There's nothing like a bye week to help a struggling team get themselves back on track. The Pittsburgh Steelers are hoping this past week off is the panacea for a season that is quickly getting out of hand.
And this week's opponent might be just what the doctor ordered in the New York Jets. Not because the Jets are bad; in fact, they have been a positive surprise team in the AFC this year.
It's more to do with timing. The Steelers are coming off of an extended rest, and the Jets turning around on a short week should play to the Steelers' advantage.
The other factor that should play into the hands of the Steelers is the fact that the Jets are starting rookie quarterback Geno Smith. One would like to believe that with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau calling the game, a rookie quarterback would be a weakness he could exploit.
With that, let's take a look at what the Steelers must do if they hope to win this week.
All stats via NFL.com.
When the Steelers have the football
The goal of the Steelers this week must be to protect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Jets defensive front is big and athletic and has shown itself to be very disruptive.
Jets head coach Rex Ryan is not at all shy about bringing multiple fronts and exotic pressures, so the ability of the Steelers' offensive line to protect will be tantamount to success.
There are two ways the Steelers can accomplish this. First, they must show commitment to running the football. The Jets are only surrendering 76 yards per game on the ground, but that might be enough to help keep Roethlisberger upright.
The Steelers must not allow the Jets to just key on the pass without the threat of the run, or Roethlisberger is going to be in trouble. Obviously on the other side of this are the protections.
With the Jets bringing five or more rushers on numerous occasions, the Steelers could employ more max protection, leaving seven in to block and only sending three players into the route. This puts the onus on the receivers to beat their man coverage and get open.
This is a risky move because it will most likely remove any safety outlet Roethlisberger might have. The Steelers must build in option routes for tight ends and running backs that will permit them to break off and get into the pattern as a safety valve when things go wrong. The Jets are averaging just over three sacks per game so far this season, so keeping Roethlisberger upright has to be a focus.
The Steelers need the middle of the field early. The Jets have enough confidence in their front seven that they typically allow their safeties to play deep to protect against the pass and fill against the run. This means those short and intermediate crosses should be open.
It should also give the Steelers confidence to run the football against seven in the box. Again, this is all about execution, and if the Steelers front can execute, the opportunities will be there.
When the Steelers are on defense
The focus of the Steelers defense has to be pressure on quarterback Geno Smith. In the Jets' two losses, Smith was sacked nine times, and in their three wins, he was only sacked eight. Smith is a very athletic quarterback and does a nice job moving to his right to avoid pressure. The Steelers need to push Smith left at every opportunity. Overload his right side and force him to go where he isn't comfortable.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has a giant binder of inventive defensive pressures that he really hasn't employed much this season. Sitting at 0-4, there's really no reason to hold anything back at this point.
Another aspect to the Jets offense that the Steelers defense must respect is the zone read. With some teams, there are two reads, either the give or play-action pass. Smith adds the element of the keep with the zone read, and that means outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Jarvis Jones have to be smart and play assignment football.
Coverages on the back end have to match up what's going on up front. When the Jets want to run the ball, safety Troy Polamalu will probably be sliding up into the box, meaning one deep safety and soft coverage. They want to keep everything in front of them, tackle well and force Smith to make a mistake.
Running backs are the X-factor
Both of these teams boast talented running backs who will likely factor heavily into the ultimate outcome. The Jets have gotten excellent production out of Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory as a complementary player.
The Steelers got their star rookie, LeVeon Bell, back just before the bye week. After one game, he showed more than the rest of the running back depth chart had all season. This week, with two teams who are going to want to pressure the quarterback, it could be the team that is able to pick their spots and run the football better might win the game.
Something's got to give on these turnovers
The Steelers have yet to force a turnover this season. The Jets haven't been much better with a total of three in five games. As is the case most weeks, the team that wins the turnover battle will win the game.
Predictions and implications
There are so many variables going into this game. It is really hard to predict. Just as the Steelers probably aren't as bad as their record, the Jets aren't as good as theirs. The Jets are at home, which is an advantage for them. Nevertheless,, they are also coming off of a short week.
The Steelers have some health issues on the offensive line and could be plugging in multiple different starters, which will favor the Jets defense greatly. Nonetheless, in the measure of quarterbacks, Roethlisberger trumps Smith in a big way. It is such a dead heat. I go with momentum and give the Jets a close win at home over the reeling Steelers.
Should the Steelers go 0-5 on the season and one or more of the AFC North teams ahead of them win this weekend, the season is likely over. Staring up at 4-2 by multiple teams is almost caustic. This could create huge changes within the organization.
I haven't thought much about the Steelers coaching staff or front office being in hot water this season, but an 0-5 start definitely turns up the heat. At some point, putting the blame back on the players won't work. Those are the players they picked to help this team win, and if they aren't executing, something has to give. And as the old saying goes, "You can't fire the whole team, but you can fire the coach."
It's time to rally the troops and get this season back on track.