Jets vs. Steelers: 10 Things for Steelers Country to Watch for in Week 2
Whereas the Big Apple celebrated an unexpected offensive outburst and dominant win over Buffalo, an excited and optimistic fan base in the Steel City now hopes for the perfect tonic to recover from last week's "Mile High" letdown: victory.
The game against Gang Green features a number of intriguing matchups and plot points, not the least of which are a slew of notable injuries and the second coming of Tim Tebow against the team he ousted from postseason play in January.
While Mark Sanchez's solid performance last weekend silenced calls for a quarterback controversy, the Men of Steel will hope to reinvigorate the hoopla that helped to define the Jets' offseason with a return to form before a boisterous home crowd.
As Steeler Nation crosses its fingers for a Sunday to celebrate, let's look ahead to 10 things for fans to watch closely when the Jets and Steelers square off.
Disproportion at the Offensive Lines?
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When it comes to comparing X's and O's between the Week 2 combatants, there is one unit on the Jets' staff that has clear bragging rights over their opponent: the offensive line.
"Nueva York" has a group of hogs that is "muy bueno," including three Pro Bowl offensive linemen in D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold and Brandon Moore. With their injuries, the Steelers defensive front will be challenged to apply pressure on Mark Sanchez and stop the Jets' criticized rushing attack. I believe there is a mold for them to be successful in this endeavor (more on that later).
Among various phases of the Jets offense which had a confidence-breeding start, the offensive line helped facilitate a 48-point eruption and fine effort by their maligned starting quarterback.
Regarding the Steelers offensive line, opening weekend begged more questions than it provided answers. The following question gets top billing: Will Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert be healthy? In their stead, the Steelers struggled to establish a run game, even into a second half where the offense dominated time of possession, and they allowed five sacks of Ben Roethlisberger.
Mike Adams is being groomed on the job, and his experiences will help his personal career in the short-term, but he still showcased a penchant for making the unit susceptible in the short-term. With Doug Legursky and Adams on the line, the Men of Steel wore paper thin in the trenches, most obviously at game's end when a trio of sacks ended any desperate comeback hopes.
In addition to health, a return home should help facilitate a more disciplined showing. At Invesco Field, the team was called for far too many penalties, so hopefully the comfortable confines of Heinz Field sees a return to success at the basics.
This weekend, the Pittsburgh offensive line will have a stiff challenge, facing a Jets' defense that mixes up schemes, showing various fronts in disguising blitz packages and pass rushers. Likewise, the team needs a more fruitful effort in the running game, particularly on first or second downs (note: I didn't say first AND second downs), an area of mediocrity at best last weekend.
Regarding the run game, there is some positive news to report on that front.
In Dwyer We Trust
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Rashard Mendenhall is listed as probable for an early return from a devastating knee injury, and Isaac Redman is ready to give it another go as the Black and Gold attempt to make the Jets green with envy.
While all three, if truly able and ready, should get carries, the starting back should be Jonathan Dwyer, and he should get a bulk of the work. Unlike Redman, who had no ability to get to the outside (despite an annoying play-calling habit that included multiple toss plays) and demonstrated great hesitation in the backfield, Dwyer hit the hole hard and made gems out of germs.
Last week, the Jets' run defense surrendered 195 rushing yards to C.J. Spiller and the Bills; though that could be an aberration, the potential for success on the ground exists against New York. If any of the team's runners has the ability to frustrate the Jets' defensive front again, it is Dwyer.
In fact, while the team will institute a committee running approach, I'll be incredibly disappointed if Jonathan, who has had the most focused and productive offseason, camp and early season of his young life, doesn't get well over 60 percent of the total carries. He is getting consistent positive yardage, which will help the team stay ahead of the sticks (unlike last week, despite deceptive statistics).
In turn, the team should get the added synergistic benefit of play-action passing, which has proven a deadly element of their offense when defenses have been forced to honor it.
Ben Being Ben vs. Mark
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Against the league's elite passers, the Steelers need Ben Roethlisberger to step up his game, something he did not do against Denver. While his play was reasonable, his few mistakes were glaring, the types of decisions that veteran quarterbacks cannot make.
Sure, quarterbacks need to play their best against the best. But a large proportion of Steelers games are contested against mediocre signal-callers, or at least those inferior to No. 7. As this is the case, it is up to Big Ben to make this decided edge count. Before even taking the field, if Roethlisberger is poised to play a polished game, the Black and Gold have leverage at the most important position.
Last week, the Steelers had the challenge of facing off against Peyton Manning during his return game at a raucous Invesco Field. This week, the Men of Steel take on Mark Sanchez, with a probable dose of Tim Tebow, before an adoring Steel City crowd.
Even playing at his best, No. 7 had his back against the wall on Sunday Night. This week, Big Ben's best is a lofty handicap in Pittsburgh's favor.
