Breaking Down the Jets vs the Steelers
After the emotional win against the New England Patriots, the Jets look to dial it up one last time with the Super Bowl on the line for the second year in a row.
Jets Offense vs. Steelers Defense
Forget whatever the scoreboard said last week, the Steelers are the best defense in the NFL. Pittsburgh essentially gave up 7 points while their offense and special teams gave away another 17 points. The Steelers dominate in the same manner the Jets defense dominated last season. They play great run defense and are able to rush the passer through their aggressive blitz schemes. 11 opponents have been held under 20 points and only once have they given up more than 24 points. The Steelers make you work for every single yard and it is unlikely you will ever see them allowing a wide receiver to drag their corners into the end zone. The defense is built around solid play by the defensive line combined with a group of ferocious linebackers that get to the QB. The secondary is patrolled by S Troy Polamalu, an all world player who seems to play his best in these big games. Polamalu's presence and ability to read plays makes it hard on an opponent to throw the quick routes needed to beat the blitz without chancing an interception. This allows LB James Harrison and LB Lamarr Woodley to just tee off on the QB. The great run defense, anchored by veteran NT Casey Hampton, along with those two rushers on the outside puts so much pressure on the QB that they often get rattled as soon as they come to the line. That was exactly what happened to the Ravens Joe Flacco last week. One the rush got to him and he did not have RB Ray Rice to lean on he lost his composure and helped throw the game away. Once the Steelers get into the head of the QB the internal clock gets thrown off and they begin rushing passes and throwing with bad form. If the Steelers are in a position where they are playing with a lead and the opponent is forced to pass they are basically unbeatable.
QB Mark Sanchez certainly have the Jets fans some anxious moments early on. Prior to the game he said his shoulder felt fine, but the ball started sailing early in an eerily similar way to the Colts game. Luckily it seemed to be nothing more than jitters as he played a mistake free game as he out dueled Tom Brady for the second time in the season. Sanchez does seem to rise to the occasion in big moments and last Sunday was no different. It is one of those qualities that can not be measured by watching highlights or reading a box score. The real heroes on offense have been the offensive line, which has played extremely well for the last 5 weeks. RG Brandon Moore, C Nick Mangold, and LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson are all playing at a very high level. While the Jets have not been scoring a great deal of points on offense what the line has done is stabilize the offense. Before the line began playing well the Jets never had any flow to their offensive game. It was a number of 3 and outs followed by a big play that sparked the team to a win. Now it is different. The team picks up yardage and is controlling the flow of the game. While it is frustrating to not see points on the board they are essentially able to play the game between the 40s now and constantly peck away at the defense. It has opened things up tremendously for RB LaDainian Tomlinson and RB Shonn Greene. Tomlinson looked done around week 10 while Greene looked like a flash in the pan and now both look like they can carry a team through to a title.
WR Braylon Edwards has likely made himself a great deal of money with his postseason play. Not only is he coming up with big catches but he has completely changed his image on the field. He has gone from being an uncontrollable player with talent to a complete professional that is a leader on the team. WR Jerricho Cotchery sprung to life last week and had the best game of his career. He looked like the player who was great for the team in the past, catching the ball on the move and just making things happen with it. The Jets targeted him early and never looked back. TE Dustin Keller showed some hustle last week but is going to have to be more of a part of the passing offense this week. Keller has the talent it is just a question of getting it out of him on a consistent basis. WR Santonio Holmes came up with one of the great touchdown catches with his back of the end zone grab, but the Jets will hope that he has a better all around game in him this week. He has had some problems with easy drops these last few games that have stopped drives when they could have at least moved into field goal range.
