Breaking Down the Jets vs the Steelers
With everyone saying the Jets are about to crash and burn it is time for them to put forth a quality effort and steal a game in a city they never win in.
Jets Offense vs. Steelers Defense
When people think of Pittsburgh Steelers football the thing that immediately comes to mind is defense. Defense is the teams identity and has carried them to decades of success and championships. This season has been no different for Pittsburgh. The defense leads the AFC in points allowed and the NFL in run defense and are in the top 5 in almost every statistical category. Nine times they have held a team to 17 or fewer points and the defense almost always seems to find a way to make a big play at the end of the game to seal a close game. The dominance is especially impressive at home. With the exception of the 39 point no show against the Patriots the Steelers have given up an average of just over 9 points a game. The teams success is built upon the play of their linebackers who are asked to do a lot in the scheme. On the outside you have OLB's James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley who have combined for 19 sacks and are a killer 1-2 punch. Not only can both rush the QB but both factor in the pass defense and are always capable of picking off a pass or laying out a receiver as soon as he catches the ball. On the inside are veteran James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons. Both are tremendous at playing the run and are also effective up the middle in the blitz packages. Timmons also has good hands in coverage. The defensive line is anchored by NY Casey Hampton. The Steelers are a little banged up at the Defensive End positions, but they usually find a person to plug in that plays effectively. The Steelers were dealt a big blow when it was announced that S Troy Polamalu would likely miss the game due to injury. Polamalu is the difference maker on the team. He has a tremendous nose for the football and smells out if its a run or pass play better than any safety in the league. It seems as if every week for the last 7 or 8 years that Polamalu makes the highlights with a last minute interception or fumble recovery that either preserves the win or wins the game. Both of the Steelers starting corners can be beaten deep when the pass rush does not get to the QB, but the team does a good job in maintaining their coverage for the necessary time.
For well over a month now the offense has simply not been working. The real problems begin up front with the less than stellar play from the offensive line. Last year the Jets were able to ride the physical dominance of their line into the playoffs, but this year has been a different story. The protection schemes have broken down and they are no longer controlling the trenches in the running game. The problem is now compounded by the loss of RT Damien Woody, the teams best run blocker, who will be replaced by journeyman T Wayne Hunter. Hunter has been poor in his fill in roles this year. The teams LT, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, has not played up to par and LG Matt Slauson can not be leaned on in any facet of the game. Unless the team can work something out with this group it is unlikely that the Jets will be able to play the type of offense that the fans would like to see. QB Mark Sanchez is clearly pressing on the field and has started to look like the rookie QB who had to be hidden for most of the 2009 season. It has really only been 6 quarters of terrible play from him, but two of those quarters came in a 40+ point blowout loss and then the next four resulted in another no TD performance, the teams fourth of the season, which has probably blown the perceptions of him out of proportion in a negative way. Its not just the fans and media who have bought into that negativity either, but also the head coach who stated he thought of pulling him from the game last week despite the fact that Sanchez has bailed the team out on at least four occasions with his late game heroics. If Sanchez is not mentally strong enough to handle this his future may just spiral downward. The Jets receivers do him no favors. All of the players who factor in the passing game are dropping passes or not making attempts at balls. Whether its lack of concentration, preparation, or something else is up for debate, but the Jets can not afford to have their players dropping passes that hit them in the hands in crucial situations. The running game has also stalled out as neither RB LaDainian Tomlinson or RB Shonn Greene are able to make anything happen without the huge gaps created by the offensive line. If the passing game continues to struggle the Jets have to find a way to get these two going in the run game.
If the Jets want to win this game they are going to have to go out and do things differently than they have the last two weeks. The Steelers are very similar to New England in terms of their pass defense. The Steelers give up a ton of passes underneath, guard the longer passes pretty well, and occasionally give up the long bomb when their coverage breaks down. They also are very opportunistic and will take advantage of every mistake that the offense makes. Unlike New England they can rush the passer and do not allow a team to run. The Jets are going to have to rely in Sanchez this week by putting the game in his hands and hoping he can make it happen. The offense is going to have to try to spread the defense thin and then focus on finding those targets that are open in the 8 to 12 yards down the field areas. That means TE Dustin Keller and both running backs have to be extremely involved in the game and Cotchery has to put forth one of his better games. This has not been a strong area of play for the Jets, but its one they have to have work this week. WR Braylon Edwards and WR Santonio Holmes will get their looks and maybe one will get to make a big play, but Sanchez has to be careful to not fixate on those two players while chasing a big play. That is what leads to interceptions. This is Holmes' former team and he is going to be asking for the football especially if the offense is not scoring early, but the Jets have to be careful to not overuse him. The Steelers are going to expect the Jets to target him even moreso in this football game and the Steelers know the tendencies that Holmes has in his route running. Using Holmes early as a decoy may free things up for the other receivers, especially since Polamalu will likely not be playing on Sunday. Sanchez must be wary of the pass rush and not be put in situations where he can hold the ball for more than a few seconds in the pocket. All that will result from that are sacks and fumbles. The line must give Sanchez his three seconds to throw but Sanchez can not expect more than that against this defense. The Jets may try to establish the run game, but it will be hard to imagine either runner having much of an impact against them.
