The New York Jets entered this season with incredibly low expectations, a sentiment shared among football pundits due to the team's ugly 2012 campaign that featured a Tebow-laden brigade of madness, which practically guaranteed failure.
Now, the Green & White have exploded onto the scene as the contemporary darlings in the NFL. The Jets earned some degree of respect after defeating the bumbling Falcons (1-4) as a heavy underdog on Monday Night Football in Week 5.
The Jets quickly turn their attention to a pitiful Steelers team that remains without a tally in the win column. It's an opportunity for the Jets to put a stamp on their candidacy for playoff positioning heading into a difficult stretch of games that includes the Patriots (4-1), Bengals (3-2) and Saints (5-0).
For the second straight week, the Jets will encounter an opponent that features a premier wide receiver and stagnant run game.
Antonio Cromartie (Jets' CB) vs. Antonio Brown (Steelers' WR)
The key to success for the Jets hinges on limiting the production of speedy wideout Antonio Brown, who will matchup against Jets' lead cornerback Antonio Cromartie.
Brown has racked up 412 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 32 targets in four games this season. Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has mounted an astounding 76.2 percent completion percentage when throwing the football toward Brown. He's a dangerous downfield threat that can shred secondaries for big chunks of yardage on any given down.
Brown ranks among the best in the NFL with 139 yards after the catch.
Cromartie was mostly effective in damage control mode while pitted against stud wideout Julio Jones in Week 5. Jones managed to record eight receptions for 99 yards on the stat sheet, despite being shut down for a majority of the game, until making a freak one-handed grab late in the fourth quarter.
Brown is a freakish athlete, like Jones, and also boasts electric-speed burst ability. If Cromartie can neutralize Brown's playmaking ability, the Steelers will be forced to rely on Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery.
Pittsburgh averages just 58 rushing yards per game to rank 31st overall, signifying a clear-cut necessity to throw the football for the purpose of generating offense.
Sanders is a serious downfield threat, but has managed just 20 receptions on 38 targets. He's also been held out of the end zone in 2013. Cotchery has found pay dirt twice while reeling in six passes of at least 20 yards.
The Steelers will ultimately be hard-pressed to move the chains on a frequent basis against a fierce Jets defense if Brown is held in check. Tight coverage against Brown should enable the Jets' explosive pass rushing scheme, which is pivotal in preventing Big Ben from comfortably eluding pressure to find an open window downfield.
Muhammad Wilkerson (Jets' DE) vs. Marcus Gilbert (Steelers' RT)
Jets' defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson is developing into a premier pass rusher that can lineup anywhere on the front. Wilkerson wreaked havoc on the Falcons' banged-up offensive line in Week 5, recording seven combined tackles, two stuffs and a strip-sack.
His performance was a virtual breakout effort in front of a national audience, even though shredding offensive fronts has become a weekly event for the 315-pound beast.
The most crucial matchup in the trenches will be Wilkerson against Steelers' right tackle Marcus Gilbert. Pittsburgh desperately need Gilbert to neutralize Wilkerson, disabling him from frequently exploding off the edge to pummel ball carriers in the back field.
Gilbert ranks among the Steelers' most efficient offensive linemen in 2013, next to right guard David DeCastro. Pittsburgh has endured significant pass protection problems, though. They're especially vulnerable on the left side, where former starter Mike Adams has been demoted in favor of Kelvin Beachum at tackle. Beachum is the Steelers' most versatile lineman, according to Scott Brown of ESPN.com, however, his natural position is left guard.
The Jets should be able to dominate up front on defense if Wilkerson is able to constantly push Gilbert off his heels, which will open up the flood gates on both sides of the line. Wilkerson will be aided by rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who racked up five combined tackles, one stuff and one sack against the Falcons.
Brian Winters (Jets' OG) vs. LaMarr Woodley (Steelers' OLB)
The Steelers' pass rush has been nonexistent in 2013, registering a meager total of four sacks and 16 yards for loss in four games.
Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley has supplied a majority of the pressure, recording three sacks and a forced fumble while accounting for 14 yards for loss. Pittsburgh is bound to use Woodley in creative blitz situations against rookie offensive guard Brian Winters, who played all 46 offensive snaps in the Jets' win over Atlanta.
Winters took over for embattled left guard Vladimir Ducasse, who simply hasn't developed into the dependable brand of lineman the Jets figured he would be when selecting him in the second round of the 2010 draft.
Woodley is a playmaker on defense, capable of penetrating the backfield without a moment's notice. He typically lines up on the left side, opposite where Winters will be stationed on the offensive front. However, it would be surprising for famed Steelers' defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau not to exploit Winters' vast inexperience in pass protection.
Forcing pressure on rookie quarterback Geno Smith will be paramount for the Steelers if they expect to beat the Jets at MetLife Stadium, where Gang Green is 2-0 this season. Smith is prone to making mistakes under pressure, evidenced by his horrific four-turnover performance against the Titans (3-2). Tennessee used a multitude of blitz schemes that frequently sent five or more pass rushers, which stymied Smith.
The Steelers don't necessarily have the personnel groupings on defense to effectively blitz on every down, which is why it will be crucial for Woodley to expose Winters on the front to generate some pressure in the backfield.
Pittsburgh ranks fifth in the NFL in pass defense, giving up just 199 passing yards per game. Smith matched that total in Week 5, when he also threw three touchdown passes and led the Jets to a heroic comeback win that put the team back on the map as a potential playoff contender.