There are really two big questions on offense this week. The most important one is can the Jets out-physical the Steelers defensive front the way they did a few weeks ago. The real difference for the Jets since that first Steelers win onward has been the play of the offensive line. They just look like a group of men playing against boys most weeks. You never see Sanchez running for his life anymore and trying to make plays the way he did the first three quarters or so of the season. The two runners are now helping the team move the chains and slow down the pace of the games. For the Jets to win they have to be physical up front and smack the opponent around. It opens up everything on offense from the playaction passes to the counter runs. The Steelers pride themselves on their physical play and if the Jets can not match that this week the running game will be put to bed the way the Ravens running game was snuffed out when they were held to 36 rushing yards on 16 carries.
The second question is what problem does Sanchez face by the insertion of Polamalu back into the lineup. Polamalu can be a very confusing player when he is on the field. He is very unconventional in that he often gets a chance to freelance on every play and do what he feels is the right thing to do. Normally a QB is faced with identifying a few things before the ball is snapped and one of them is reading the safety to try to help read the coverage. That becomes very hard with Polamalu on the field due the fact that he is often not going to give anything away about the defense. Everyone knows from watching the Steelers playoff runs that Polamalu makes huge plays in these games and the question is whether or not Sanchez can avoid him.
This will be the Jets first big task on offense in the postseason. Neither the Colts nor Patriots had good defenses and neither can take one phase of the game away the way the Steelers possibly can. In the last matchup the Jets unveiled the short passing attack and broke from a lot of their tendencies in terms of play calling. It allowed the Jets to utilize the run effectively as they confused the Steelers with some of the run/pass play selection and evade the pass rush with the quick passes, especially on first down. The star of that game was WR Braylon Edwards who was used all over the field for the first time that season. His ability to exploit the team short set up his long reception of the game. His yardage totals represented nearly a 60% increase over the norm for a number 1 receiver against the defense. That was enough to win.
The Jets are going to have to change things up somewhat this week. Pittsburgh is going to be better prepared for this offensive style and is going to pay far more attention to Edwards on the field. The Jets have to find a way to get Holmes and Cotchery involved this week. Holmes had to be very disappointed in his 40 yard game the last time around. He did not stand out in any way and he needs a bigger game this week, especially if the Steelers look for Edwards. Rex Ryan already focused on the presence of Santonio immediately following the Patriots game and his play may go a long way towards winning this game. If he can catch and run the Jets are going to be in good shape.
Cotchery did not even get a look in the previous game and could play more of a role, similar to the way he did against New England. While some people may overreact to Cotchery's game last week and assume the Steelers will roll more coverage his way, odds are the Steelers are going to prepare based on what they saw for 90% of the games which is J-Co a distant fourth in the passing attack. He is someone that the Jets should open the game up targeting just to see how the Steelers will be covering him. If he can get a few catches early it will change the way the Steelers play defense and open things up for the others.
Both Tomlinson and Greene need to hold onto the football and get low to maximize the yards after the initial contact. Every yard against the Steelers is a tough yard to gain and you have to be ready to be hit hard and hit often. This is the type of team that wears down the will of the running backs because of the style of play. You have to be a very mentally strong player to be effective against the Steelers for a full 60 minutes and the Jets want to be in a situation where they can use LT and Greene late to control the clock and field position. That will not be an option if the runners are instinctively going down as soon as they hit the line due to not wanting to absorb the contact.
