FOXBOROUGH — The more Geno Smith tried to scrambled out of trouble, the more he scrambled into it.
Down by a field goal early in the fourth quarter, the pocket was crumbling around the Jets’ rookie quarterback on a crucial fourth-quarter, third-down play.
The only move he could make was lateral, so he slipped to the left side of the field and weighed his options.
The only receiver in his crosshairs, Clyde Gates, was double-teamed.
But he decided it was a needle he could thread.
In a game as tight as the window he tried to squeeze the ball through, the decision was costly.
Kyle Arrington turned a decent throw into a tip drill, swatting it in the air for Aqib Talib to come down with at the New England 11. The interception killed the drive and ostensibly allowed the Patriots to walk away with a 13-10 win.
Just two starts into his NFL career, Smith knew the price of his mistakes.
“During that time in the game, gotta be more mindful of the situation,” Smith said. “We’re right in it, got a chance to kick a field goal, possibly tie the game and I just made a decision that ultimately cost my team.”
Before the night was over, he would finish with three picks, two on critical third downs.
In all, the Jets turned over the ball four times. In all his battles with the Patriots over the years, Jets coach Rex Ryan has learned how impossible those numbers are to overcome.
“You turn the ball over four times against the Patriots — I bet you we can go back several years on that one — there’s no way you’re winning that game if you turn it over four times,” he said.
What bothered Ryan more than the turnovers, though, was watching his receivers leave Smith dangling.
In the first quarter, what Smith thought was a touchdown pass to Gates was waved off after replays showed Gates couldn’t hold onto it, smothering it between his chest and the ground.
A successful score would have made it 10-7, giving the Jets offense some positive vital signs early.
Instead, they settled for a field goal and scrounged for offense the rest of the night.
“I don’t know how many balls we dropped today, but it was a bunch,” Ryan said. “There was no question. Obviously, [Smith’s] numbers look a lot different had we caught the football. It’s just unfortunate. But the young man had his moments today and then obviously we wish we’d had a few back.”
Smith refused to spread any blame around.
“It’s human nature,” Smith said. “Guys drop balls. As you can see, I threw a number of picks. No one’s perfect. I fully support my wideouts. I know those guys go out there and they give effort every single play and I’ll continue to go to those guys because we have that type of bond here and we’re a team. It’s early in the season, and I’m pretty sure that all those things will be corrected as we go on forward.”
Smith learned just how important it is to protect the football after turning over the ball four times in the Jets’ third preseason game against the Giants.
In the Jets’ season-opening win over the Bucs, Smith completed 24 of 38 passes for 256 yards and a touchdown, throwing just one pick.
But the Patriots defense tested him, holding him to 214 yards on 15-of-35 passing, sacking him four times, and forcing him into mistakes at high-pressure moments.
“I take full responsibility for that and I will get better from this,” Smith said. “I’ve got to find ways to not put us in those situations.
“You can say it’s a learning experience, but it’s about winning and we didn’t win today.”
The negatives, he said, will stick with him.
“I don’t like to look at it as a learning experience because I think I’m ready for this — I know I’m ready for this,” Smith said. “So I’ve got to go out there and I’ve got to take care of the ball and I’ve got to give us a chance to win.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.