Lichtenstein: Maye’s Play Saves The Day For Gase’s Jets

Safety Keeps Gang Green From Throwing Away A Win

Steve Lichtenstein
December 23, 2019 - 1:48 pm

Who can forget former Jets coach Herman Edwards and his 2002 shrill, “You play to give your defense the opportunity to attempt to win the game!”?

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Well, that’s not exactly what he said--I added a few extra words to give it a more realistic effect for this franchise.

You see, most Jets coaches in my memory, Edwards included, did not, in fact, play courageously.  To the contrary, they were more likely to grab defeat from the jaws of victory by turtling into their shells and praying to the football gods that their opponents would mess up down the stretch of close games.

It nearly happened again in Sunday’s “home” finale versus Pittsburgh.  The Jets were clinging to a 16-10 lead at the two-minute warning with possession. 

My first instinct was to tweet, “How are the Jets going to screw this up?”

They almost executed the choke to perfection.  If not for an outstanding individual effort from free safety Marcus Maye, coach Adam Gase would have joined the litany of fools who have mismanaged this club’s end games in such a fashion.  Instead, the Jets (6-9) sent the approximately 50,000 Steeler fans at Met Life Stadium home crying into their empty beer cans following their 16-10 triumph.   

Gase did not have his offense attempt to pick up the one first down that would have allowed quarterback Sam Darnold to run out the clock with kneel-downs. No, the immediate priority was to make Pittsburgh expend its three timeouts. Running back Le'Veon Bell, who exacted revenge against the team who, in his opnion, wouldn't pay him his fair worth last season by accumulating 93 yards from scrimmage on 29 touches Sunday, slammed into a wall of Steelers defenders on three consecutive handoffs.  

Jets coach Adam Gase watches during a game against the Bengals on Dec. 1, 2019, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
David Kohl/USA TODAY Images

Gase was satisfied to give Pittsburgh the ball back with 1:27 remaining needing just 60 yards to escape with a win.  Because, you know, that typically works so well for this team.  Jets fans probably don’t have enough fingers and toes to count all the times that this strategy backfired in just the four-year Todd Bowles era.  Ironically, it was the Steelers who showed the Jets how it should be done in the 2011 AFC Championship Game.  Nursing a 24-19 lead with New York out of timeouts, the Steelers had a third-and-six at the two-minute warning.  Did they run a give-up play to bleed the clock?  Nope.  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger connected with wide receiver Antonio Brown on a 14-yard pass play.  The Jets haven’t experienced the playoffs since.    

Now, Jets QB Sam Darnold isn’t Roethlisberger and none of his receivers have a fraction of Brown’s skills.  Still, at that point of the game, you can at least try to gain some yardage and give yourself a chance at converting a manageable third down.  Besides, running out of time isn’t what did in Pittsburgh Sunday.

The Steelers still had more than a minute remaining when they crossed midfield.  On third-and-seven from the Jets’ 44-yard line, Pittsburgh QB Devlin “Duck” Hodges unleashed a deep ball towards a streaking James Washington.  Hodges’ nickname might also be football-appropriate given the number of interceptable passes he throws, but this one looked like an on-the-money rope.

Washington, Pittsburgh’s leader in yards receiving this season, went up for the ball near the goal line.  Maye, whose leaping second quarter interception (his first of the season) on the end zone sideline sent Hodges to the bench in favor of Mason Rudolph (until Rudolph’s shoulder injury forced Hodges to re-enter in the fourth quarter), hustled back to be in position to jump.  Maye twisted his body to get one hand in between Washington’s two hands.  Maye somehow managed to pull the ball away from Washington, knocking it to the ground.  A pressured fourth down pass by Hodges also fell incomplete, dealing the Steelers a heavy blow to their playoff hopes.

Jets safety Marcus Maye breaks up a pass to Steelers wide receiver James Washington during the fourth quarter  Dec 22, 2019; East Rutherford, New Jersey
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

“Man, (Maye) balled, bro,” Jets safety Jamal Adams, who returned from a two-game injury absence, said.  “I told him tonight—not even the pick—the best play I’ve ever seen him make was that last one, when he ripped that out.  That’s a phenomenal play.”

So many things could have gone wrong.  Who knows how the refs would have called even the slightest contact given all the ambiguity over late-game pass interference interpretations?

The Jets – and Gase – got more than a little lucky. 

I’ll give Gase credit for keeping his club engaged following a 1-7 start and an injury plague for the ages.  Add Pittsburgh to the list of teams with a lot to play for that have fallen at Met Life.  However, I’m more inclined to believe that his outstanding 24-8 career record (4-1 this season) in one-score games will soon regress to the mean. 

As the more common cliché goes, when you play not to lose, it often guarantees that you do.   

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1