Jets Defense vs. Steelers Offense
With the Patriots Tom Brady no longer looking invincible in the playoffs the torch may have been passed to Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger as the best postseason QB currently playing in the league. Roethlisberger's record now stands at 9-2 in the playoffs with one of those losses coming his rookie season when his club was just overmatched by the eventual Super Bowl Champion Patriots. If there is one word to describe Roethlisberger it would be tough. He is a throwback to a different type of gritty QB that plays through contact and hits to keep plays alive and make something happen out of nothing. In many ways he is still treated as a game manager to keep the potential for mistakes to a minimum, but that does not mean that he does not take chances with the football. When most people think of the phrase game manager they think of someone like Chad Pennington . That is far from the case here. The Steelers lull you to sleep with their run game and safe passes and then unleash a downfield passing attack with WR Mike Wallace, who is probably the fastest player in the NFL. Wallace has really emerged this season as a big time threat and is a real difference maker. He is flanked by the veteran WR Hines Ward and the young Emmanuel Sanders, both of whom will factor into the gameplans. The Steelers will also have TE Heath Miller, their best red zone target, healthy for this matchup. The passing game is very hit or miss and often times its one hot hand that emerges each week. Ward is the type of player that can have 120 yards in one game and then no more than 30 the next three. Wallace will go off for 130 yards on 4 catches one week and then be held to under 30 the next. The heart and soul of the Steelers offense is their running game. They are one of the few teams in the NFL that are going to feature one back, RB Rashard Mendenhall, and ride that player into the ground. Mendenhall is a tough north/south type runner that isn't a big gainer, but does enough to allow the Steelers to play ball control offense. Mendenhall had his best game of the season against the Jets. The offensive line is a weak point of the team, specifically the tackles. The Steelers are down to backups at those positions, and neither position was one of strength to begin with. They rely on the interior of the line to get the surge to allow Mendenhall to gain those 3 and 4 yards every play to keep things moving.
The Jets defense is clearly on a roll at this point. They are doing things in coverage that seem almost impossible as they turned both eventual Hall of Famers Peyton Manning and Tom Brady into average quarterbacks. The team is relying heavily on the CB tandem of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie to handle the sidelines and then loading up the middle of the field with a collection of other defensive backs, line backs, and the occasional defensive lineman to just clog up everything in the middle of the field. Revis has been spectacular these last few weeks in dominating the opposition, but maybe the biggest reason for the improved secondary has been due to S Eric Smith and S Brodney Pool. Neither player was very good during the season and both have not just played better in the postseason, but they have played at a star level. The coverage, the tackling, the run support, the quick play recognition has been superb. If the Jets make the Super Bowl they are going to be two of the unsung heroes of the run. Up front the Jets have abandoned their blitzing and just relied on a small rotation of lineman to handle the run and get to the QB. Last week it really all clicked for the group, led by DE Shaun Ellis who dialed the clock back about 7 or 8 years to wreck havoc on the Patriots offensive line. Ellis played all over the line and was tremendous. DE Mike DeVito quietly busts up run plays every week and NT Sione Pouha is a very active player in the middle. When those guys play well things open up much more for the Lbs which allows Calvin Pace to have a chance to get into the backfield. LB Jason Taylor has looked far better these last two weeks even though he has not registered a sack. He is occupying two blockers on almost every play and just seems to be due for a sack.
Will the Jets change some of their gameplan this week? That is one of those early chess matches that will be decided before the game even begins. It presents a tough decision for the Jets because the Steelers are probably most effective when they spread the field and put the QB in shotgun, but their preference is to run the ball and play ball control football with the occasional chance down the field. That likely means the Jets will have to eliminate one or two defensive backs from the active roster and replace them with someone like DE Vernon Gholston who can be used to beef up the line and play run. It also likely means a far more active role for LB Bryan Thomas in the defense.
One of the things that the Jets small lineup allows teams to do is run the football. The Colts had some success and did not have great running personnel while the Patriots just refused to do it until it was too late. The Jets know that the Steelers will not be adverse to running and prefer to do it. Mendenhall was the first back of the year to expose the Jets run defense and the Jets have to do a better job of wrapping him up and meeting him at the line. In particular ILB's Bart Scott and David Harris have to make their presence known. Last time Mendenhall was gaining 6 and 7 yards at a time and had the Steelers had the late lead he may have been the difference in the game. That commitment to the run almost ensures the Jets have to go bigger on defense.