Having struggled statistically against the Jets in the past, the key for Ben isn't to put up gaudy numbers or reach astronomical heights; the real focus should be playing well within the offense and making the job that much harder on an opposing passer who has been hotly under the microscope.
If "fantasy football figures" result from a solid effort, so be it.
Ball Control the Right Way!
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For all of the fans' misgivings about the team's execution last week, the Steelers did one thing that should have worked wonders: emphatically won the time of possession battle.
Against a man like Peyton Manning last week, whose no-huddle offense ran with a deadly efficiency in the second half, the T.O.P. edge didn't translate to victory. Against the Jets, barring turnovers, controlling the clock should have much better results, though it will be a challenge.
Regarding possession time in Week 1, the Steelers did the right thing, but they did it the wrong way. Relying on Big Ben's penchant to deliver to his slew of weapons on third-and-long, the offense overcame some odds-against conversions. Instead of consistent positive gains, ball control, and staying ahead of the sticks, the Steelers looked sloppy on early downs and managed to cover up their own blemishes on third down.
Imagine if the offense could control the football the right way.
If the Steelers continue their lackluster early-down performance, it will make wins difficult each and every week. A better mix of play-calling and higher-average yard production on first down will do wonders for a unit that can't depend on big pass plays on third down all season long.
Beating the Blitz with Quick Passes and Timely Screens
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The Jets' defense thrives on pressure in the backfield, showing various fronts and schemes in a manner that is eerily similar to Pittsburgh's arch-rival, the Baltimore Ravens. Indeed, the Rex Ryan influence on the Gang Green defense is always evident.
Though incredibly aggressive, the Steelers can make the Jets pay for this penchant.
First, Ben needs to recognize blitz as often as possible, helping to aid an offensive line that will depend on the center and quarterback to key in New York's intentions.
Also, the combination of a quick, rhythmic passing game and consistent gains on the ground will help keep the Jets pass rush at bay.
In addition, I strongly advocate taking a shot down the field in the passing game to loosen up the Jets defense and stretch the field early. If it fails, it can still pay dividends on later plays; if it succeeds, the resulting hesitation by an aggressive Jets front will make life much easier on the Pittsburgh offense.
Lastly, the Steelers have a killer new dimension to their offense that could absolutely burn the aggressive Jets if used effectively: the fast back Chris Rainey. And let's not forget the cornucopia of speed that Big Ben has at his disposal if he is able to effectively "burn the blitz" via a screen, albeit connecting with Rainey or a receiver.
Throughout the offseason, Todd Haley's offense could be seen focusing on the screen pass. If No. 7 can make the appropriate hot read at the right time, more than one fleet-of-foot Pittsburgher could benefit.
A Tsunami on Revis Island
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A stud corner can have a huge impact on an NFL game.
Last week, Tracy Porter proved the point. Despite getting burnt by Mike Wallace for a touchdown on a perfect strike from Big Ben, Porter had the last laugh, intercepting Roethlisberger to end the competitive phase on opening Sunday.
Before his critical pick, Porter also deflected a low trajectory pass intended for Heath Miller that would have resulted in a Steelers touchdown, kept pace down the field with Mike Wallace on a deep pass along the left sideline (when the corner times his leap perfectly to deflect the attempt away from the waiting Wallace) and defended a pair of other passes that included another near-interception.
For the Jets, Darrelle Revis is that type of impact player- and then some. This Sunday, lacking Revis could spell D-O-O-M for the J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets... My loyalty will not allow me to finish the chant.
When a player is absent, his presence isn't the only subtraction from the team. The effect of his injury matriculates down the lineup. The second corner now faces the opponents' best pass catcher. A nickel or dime back is often asked to tackle a starter's assignment. And at least one defensive back accustomed to watching the action gets playing time.
For New York, Ellis Lankster and Isaiah Trufant as the fourth and fifth cornerbacks, but they will fulfill the role of third and fourth cornerbacks this week. In other words, Revis' absence may not merely showcase itself with a big play by Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown. The ripple effect could just as easily benefit Jericho Cotchery or Emmanuel Sanders, two terrifying presences from the slot.
Being asked to step up on the outside, likely against Antonio Brown, will be Kyle Wilson. For the Jets to have success, Wilson will have to ready for the limelight in a town that isn't particularly empathetic, despite circumstance.
Wilson's greatest undoing could easily be the uncanny pump fake of Ben Roethlisberger, whose hydraulic hands keep a firm grip on a football that I'm convinced all 31 other starters would drop. If Wilson bites on an apparent pass, Brown or Wallace could find themselves wide open for an early touchdown.
With the secondary universally affected by the loss of its top defensive back, the Jets front seven, particularly the down linemen, will need to step up and get pressure in the backfield.
Defensive Injuries and Changes for Success
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"James is the Player of the Year a few years ago, so you know he's a great player. But we've played without him and Troy, who won the [defensive] MVP award. We've played without him. Our guys know what's required of them. They have to step up and fill the vacancy and push on. We miss those guys, we'll be happy when we get them back, but it should never be a factor in who wins the game."
