-yard run by Lamont Jordan.

* Jonathon Vilma's fumble recovery on a reception by Hines Ward was overturned when John Abraham was called for illegal contact.

* A pass interference penalty on Moss knocked the Jets out of field-goal range in the closing seconds of the second quarter.

Other than Abraham's infraction, each one of these penalties derailed drives. Equally damaging to the Jets' offense were the three interceptions thrown by quarterback Chad Pennington. Although the penalties certainly hurt, Pennington was never able to get the offense moving and take advantage of good field position throughout the game. It was his worst game of the season.

The Jets also struggled to run the ball effectively against Pittsburgh's tough front seven, which kept forcing them into second-and-long and third-and-long situations. With the Steelers' aggressive secondary and penchant for blitzing, the Jets could do very little once they dug themselves into that hole.

Still, the game came down to two plays in the second half. The first came with about four minutes left in the third quarter. With the scored tied at three, safety Reggie Tongue intercepted a Roethlisberger pass and returned it to the Jets' 46-yard line. With a chance to seize the momentum and take the lead, the Jets lost 4 yards on a first-down run by Curtis Martin. That led to a three-and-out, and after the punt the Steelers drove 80 yards for a touchdown.

The second decisive play came on the Steelers' next possession. After a Jets field goal brought the score to 10-6, Pittsburgh got the ball back with just over six minutes on the clock. With their power running game, nobody would have been surprised if the Steelers had chewed up the clock by running Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley up the middle, counting on their stifling defense to protect the four-point lead.

Instead, they came out throwing. After an incompletion and a 6-yard out to the fullback, Roethlisberger froze everybody with a pump fake on third down and found receiver Lee Mays deep down the sideline for a 46-yard gain. Three plays later, Bettis ran in for the touchdown that put the game out of reach.

This game illustrated what is most frustrating about this 2004 Jets team. They have a championship-caliber defense, but their inability to score points is keeping them from joining the NFL elite. Playing the league's two best teams on the road, the Jets held the Patriots to 13 points and the Steelers to 17 and still lost both games. Eight times in the last 11 games, the Jets have scored 17 points or less, and that's simply not enough. Their defense has played well enough to get them to the playoffs, but their offense will keep them from winning in the postseason.

***

Against some tough opponents over the last four weeks, it has become clear that the 2004 Giants simply aren't a good football team. The die-hards have been insisting for weeks that the team was squandering a playoff opportunity by turning to Eli Manning. After yesterday's loss in Baltimore, it ought to be clear that the Giants have so many holes that no quarterback could keep this ship from sinking.

Blame the collapse on Eli Manning if you want, but he's started his career playing four very tough defenses without any kind of help around him, and next week he has to face the no.1-ranked defense of the Steelers. Opposing teams have shut down New York's starting wide receivers using mostly man coverage, and that has allowed them to blitz more often. With nobody open and no time to throw, Manning doesn't have many options. Add to that the fact that the Giants haven't been able to run the ball since guard Chris Snee was hurt two weeks ago, and it's easy to see why the offense had generated just two touchdowns in the last four games.

Of course, the lack of support doesn't absolve Manning. He hasn't looked overwhelmed, a fate that befalls most rookie quarterbacks, but he has made way too many bad decisions. Manning has under-thrown open receivers, tried to force balls into coverage, and dumped the ball off when he had open receivers further down the field. It has gotten worse - not better - as time has passed.

What's troubling isn't that the Giants couldn't stay in the playoff race, but that they seem to have made so little progress this year. Right now, they aren't any better on the offensive or defensive lines than they were last year. Serious questions are emerging about incumbent starters at cornerback and wide receiver, and the few quality veterans they do have aren't getting any younger. Eli Manning might be a convenient scapegoat for this dreadful season, but he is also one of the few reasons to hope that things could get better.

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