But if the Jets go with the big lineup what happens if the Steelers choose to spread the Jets out? In the last game the Jets stuck Revis on Ward and completely took Ward out of the game, but the other players were torched by the other targets. Wallace annihilated the Jets. Cromartie couldn't handle him and even when he had help Wallace was getting open. He had two big catch chances where he was wide open and the QB just missed him. The Jets are going to have to change what they did in the last game and probably switch Revis onto him. While Ward is the more well known and craftier player he is not the big play game changer that Wallace can be. Ward is not a great matchup for Cromartie, but it is probably the better way to play the game.
Sanders was another killer for the Jets secondary as they primarily left CB Drew Coleman on him and he just ran right past him in coming up with big 3rd down receptions that nearly stole the game. With he and Miller in the game can the Jets come up with a way to cover both if they do not have the same active game day personnel? The last thing the Jets want to have happen is a situation where they are forced to have their linebackers covering Miller or being responsible for picking someone up across the field. The Steelers are also trying to get WR Antonio Brown, a raw player with big play potential, more involved in the offense. He made the biggest play of the game in the win against the Ravens.
It took the Jets some time in the previous game but they did finally figure out ways to rush Roethlisberger and force him to throw the football earlier than he wanted to. The Steelers offensive line is far below average in pass protection and if the Jets can play with that same intensity they played with last week there is no reason why they can't make life miserable for Roethlisberger. Of course there is always the issue of bringing him down once you get to him, and he is the hardest QB in the NFL to bring to the turf, but he can make a mistake or two if he feels the heat and decides to try to make a play anyway.
The two most important players in the pass rush are going to be DeVito and Pouha. The Steelers only strength on the line is their interior line play. Pouha and DeVito are going to have to hold the point of attack to force those inside linemen to focus their attention on those two players and leave the tackles isolated with the OLB's. That will force the Steelers to hold their backs and tight ends in for max protection, which gives the secondary a big help. If ever there was a game for Pace or Taylor to step up it is this one. Terrell Suggs decimated the Steelers offensive line last week and the Jets need one of these two to do the same. Both have the combination of size and speed needed to bring him down off the rush.
The one thing the Jets must do is eliminate the Steelers big play from the offense. Like the Jets, Pittsburgh has terrible problems in the red zone and in sustaining long drives down the field. The Jets had a miserable time tackling in the secondary in the last game and those are the types of errors that the Steelers survive on. The team can not allow Wallace, if matched up on Cromartie, to do what Pierre Garcon did and just run right by everyone and score an easy 7. The team has to force Pittsburgh to score from between the 5 and 20 yard line and not allow them to waltz inside the 5 due to coverage breakdowns. If the Steelers are setting up drives that deep in Jets territory they will be incredibly tough to beat.
There are many facets of the Steelers special teams that are good. WR Antonio Brown is a solid return man that has the ability for a big kick return. The coverage teams are both generally good. The deficiency is in the punting game where P Jeremy Kapinos doesn't have the huge leg necessary to kick through the bad weather. It makes it much tougher for the Steelers to cover and last week they nearly lost when they gave up a return for a score that was called back on a questionable holding call deep down the field. K Shaun Suisham missed a field goal last week and does not have a strong track record to lean on, though he has been good this season since replacing Jeff Reed.
There is little confidence in the Jets special teams right now. K Nick Folk missed another critical field goal and the weather conditions will not be great this week for him. Every opportunity against the Steelers defense is critical and you can not afford to leave points on the field due to poor kicking. Folk's kickoffs continue to be a worry and the Steelers have the ability to take advantage of that. P Steve Weatherford has been disappointing in the postseason. He had been so great all season but he has no longer been able to place the ball deep in the opponents territory and he had an awful punt against New England that could have given them new life had he not made a tackle off the return. The punt coverage is not great when Weatherford does not get the booming punts that are fair caught.
