Saturday, January 22, 2011

Jets-Steelers Preview

Jets @ Steelers

The team of destiny may reside in the Big Apple, but arguably the greatest franchise in NFL history can be located in Pittsburgh.

Heinz Field plays host to an AFC championship matchup of epic proportions between the Jets and the Steelers. The Steelers look to improve the championship resume and win their third Super Bowl in six years. The Jets look to end a drought that has been going on since Super Bowl III.

Everyone knows the road the Jets have taken to get to where they are. They started out strong at 6-1. They got shut out by a tough Green Bay team. They won four in a row, but with questionable, late game victories against the Lions, Browns, and Texans, had people questioning whether they were for real. They got destroyed by the Patriots, 45-3. They made it into the playoffs as the sixth seed, their win over the Steelers being a huge help. They beat two Super Bowl quarterbacks in the past two weeks. And now they are here.

This team has been motivated so well by their head coach, Rex Ryan, and they have a chip on their shoulder heading into this playoff game. Not many people gave them a chance against the Colts. No one gave them a chance against the Patriots. And there are still many doubters who think they can’t beat the Steelers.

The truth is, this will be the hardest test for them. The Indianapolis and New England defenses were not even close to what the Steelers have. They better bring their A game like last week, because these are the NFL playoffs, and they only get harder.

Before the season, who would have thought the Steelers would have been here either? They were missing their starting quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, for the first four games. And would the late season collapse from last year transition to this season?

The Steelers didn’t care. They were going to play Steeler brand football with or without Big Ben. After winning their first three games and losing the fourth to a tough Ravens team, it was clear that the team was a lot more than just Roethlisberger. Under Big Ben, they went 9-3 in a season with lots of ups, but did have its downs.

For example, with Big Ben under center, the Steelers only beat one team over .500, the Baltimore Ravens. They stole a win in Miami only because the refs botched a play, and they narrowly defeated the lowly Buffalo Bills in overtime. Roethlisberger’s three loses came against the Saints, Patriots, and Jets, three teams with winning records.

He was 8-0 against teams with a losing record, 1-3 against teams with a winning record.

With all of this evidence presented, you still cannot deny the fact that Pittsburgh is a good team. At this time of the year, you can throw those things out the window. They play tough defense and have a pretty exciting offense to watch. However, there is a little bit of a cause for concern with those numbers. Do the Steelers have what it takes to win the Super Bowl? They’ll have to earn it.

With two elite defenses squaring off, it’s going to come down to which offense can win out. Ryan and Steelers’ coach Mike Tomlin will have to be at their best making the right calls and putting their offense in the best position for it to succeed.

Personally, I think the Steelers’ offense is slightly overrated.

I understand, you can’t take anything away from Roethlisberger. He has a 9-2 postseason record. Although he isn’t the most glamorous quarterback in the NFL putting up the biggest numbers, he gets the job done. He is a smart quarterback who can make tough throws even when taking a beating. However, that does not mean it’s impossible for him to have an off game. Despite being sacked six times, he still managed 226 yards and 2 touchdowns against a stingy Ravens defense. But he did have a fumble, and got a lot of help from his own defense making plays (Ray Rice’s fumble) to put him in good field position.

The Jets defense was a nightmare last weekend and there’s no doubt that Ryan is adding in new wrinkles to confuse Roethlisberger to no end. Their schemes were excellent, and nearly impossible to decipher.

That is the reason why I feel Roethlisberger will have an off day.

When it comes to crunch time, he should be able to make plays like he usually does, but throughout the game, he may struggle. If the Jets put Darrelle Revis on Mike Wallace, that takes away the Steelers’ biggest offensive threat. That would lead to Hines Ward being covered by Antonio Cromartie, and that should be a key matchup that is extremely crucial to win for both teams.

A lot of people would point out that Roethlisberger has options in two breakout rookies, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. But if the Jets can control them, their inexperience may hurt them, kind of like it hurt rookies Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski last week. Speaking of tight ends, a lot of people are saying how much the Steelers will benefit from having Heath Miller, unlike they did in the previous matchup. But the Jets did a great job at putting men in the middle to give tight ends trouble. Look for safety Eric Smith to have another big game as he fills in for the injured Jim Leonhard.

Roethlisberger is going to need to look for all of his options in this game, but perhaps none more than running back Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall has had an excellent season, and he played very well in the game against the Jets, rushing for 99 yards and a touchdown, not to mention 5.8 yards per carry.

It will be up to Mendenhall to duplicate the performance to take pressure off of his quarterback and to really move the ball. He will benefit from having Heath Miller to block for him, but the Jets defensive line proved to be very tough last week.

