EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Pittsburgh Steelers are in stunningly rare territory.
They're winless through four games and off to their worst start since 1968, leaving them searching for answers. Ben Roethlisberger even declared the Steelers one of the league's sorriest team after their last game two weeks ago.
Sure, the New York Giants and Jacksonville entered the week at 0-5. But having no wins this deep into a season doesn't fly with the Steelers.
"It hasn't been like that around here for a while," wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "That's something that has to set into all of our minds, that we are 0-4."
Pittsburgh is not panicking. At least not yet. But with the Pirates now out of the baseball playoffs, fans in the Steel City look at their football team and wonder when they'll be able to cheer a victory again.
"Obviously, there's a sense of urgency associated with the position we're in, frustration and natural human thoughts and responses in that regard," coach Mike Tomlin said. "But it doesn't affect how we approach it and the processes that we need to go through in order to be ready to play this week."
The Steelers had a bye week to regroup. Meanwhile, the New York Jets (3-2), their opponent Sunday, are working on a short week after stunning the Atlanta Falcons 30-28 on Monday night.
Jets left guard Willie Colon spent seven years with the Steelers, and knows better than to underestimate a winless Pittsburgh bunch.
"I see a desperate team and I see a team that, coming off a bye week, they're kind of like, 'All right, we've laid an egg. Let's start our season again,'" he said. "Knowing how those guys think, they're going to be ready to go."
Rex Ryan has insisted to anyone who'll listen that the Jets won't suffer a letdown, even though they've been one of the NFL's early-season surprises with rookie quarterback Geno Smith leading the way.
"We know what the record is on Pittsburgh," Ryan said. "We're certainly not feeding into it or buying into that by any stretch of the imagination. It's a Mike Tomlin-coached football team, so we know they're going to be prepared. They're going to be hungry coming in here."
Here are five things watch for when the Steelers take on the Jets:
DESPERATE STEELERS: The Steelers started the 1968 season 0-6 before finishing 2-11-1. Bill Austin was replaced by Chuck Noll after that season. And, the rest is history.
These Steelers, though, aren't looking to set any marks for futility.
"At the end of the day, we have to get this thing changed around or teams are going to come in here or whenever they see us on the schedule, think we're their type of team," said Cotchery, who played for the Jets from 2004-10. "We know in this locker room that we're not."
GOOD GENO: After a four-turnover performance at Tennessee, Smith turned it all around in Atlanta.
He was selected AFC offensive player of the week after throwing for three touchdowns and, most importantly, had no turnovers. Smith leads the league with three go-ahead drives in the fourth quarter, including two that won games as time expired.
"I'm just proud of the way that this team fights," Smith said. "We're never out of it and we've always got a chance."
CREATING PROBLEMS: A big reason for the Steelers' dismal start is their inability to force mistakes. They're the only team in the league without a takeaway, and their minus-11 turnover differential was second only to the Giants.
They also have a league-low four sacks, and rank 25th in the NFL against the run. Those are hardly acceptable numbers for a team whose history is steeped in dominant defense.
PROTECTING BEN: The Steelers' revamped line has allowed Roethlisberger to be sacked 15 times, and it faces a Jets front seven that puts tons of pressure on quarterbacks.
Pittsburgh acquired Levi Brown from Arizona last week to try to help, and he could start at left tackle in place of the benched Mike Adams. If left guard Ramon Foster can't play because of a strained pectoral muscle, Kelvin Beachum could take his place.
SOARING JETS: New York has already surpassed some preseason expectations, with some fans and media picking the Jets to finish worst in the league. It's still early, of course, but get this: a win Sunday would set up a potential first-place showdown in the AFC East with New England next week.
"Oh, we're certainly a work in progress," Ryan said. "There's no question about that. We've earned the 3-2 record, but we have to really improve in a lot of areas for us to be the team that we want to be."
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