Commentary

Seven yards could change Jets' season

Rex Ryan's fourth-and-1 decision in Pittsburgh came at the right time for Gang Green

Updated: December 22, 2010, 5:56 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

Damien Woody was home in New Jersey, watching on TV. When he saw his teammates line up on fourth-and-1, in an I-formation with three tight ends, he figured the play was going to be "Blast" -- their bread-and-butter running play in short-yardage situations.

"I was totally fooled by the fake because we run that running play a lot," said Woody, nursing a surgically repaired knee. "Great play call."

Brandon Sanchez was in the crowd at Heinz Field, watching from the far 35-yard line when his younger brother, Mark, took the snap and made like he was going to hand off to Shonn Greene. The elder Sanchez, surrounded by Jets fans, heard a collective groan in his section.

"They were like, 'Oh, no, what are you doing?'" said Brandon, who was expecting a sprint-out pass. "A split-second later, when you saw [Rob] Turner pulling and you realized Mark had the ball, everybody was saying, 'Great call, Schottenheimer! Never doubted it for a second.'"

Rex Ryan was on the sideline, of course. He made the decision to eschew a 25-yard field goal, putting the play-call -- the game, and perhaps even the season -- in the hands of his offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer.

As his young quarterback called signals at the line, Ryan stared at the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers' defense and kept thinking to himself, "Take the bait. Please, take the bait."

One play can change a season. If the New York Jets make a long run into January -- did someone say February? -- they may look back at fourth-and-1 as the turning point. It took guts and deception and flawless execution to fool the Steelers, and they did it in the crucible of a can't-fail situation.

The Jets were seven yards from the end zone, a territory so foreign to them that you half-expected they would need to pass through customs before gaining entry. The offense had gone 11 quarters without a touchdown, a staggering total of 197 plays.

The Jets trailed, 17-10, with 5:21 remaining in the third quarter, and the safe play would've been to take the field goal. Ryan wanted no part of that. The risk was great. If they had failed on fourth-and-1, it could've been devastating to the team's psyche, considering the emotional baggage it carried into the game. Ryan asked Schottenheimer if he felt good about his call. Schottenheimer nodded.

"Let's go for it," Ryan told him.

Everybody knows what happened next: Sanchez faked a handoff to Greene, who crashed into the line. He was swallowed up by the entire defense. Sanchez rolled to his left, hiding the ball on his hip, and strolled into the end zone, with the 305-pound Turner as his personal escort.

Tie game. The Jets would go on to win, 22-17, bolstering their playoff chances and reviving a season that appeared to be on the verge of collapse. All things considered, those seven yards could go a long way toward determining the outcome of the season.

"It took that monkey off our back," said LaDainian Tomlinson, who was watching from the sideline. "The pressure was off us. It was like, 'OK, here we go, guys. Let's relax and play.'"

[+] EnlargeBrian Schottenheimer
Alan Maglaque/US PresswireBrian Schottenheimer was under scrutiny prior to Sunday's win over the Steelers.
"Huge," said Tony Richardson, the fullback on the play. "The fact that, in that situation, Rex had enough confidence in us -- that was big."

When the Jets need a yard in critical situations, they often use "Blast," a basic power-running play in which the left guard pulls to his right and leads the runner into the gap between center and right guard. In last season's AFC divisional playoff in San Diego, facing a fourth down late in the game, the Jets sealed the upset win by sending Thomas Jones into the line on a "Blast" play.

Every opponent knows it's the Jets' favorite play, but they continue to run it, almost arrogantly. On fourth-and-1 in Pittsburgh, they dialed up the same play, except with a twist.

"This time," Ryan said with a big grin, "we had a little wrinkle off it."

The offense tried the naked bootleg last week in practice, and it worked every time. In the game, the Jets took the Steelers' killer-instinct mentality and used it in their favor, knowing they'd attack the running back like dogs chasing a steak.

"We knew they were going to sell out to stop that run," Ryan said. "They knew darn well what play was coming."

What they thought was coming, he meant.

The Steelers used six down linemen, with five other defenders lined up in the box. They were all in.

The Jets' offensive line sold the run-action, with left guard Matt Slauson pulling into the hole. Greene barreled into the line. Turner, lined up to the left of tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, blocked down on linebacker Lawrence Timmons before pulling to his left.

With 20 bodies crashing into each other, half of them looking for a ball that wasn't there, Sanchez quietly rolled left and headed for the end zone.

"I thought he was going to fall," Brandon Sanchez said of his little brother. "The field was in awful shape. I definitely could've seen him eating it. I kept thinking, 'Take is easy, don't be so anxious to get there.'"

Afterward, linebacker James Harrison admitted it was his fault. Instead of providing outside containment, he looped inside, hellbent on blowing up Greene.

Imagine if he had held his ground: Sanchez would've been face-to-face with the nastiest (some might say dirtiest) linebacker in the league.

That probably wouldn't have been a happy ending for the Jets. It could've been disastrous for Schottenheimer, whose job security has become talk-show fodder. Afterward, the Steelers knew they had been played. As linebacker James Farrior said, "They fooled me."

Ryan knows the feeling. As defensive assistant for the Arizona Cardinals in 1995, he watched in horror as Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Steve Bono ran 76 yards to score on a naked bootleg.

"Seemed like a zillion yards," said Ryan, still pained by the memory.

The Chiefs' coach at the time? Marty Schottenheimer, Brian's father.

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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