This is the kind of game where the Jets can get a boost from the return game. The Steelers are generally strong in coverage, but WR Brad Smith took one back against them in the previous game and kept giving the Jets good field position. The return game is so important in a game like this. If Smith is unable to play due to injury then CB Antonio Cromartie will likely handle both kick and punt returns. Cromartie may not have the smarts Smith does on kick returns but he is explosive. He is very unpolished on punts and some of the decisions can be scary at times. Every week it just seems that there is a mistake waiting to happen on punt returns when WR Jerricho Cotchery is not safely fielding them. Hopefully this will not be the week for a mistake.
You certainly can not argue with Mike Tomlin's success. He has already won three division titles and one Super Bowl and is now favored to get to his second in just four years on the job. His style meshes perfectly with the team culture that was built up over the last 35 or so years in Pittsburgh history and is looking to show that his team can win at home in big games, something they have historically not done. Tomlin will make some bad decisions at times. His use of challenges and way he ran the end of the first half of last weeks win against the Ravens was terrible. His game against the Jets was terrible. He abandoned what was working with Mendenhall focusing more on the pass, which just was not there consistently. The decision making was really made to look even worse when he used the terrible Mewelde Moore in the end zone which led to a safety. You can bet that Tomlin will have a better feel for what to do.
Rex Ryan has now officially placed himself firmly in the Jets record books as the number two coach of all time, surpassing Bill Parcells with that win last week. Ryan has gotten almost everything right these last two weeks and really has his team focused. He clearly has a bigger role in the entire gameplan now and there is much more of a flow to the teams gameplans than there were early in the year. Offense and defense mesh. Situational play calls seem to make more sense. This wasn't the case just a few weeks ago. It is certainly still early in his career, but right now he just has the look of a guy who somehow is better for that small playoff run than he is for a 16 game schedule. Its as if not only does he make sure his team is focused, but he seems to immerse himself in the game far more than he did during the year.
There are a few things Rex has to hammer home this week. Getting his guys to play well early on offense is a key, something they have not done thus far. Making sure the defense stays committed to fundamental football is another big thing Rex must do. Ryan needs to also have a strategy in place if the team happens to fall behind by two scores early. Its something that the Steelers needed to do last week when the Ravens had them dead before they threw the game away and the Steelers slowly crept back in. Ryans team has yet to fall down by more than 7 points and he needs to make sure they respond the same way if they see a 10 on the scoreboard in the first half of the game.
One advantage that Ryan has this week is that he clearly knows the Steelers very well from his days in Baltimore. They have not changed anything they do and he know their offensive and defensive tendencies inside and out. Tomlin has only faced the Jets twice and lost both meetings. His knowledge of the team is nowhere near as thorough as Ryan's knowledge of the Steelers.
This is very different than last years run to the AFC Championship. Last year the Jets were a very good team that was better than the record indicated that caught two teams completely by surprise in the playoffs. Nobody really believed they were a better team than the Colts that year, but everyone hoped they could catch a team off guard and do it one more time. To their credit they almost did, but they fell short. Deep down they knew they were ahead of schedule and approached everything as about the Jets shocking the world.
This is different. The team acts like a team that expects to win and is carrying a very businesslike attitude into the game. They are focused not on proving a point and shocking the world, but on winning the AFC Championship and advancing to the big game. That game last year clearly was the learning experience the Jets needed to match up with a very experienced playoff team like Pittsburgh. Their attitude would likely be much different if this was the first trip.
In addition this years team is hot. When you go back and you see the wildcard teams that made the Super Bowl like the Giants and Steelers it was all about getting hot at the right time and doing things other teams did not expect. Last year the Jets did not do anything different in the playoffs than they did in the majority of the regular season, they just did not allow the QB to make the mistakes that plagued the offense in the regular season. But the bottom line was what the Jets did in game 18 against the Colts was nothing different than they were doing in week 4, it was just that it was being noticed on a national scale. The defense right now is not playing like they did in week 4, or week 8 or even week 15. There is not 18 games of footage on this defense. Its playing a different style and its players are at a totally different level of play right now. That is the kind of run that sparks championship runs.