Jets Defense vs. Steelers Offense
Much like the Jets offense of late the Steelers offense is also in a bit of a funk. The team has struggled to put teams away and are relying on the defense to change the momentum of the game. They have only scored 2 offensive TDs in the last 3 games, one of which was set up by the defense allowing them to begin at the Ravens 9 yard line. The Steelers are one of the more conservative teams on offense, relying on the run to set up some chances in the passing game. RB Rashard Mendenhall is the primary ball carrier and the Steelers look to get him over 20 carries a game. He does break big runs every now and then, but is primarily a north and south runner who gets a few yards here and there in a physical game. QB Ben Roethlisberger is considered one of the top players at the position in the NFL but the Steelers still try to limit what he does and allow him to manage the game more than take it over. Roethlisberger's best asset is his ability to buy time in the pocket and keep plays alive. He is incredibly strong and finds his way out of sacks moreso than anyone else in the NFL. He has been able to connect on more downfield passes this year with the continued development of WR Mike Wallace who is arguably the best big play receiver in the game. Teams have keyed on him a bit more in recent weeks and he has been unable to make as many big plays as he did early in the season. Veteran WR Hines Ward still finds a way to get the job done each and every week. Ward is a great run blocker and seems to catch everything that comes to him. He is one of the best at the position at recognizing that a play has broken down and find his way open as a perfect out for his QB. Ward does have a tendency at this stage of his career to either be a major contributor in the passing game or be held to under 30 yards with little in between. TE Heath Miller is the only other consistent receiving option, but will miss the game due to a concussion. The offensive line is terrible. They give up a number of pressures and sacks in the passing game and do not create much in the way of running lanes. They may be the most penalized line in the NFL.
Defensively the Jets are a hard team to figure out. They have these games where they give up under 10 points and then follow that up with complete meltdowns where they give up late scores to nearly lose football games. The defense seems to go as well as the secondary goes. CB Darrelle Revis, who will be in a homecoming game as he returns to his town, is rarely even looked at by the opposition. Unlike last year where teams threw on Revis, this year they have chosen to play the game 10 on 10 which has made the Jets far less effective at turning the ball over from the offense. The burden now falls on CB Antonio Cromartie to be the guy responsible for stopping the planned passing attack. When Cromartie plays well as he did against the Dolphins the defense seems to play well as a whole. When hee plays poorly like he did against the Patriots the defense gets exposed. There will be more changes at Safety this week with Dwight Lowery getting the nod at starter due to more injuries. S Brodney Pool had his best game of the season last week and the Jets will be hoping a light has gone off for him and he can be a difference maker in these last three games of the year. The team will be asking a lot from its front 7. NT Sione Pouha had an outstanding game against Miami while LB's David Harris and Bart Scott continue to have good years. The question is whether or not the Jets can get anything from their outside players. DE Shaun Ellis had his first sack since week 5 and has had a very quiet season, likely his last with the team. OLB Calvin Pace finally showed up for a game, but has been so inconsistent you never can count on him for anything. OLB Jason Taylor has been more active of late and may get more snaps at the expense of Bryan Thomas who has disappeared after a very strong start to the year. The lack of consistent production from these positions has hurt the team this year.
It is doubtful that the Steelers will be trying anything different or throwing any new wrinkles at the Jets this week. The Steelers play the same way every week and make you play their game. When they play teams that are considered good defensive teams they often try to go extremely run heavy and try to play for a 13-10 win. They do not want the QB to make a mistake that can hurt the team or put them in a bad position by taking a large sack. The Jets have to have their linemen prepared to wrap up Mendenhall and not let him get a head of steam running downfield. The one question for the week is whether or not the Steelers will use Wallace if Revis covers him the entire game, which Revis should be doing. Wallace has already called out Revis and he is certainly going to be asking for the football. If they decide to test Revis it might give the chance for a turnover. Revis was limited with another hamstring injury this week, but has not been very forthcoming when discussing it. Perhaps its some gamesmanship on the part of the Jets in hopes of enticing passes to come his way. With limited receiving threats the Jets may blitz a bit more than usual in hopes of overwhelming a terrible offensive line. What the Jets have to do is make sure that they wrap Roethlisberger up and bring him down. If they try for soft hits on him or leave it up to a secondary player to wrap him up he is going to slip out and find Ward somewhere on the field. Ward is an extremely sneaky receiver and Cromartie has to make sure to stick him tightly when he sees Reothlisberger scrambling around in the backfield. The defense has to be ready to play for 60 minutes in what should be a close to the vest football game. Whatever unit feels more fresh in the 4th quarter is likely the team that will come through at the end.