Look for Shaun Ellis to really turn it up again as he’ll try to stop Mendenhall and bring the pressure on Big Ben. It will be important to get to him early and often, that way he doesn’t have time to try to beat the Jets defensive. If the secondary can cover the way they did last week, Roethlisberger is going to be under a lot of pressure, and inevitably, he’s going to go down.

The Jets offense is in a similar situation, attempting to break a defense that simply does not. The Steelers lead the league in total defense, allowing only 14.5 points per game. They also only allow 62.8 rushing yards per game.

With the Jets ground and pound attack of LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene, something’s got to give.

The Jets need have some success on the ground in order to have any hopes in getting their offense going. Last time around, they combined for 89 yards on 23 carries. While it’s hard to tell whether those numbers will get the job done, New York cannot leave their running game. Tomlinson will need to lead the way as he looks very fresh this postseason, picking up 125 yards on 26 carries and 3 total touchdowns. Of everyone in this game, he may be the most motivated as he attempts to add a championship to his Hall of Fame career.

The key for the Jets is to try and control the clock, get a lead, and have Greene pound away at the Steelers. Only time will tell if he’s up for the task.There is, however, a bottom line for the Jets.

If Mark Sanchez can’t play well, it will be nearly impossible to win.

After a bumpy outing against the Colts, Sanchez bounced back with three scores in New England. It appears that offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has helped make Sanchez comfortable having the reigns of the offense. Sanchez has been shaky at times, but he has made excellent throws at times. The pass to Santonio Holmes last week was absolutely beautiful.

Basically, Sanchez will need to be more of a game manager against Pittsburgh and rely heavily on Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Jerricho Cotchery. Dustin Keller should help him in the short passing game, as well as Cotchery.

However, Sanchez will need to take his shots as well. The Steelers fall out of the top ten in the league of passing defense, so it’s not impossible for Sanchez. He has shown that he is a legit NFL quarterback. While he has been erratic at times and is not in the NFL’s elite, he has the poise, talent, and confidence to win this championship game.

However, the barometer of his success will be Steelers safety Troy Polamalu.

Polamula seemed to be slowed by a bum ankle against Baltimore last week as he missed some tackles. But he is a game changing player who could really give Sanchez hell. If he is a little off like he was last week, Sanchez may be able to run the offense nicely. But if Polamalu is on top of his game, the Jets are going to have to make it an ugly game in order to win.

Like Soldier Field, Heinz Field has received a lot of hype in the matchups for Sunday. Heinz Field is a tough place to play in with all the Terrible Towels waving, but it is considered by some players as the hardest place to kick.

If I’m a Jets fan, I’m not panicking just yet.

Well it is true that there will be a lot of pressure on the Jets special teams, it may not be as much as people may think. Look at the previous matchup between the two teams. Nick Folk made both of his field goals, and Steve Weatherford had three of his four punts landed inside the 20.

While it’s true that Folk’s field goals were both under 35 yards and there will be a lot more pressure in this game, I don’t see the atmosphere being too much of a problem for the clutch Jets.

However, if the game comes down to a Folk field goal, the Jets may be dealing with Doug Brien all over again.

The Jets will receive a boost with Brad Smith back on kick returns. He and Cromartie should help get the offense get good field position. I’m not saying they’ll get another return touchdown, but don’t count it out.

Mike Tomlin already has a Super Bowl ring under his belt, and he looks to get another. However, I feel like the coaching edge goes to the Jets.

Ryan outcoached arguably the greatest coach of the decade, and made himself into a mastermind in the process. Ryan has played a psychological game with opposing teams and coaches by trash talking while motivating his own players. This week, he has taken a different route by staying quiet.

I feel like Ryan is luring the Steelers into a false sense of security by this. His players already have the mindset to beat anyone. They love playing the role of underdog. And if the Steelers take them lightly, they will be beaten.

In the end, I feel like it will be a very defensive minded game. The Jets’ running game should enable them to move the ball somewhat and Sanchez should make a few plays. I say that he winds up with a touchdown pass to Holmes who will no doubt be playing motivated in his return to Pittsburgh. Tomlinson should wind up with another touchdown as well.

The Jets should shutdown the Steelers offense for most of the game, but Big Ben will get his team going at points as well. He should make some plays, but have trouble with the Jets’ secondary and pass rush.

In the end, it will be déjà vu, as the Steelers will make a late drive to get the victory but come up just short. And the score will be close to another playoff game, as Roethlisberger’s team is limited to the same amount of points that Peyton Manning and the Colts had a few weeks ago. Give credit to the coaching staff, as well as a very talented receiving core for this one.

Prediction: Jets 20, Steelers 16

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