There has been a great deal of talk this week about an emotional letdown after beating New England. The team seems to focused to let that happen, but it would not be a shock if it did happen early, especially since the Jets often play poorly in the first quarter. But if that holds true about the Jets, what about the Steelers? While the Jets beat the Patriots, the Steelers are coming off their own victory against a big rival and they had a far tougher time beating that team. The Jets essentially had their game locked up midway through the 4th quarter and were in command from the second quarter on. The Steelers had to pull the game out with less then 2 minutes left in the game and had to have a huge second half rally to erase a big deficit. It is a similar emotional high and that should balance out the Jets possibility for a letdown.
One of the things that some of the media who seem to have an agenda have begun to harp on is how a loss here means that everything was all for nothing. That is far from reality. The fact is making 1 championship game is nothing very special. Franchises fluke into them all the time. When you make 2 in 2 years it is the sign of something else. It is the sign of building a franchise on an elite level, a level the Jets have never been on. When you consider that they have a young QB, young talent at key spots, and a ton of area for improvement you cant deny that this is the makings of a team that is going to compete at a high level for the next 5 to 7 years. This is not a closed window. Its an open window of opportunity. To say that this means nothing for the Jets and in the same breath sing the praises of teams like the Colts or Chargers is dishonest. Those are teams that have gone far multiple times and got knocked down. Eventually the Colts won. Maybe one day the Chargers will, but to say that this could be a failure for the Jets is just blowing a lot of hot air for no reason.
The Jets do match up well with the Steelers and seem to play well against them. They beat them back in 2007, with many of the players that are still here, and they beat them again this year. Even if you go back to 2004, though the makeup of the Jets was entirely different, the Jets should have beaten Pittsburgh to advance in the playoffs. They are one of the few teams in the NFL that have the physical talent and game style to match up with them and eliminate some of the things that the Pittsburgh QB does well. The Steelers home playoff failures are well documented and for whatever reason this stadium has not been a great place for them to play.
If the Jets can find a way to take the game over early with a quick score they have an excellent chance to win. It is doubtful that the Steelers have it in them to have two big comebacks in back to back weeks. Really whatever team takes the touchdown lead is going to be in a commanding position because the lead will dictate the style of play. Neither is a team right now that the opponent wants to play behind against. The defenses take too many things away and can force too many mistakes for the comebacks to work.
The Jets have to protect the football at all costs. They can not afford a turnover to put the Steelers in an easy scoring position. The Jets have to play the field and win the battle of field position. They can not allow the Steelers to flip the field on them. The Jets have to play their game at midfield and back the Steelers up inside their own 20. Make the Steelers work for everything and set yourself up to where one Steeler mistake can at he very least get you three points.
This just feels like it is the Jets time. They are a very good team and arguably the better overall team. Besides the week 1 victory against the Falcons, the only good team the Steelers have defeated were the Baltimore Ravens, who they beat twice. The Jets have beaten three of the AFC division winners in the last five weeks, all of those wins coming on the road, and nearly beat Chicago at Soldier Field. They have proven that they can play at a higher level of football that the Steelers have this season. Does that mean they will win? Absolutely not, but it certainly has to make people at least feel confident in their chances.
Unless you were alive for Joe Namath's heyday, everyone's memories of the Jets has been about what could have been. What could have been in 1982 if the Jets don't have to play in the mud. What could have been in 1986 if they don't fall apart after a costly penalty. What could have been in 1998 if they did not make all those uncharacteristic mistakes. What could have been in 2004 if they had a coach that was a little less conservative and a kicker a little more accurate. What could have been in 2009 if they just could have stopped that drive at the end of the first half. It is time for the franchise to give us all the memory not of what could have been in 2010 but the memory of what 2010 was. The chance to say I remember when the Jets beat the three most successful quarterbacks of the decade on their way to the Super Bowl. That is the memory every fan and person associated with the Jets wants and the team is going to deliver it this week.
Jets 19 Steelers 13