The Steelers special teams, an integral part of the way they strategically approach the game, was hurt by the loss of their punter Dan Sepulveda who was having an excellent year pinning teams down and flipping the field. He is replaced by former Jet hopeful Jeremy Kapinos. Kapinos does not get the same kind of hang time on his kicks nor is he effective at dropping the ball inside the 20. K Shaun Suisham replaced franchise player Jeff Reed and has yet to miss a FG. He has bounced around the league for years, normally rotating between Dallas an Washington, where his lack of consistency often sees him replaced. The coverage units for Pittsburgh are excellent and Antonio Brown and Mewelde Moore are both decent return guys,
The sage of K Nick Folk continues into this week. Folk hit both of his chances last week, but clearly the coach is now afraid to test his leg after numerous failures. Folk is going to make it through the season but every kick is an adventure. P Steve Weatherford did not have a great game last week, though he did do a good job backing the Dolphins down when he kicked from midfield. It will be interesting to see if the change in weather has an effect on him. The Jets will need Brad Smith to put the offense in a good position, but he may have a hard time doing that this week. The team should have a chance to return punts, but who knows who will be returning them. Holmes asked out of the role last week and surprisingly they turned to Cromartie rather than Kyle Wilson or Joe McKnight who would have more upside in the role.
This is the first real coaching crisis of Rex Ryan's career. Sure he had some tough moments last season, but that was a year with no expectations and pressures he only brought on himself with his mouth. This year the expectations were huge and the Jets have not delivered. Now the media and fans are turning on the team. Ryan seems totally flustered. He put way too much into the Patriots game and has his team pressing. He has threatened to bench the QB and then called out his defense in a game where they gave up 10 points. There seems to be a disconnect in strategy between he and the offensive coordinator and the sidleines have become a mess again with the Jets having to take timeouts for either the wrong personnel or not enough players being on the field. The Dolphins game was a bad loss, but Rex has made the mistake of reading too much into the loss margin in the Patriot game, which is something for fans to do. The reality is the Dolphin game was a bad game and their first real bad loss of the year. New England was a better team and caught the Jets wound up tight and in the middle of a bad night. Rex has taken it as a referendum on the team. While the offense is in a funk it should not be the time for the coach to hit the panic button, but he did just that. This offense is no different than the offense he was praising for pulling out miracles in Detroit and against Houston. The difference is the fact that they were unable to make the big play at the end of the game. But Ryan has taken it to mean something much more and now he has to worry about losing.
The team is loaded with distractions. They seem to have made up a crazy story regarding the special teams wall that has now made this another full blown scandal. All the team had to do was say the coach made a mistake, but instead have allowed it to take a life of its own. Fans, commentators, and former players are all criticizing his offensive coordinator. Ryan stands up for him, but by doing so he is probably going to upset his players that don't feel they are being utilized properly. It is hard to publicly state that you are considering benching the QB and then let his OC go out to a podium and say that he is good at what he does. It is definitely still a learning process for the organization.
For whatever reason nobody gives the Jets a chance this week. What exactly separates these two teams? The knock on the Jets is that they do not beat good football teams. The knock on the Steelers is they don't beat good football teams. Both teams got blown out by the Patriots. Neither offense scores points. The Jets are now considered lucky after weeks of being considered elite. What are the Steelers considered then? Go an review those wins against the Bills, Dolphins, Ravens and Bengals and tell me exactly what the Steelers are? You know what the difference in record boils down to? Santonio Holmes failed to catch a ball in the end zone versus Miami while the Steelers caught a huge break when officials decided they could not tell who recovered a fumble against Miami. That's it. The teams are more or less mirror images of one another.
There is no reason that the Jets can not win this football game. Three weeks ago every Jet fan on the planet would have assumed the team would win. Now almost everyone expects them to get blown out. Teams have looked bad before and bounced back. Look at the New York Giants. Twice this year the media proclaimed the Giants dead and were already sending out stories of their front office already shopping for Bill Cowher. They now have the same record as the Jets and many of those same people writing the Giants off a few weeks ago now are saying they are the second or third best team in the NFC. Two bad weeks is not the end of the season. You want to avoid the three game streaks. Those are the streaks that see things go downhill. This team isn't there yet even if the coach and fans maybe think it is.
Rex Ryan is very familiar with the Steelers and he has a number of players who were involved with playing with or against that team. They can help let players like Sanchez understand what it is going to be like to play in the stadium and what he can do to make things easier on himself. For the Jets to win they simply have to play smart controlled football. If they turn the ball over they will lose the game. The Steelers simply hang around and wait for a mistake to happen and win 13-10. If you don't make that mistake you have a chance to be the team that wins 13-10.
This game should not be a blowout either way. Both teams are going to play it conservative and rely on the defense and field position to win the game. The Jets corners should match up well with the Steeler receivers and with the loss of Miller it is hard to see where the Steelers offense will come from. Losing Polamalu is a major blow to the team and takes away a big weapon they have defensively. Pittsburgh is coming off back to back emotional wins against division rivals and know they have a joke opponent next making this a game that maybe they just don't take as seriously as they need to. The Jets will get back on track with a win here.
Jets 16 Steelers 12