Spoken with the essence of a coach, Dick LeBeau effectively said what all fans know to mean: We have to just get it done.
It will be a stiff challenge, minus James Harrison and Troy Polamalu. Simply, the Steelers need to pressure and confuse Mark Sanchez, circa the first half of the 2010-11 AFC Championship Game, a goal which will be largely hindered by the absence of Harrison (pressure) and Troy (confusion).
The absence of either safety in the secondary makes it difficult for the defense to utilize the remaining safety to his full potential, a reality the team has experienced in consecutive losses at Denver minus Ryan Clark. Now, it's Polamalu's turn to sit on the sideline and hope for the best. The two safeties have great synergy together, and a part of both becomes missing with the absence of either.
James Harrison is a man-beast, and his absence negates a synergy of diabolical outside pressure that his combined presence with LaMarr Woodley creates with both on the field.
The Steelers will have a challenge to make up for these losses, but they can make a couple of adjustments to assist.
At nose tackle, the better start would be Steve McLendon, whose inspired offseason included a physical presence in the middle that translated to multiple appearances in the backfield.
Though Casey Hampton held his own against the Broncos, McLendon is the better option today if the team wants to both stop the run and get in the face of Sanchez. Hampton, a great run-stuffer in his heyday, was never a supreme pass rusher.
Also, the defense has struggled to get pressure off the edges. With Larry Foote showing off in the first game, the team may want to consider drawing more confusion along the middle of the line. This would not only mark a new look that could throw the opposition off guard, but it also creates a question in the mind of the passer about which linebackers will blitz opposed to drop into coverage.
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"Splash plays" became a fad term for the week in the Steel City after Mike Tomlin's assessment of the opening loss.
"They (Denver) made splash plays offensively and defensively."
Refreshingly simple, the idea is that the momentum of a game normally hinges on a few big plays, or "splash plays" if you will, that ultimately make the difference.
Winning the turnover battle, controlling the clock and scoring touchdowns largely correlate to winning, but sometimes—even when those elements go the right way for your team—it comes down to making big plays with the talent on the field.
Such as a 71-yard touchdown reception on a short toss from Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas—eh, we're all sick of hearing about that one.
Heading into Week 2, many fans surely feel the Steelers offense has the advantage at skill positions, dynamic playmakers that can turn a common play into a "splashy" moment at any given time.
So while the offense focuses on executing the Haley system and the defense addresses a few key absences, the one key that is so simple but overlooked is just making the big play. Plain and simple.
Before becoming too overconfident, fans who view the matchup against Mark Sanchez as an edge to the Steelers need to not overlook the Jets quarterbacks' own litany of weapons, which include Santonio Holmes, Dustin Keller and Week 1 breakout starter Stephen Hill, who had 89 yards and two touchdowns last week.
Splash plays. Tempo dictators. Momentum shifters.
With the home crowd behind them, the Steelers need to make an early splash and keep the "cannonballs" coming!
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Blech! (That's the sound of millons of Steelers fans vomiting in sync at the notion of a Tim 'Tebow-ing' at Heinz Field!)
It's essentially deja vu part two this weekend as the Steelers square off against a bad January memory for the second straight week. Last week, they failed to exorcise demons against Denver.
On Sunday, it's difficult to know whether they'll get the chance to demonstrate dominance over Tebow, but they certainly don't want to forfeit any ounce of dignity to the maligned passer, who put on his best Joe Montana face for the wacky Wild Card war.
Certainly, Tebow is the most polarizing figure in the league, and his presence will come with its own iso-cam, focused on his every action, whether or not that includes time in the wildcat offense, lined up at receiver, playing special teams, dropping back as a traditional passer, solving world hunger or sharing words of inspiration with teammates who really just want their ugly mug on the tube!
His role in the game will be a major headline before, during and after play.
"Best Defensive Coach"
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On a team that so endears its defensive coordinator, the bombastic head coach Rex Ryan gave more than enough bulletin board material a few weeks ago.
In case anyone has forgotten, courtesy of the New York Daily News:
“You know what? I look at myself as the best defensive coach in football,” Ryan said after the Jets’ first training camp practice on Friday. “That’s saying something because Dick LeBeau is pretty darn good. Bill Belichick is pretty good. But that’s the way I’ve always believed. And you know what? I believe it because (of) the guys I coach with, there’s no doubt about that. And the guys I’ve coached. But that’s the truth. That’s kind of how I feel.”
"If it was a spelling bee, I'd bet against me," he later added. "If it's anything else —a fight, coaching football—I'm betting on me."
If nothing else, even those who don't read between the lines—or the lines themselves—in search of controversy can enjoy the presence of two defensive masterminds at their craft to open the Steelers' home football season on Sunday.