Sunday, December 19, 2010

Jets look to end losing streak at Pittsburgh

New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers
December 19, 2010, 4:15 PM EST
Heinz Field
Line: Jets +6

The Jets look to end two losing streaks against Pittsburgh, the two game skid that has dropped them out of legitimate consideration for the AFC East title, as well as get their first win ever on the road in Pittsburgh against six losses. The Steelers own a one game lead and probably the tiebreaker over the Ravens in the AFC North. However, their trademark defense has a lot to prove with the news that star safety Troy Polamalu will miss this game and possibly the rest of the season with a lower leg injury. Without him, the Steelers are suddenly much more vulnerable through the air. But can the Jets take advantage of it?

When the Jets have the ball...
After not scoring an offensive touchdown in nine straight quarters, the Jets can't be too happy to see road games with Pittsburgh and Chicago on the slate. These aren't the best defenses to sort out problems against.

Pittsburgh is an aggressive, hard-hitting defense that is the best in the NFL at stopping the run. The Jets haven't been opening up holes for a while, and with RT Damien Woody sidelined, the Steelers could abuse Wayne Hunter. LaDainian Tomlinson hasn't been nearly as productive lately. This may be a game for the more powerful Shonn Greene, but the best thing about Tomlinson is that he doesn't fumble, and that's key to this game. LT is also a superior pass catching back, as the screen play could be a major part of this game.

Pittsburgh loves to blitz, so blitz pickup will be of the essence. Look for the Jets to line backup OL Robert Turner as a tight end on 3rd down a lot this week to give Hunter some help. The speed of LaMarr Woodley will be tough for the Jets all game, especially after what Cameron Wake did last week.

The key to this game will be how Mark Sanchez responds to the blitzes and whether or not he can make the quick decisions and accurate throws to burn the Steelers. They don't allow many big plays, but short screens, slants, and even Brian Schottenheimer's favorite, the out pattern, will be used to get the ball out of Sanchez's hands quickly. Without Polamalu patrolling the secondary, the Jets have more freedom to throw the ball. Polamalu can hurt offenses in so many different ways. Now, the Jets can throw the ball without having to gameplan for one differencemaker. That could lead to some more deep passes being successful.

Santonio Holmes going up against his former team will be plenty motivated. Pittsburgh knows how good he is, but can they stop him? Personnel-wise, the Steelers struggle to match up with the dynamic Holmes. Braylon Edwards hasn't been used as much recently, and in a game where he will probably be catching the ball and drawing contact a lot, the Jets will probably continue to use the more reliable Jerricho Cotchery a lot. Finally, look for Dustin Keller to be a main focus of the offense. The Jets want to go back to basics on offense. That means a lot of short passes to the tight end. When the Jets offense was playing at its peak early in the year, Keller was a focal point.

The Jets have a lot of guys who should be able to make plays. But Sanchez has played with such little confidence lately, it's hard for them to do much damage. A fast start will be key for this offense. As will the loss of Polamalu, as he was the one exceptional player who could win the turnover ratio for the Steelers. Sanchez has thrown a lot of near-picks, Polamalu wouldn't drop them. Without him, the Jets will be able to have some success through the air, and even score their first touchdown in three weeks.

When the Steelers have the ball...
While the Jets' offense has been putrid lately, the Steelers haven't been a whole lot better. They didn't score an offensive touchdown last week and haven't had more than one in a game in almost a month. The primary culprit is the offensive line, which has been poor all season and now ravaged by injuries. Just as the Jets have to worry about the Steelers' blitz packages, Pittsburgh needs to do a good job picking up the blitzes, as the Jets will blitz Roethlisberger a lot. The key is sacking him when he's wrapped up and actually bring him down.

Rashard Mendenhall has had a solid season replacing Willie Parker full-time, but the Jets' run defense is pretty stout. Mendenhall isn't overly fast or overly powerful, so the Jets should do a good job containing him. He's also fumbled a few times. Isaac Redman, who is a powerful back with some pass catching ability, is the primary change-of-pace back.

Roethlisberger is so tough to defend against because he keeps plays alive. He's mobile enough to run away from people, but he's also strong enough to shake off defenders and throw even with the opposition all over him. The Jets' pass rush has looked better of late, not that that says much, and they should get some pressure. But they need to complete the job and actually bring Big Ben down.

His two primary receivers are Mike Wallace and Hines Ward. Wallace is the speedster. He's one of the best deep threats in the league, and if he's matched up against anyone other than Revis or Cromartie, the Steelers will take a shot. Revis, in his homecoming game, will probably see more Ward while the speedy Cromartie will get the speedy Wallace. Ward is a veteran possession receiver who is tough as nails but isn't much of a deep threat. Wallace is clearly the one to watch out for, as his big plays or lack thereof are the biggest key, besides turnovers, for this defense.

Overall, the Jets defense matches up nicely with Pittsburgh. They blitz enough to get after the quarterback with numbers against a bad offensive line. They stop the run better than most. Their cornerback tandem is as good as there is in the league, going against the Steelers' two receivers. The Jets might need to generate a score from the defense or special teams to win, but there's no reason the Steelers should get more than a touchdown.

I've gone back and forth on this all week since the Polamalu injury. And the bottom line is, without Polamalu in the lineup, I think the Jets are a better team. As long as Sanchez isn't completely terrible, the Jets have a better chance to put points on the board against Pittsburgh than vice versa. Sanchez's play is the key. There will be plays to be made on the field. He needs to make enough of them to win the game. It's just not that hard to see either side winning this game. Both teams are good on defense and inconsistent on offense. In the first game A.T. (after Troy), look for the Steelers to have some communication issues and not force enough turnovers to beat a desperate and angry Jets team.
Jets 20, Steelers 17


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