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NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (0-4) at N.Y. Jets (3-2)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Will the real Geno Smith please stand up.
The New York Jets' second-round draft pick had ably continued the franchise's long history of maddening quarterbacking through his first four games as a pro, mixing in moments of brilliance with others of sheer incompetence while the team navigated its way to a 2-2 start.
But he looked every bit the part of an NFL star on Monday night, when he engineered a successful 2-minute drill on hostile Atlanta turf en route to a 30-28 defeat of the Falcons.
This week, the Jets return home to face the winless Pittsburgh Steelers and Smith, if he's up to it, can make it two in a row.
He completed 16-of-20 passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns, and, most importantly, didn't turn the ball over against the Falcons after having done exactly that a league-leading 11 times through four games. The final drive in Atlanta including four consecutive pass completions followed by an eight-yard run that set up Nick Folk for the decisive field goal.
He was sacked four times, but never appeared rattled.
"It was a tremendous game for him, without question," New York coach Rex Ryan said.
That said, the Jets have yet to win two in a row this season. They followed an opening win against Tampa Bay with a Week 2 loss at New England, in which Smith threw three fourth-quarter interceptions.
Then, after smothering Buffalo in Week 3, New York was routed, 37-13, at Tennessee.
Smith has connected on 64.4 percent of his passes for six TDs and three interceptions in the victories, but he's only hit 55.1 percent -- with a single touchdown and five INTs -- in the losses. Both wins were at home, both losses on the road.
Smith is the undisputed No. 1 QB on the team after previous starter Mark Sanchez elected to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery after he was hurt in the preseason after having competed well for the job.
"I got a memo from the league, and they said we can win two games in a row," Ryan said. "That's going to be what I talk to our team about."
The Steelers, meanwhile, are in the midst of their worst start in 45 years.
They opened 0-6 in 1968 and have yet to force an opposition turnover this season, though their defense is 10th in the league with 321.8 yards allowed per game. The four sacks they've mustered are last in the league and their minus-11 turnover ratio is second-worst behind the also-winless New York Giants.
Coach Mike Tomlin has made personnel changes this week, electing to start Cameron Heyward at defensive end and Vince Williams at inside linebacker.
"I like the attitude, demeanor and approach to work," Tomlin said. "That's just part of the equation. Putting it together and producing victory is the most significant part."
On offense, running back Le'Veon Bell will play for the second time since a preseason foot injury. He scored twice and ran for 57 yards against Minnesota in a 34-27 loss in London.
Up front, the line is jumbled. Tomlin will rotate Kelvin Beachum and Levi Brown at left tackle in place of Mike Adams, while guard Ramon Foster is questionable with a chest injury. If Foster is unavailable, Brown would start at tackle and Beachum at guard.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times by the Vikings, one-third of his 15 for the season.
That total is fourth in the league, though the Steelers have played just four games compared to five for all but three other teams. The veteran passer has three touchdowns and 789 yards passing in his last two games, but has also turned the ball over six times in that stretch.
Roethlisberger connected in 24-of-31 passes in a 27-10 defeat of Jets last season and was 10-of-19 for 133 yards while winning, 24-19, in the AFC Championship Game after the 2010 season.
New York's defense is second in the league at 299 yards allowed per game, though it will be without outside linebacker Antwan Barnes after he sustained a season-ending knee injury at Atlanta.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
With the Steelers' backfield in disarray, much of Roethlisberger's offensive might has come via connections with wide receiver Antonio Brown, who's compiled 412 yards and two scores in four games.
Brown also leads the league with 139 yards after the catch. He'll be paired up Sunday with Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie.
On offense, the Jets have been intermittently productive and intermittently flaccid in five games.
Maintaining the momentum they re-started in Atlanta will involving keeping Smith out of trouble, which places a burden on left guard Brian Winters. The rookie replaced 2010 draft pick Vlad Ducasse last week, thanks to the Ducasse's erratic play. Winters will no doubt see a lot of Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who has three sacks in four games.
OK, breathe deeply and repeat this phrase: The Jets are the better team, they're the favorite and they should win this game. Then let the breath out and realize, OK, it's the Jets, nothing is that easy.
Instead, expect the Steelers to circle the wagons and make it competitive throughout. In the end, we'll give the benefit of the doubt to Smith and anticipate that he's ready for two straight high-end performances.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Jets 24, Steelers 20
10/10 11:23:35 ET