The New York Jets may find themselves with an improbable 3-2 record, but it will all be for naught if they are unable to secure a home victory against the struggling Pittsburgh Steelers this coming Sunday, Oct. 13.
While the Steelers may be off to their worst start in years (0-4), they should not be treated as a typical 0-4 team. They have only played against one team with a losing record. Plus, a team with Ben Roethlisberger as its quarterback always has a chance of winning against any opponent.
Still, the Jets have the superior record for a reason, as their younger, more dynamic personnel, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, give them an excellent chance to get their second consecutive win to get to 4-2.
For the past 10 months, the Jets have been force-fed the perceived fact the they were not supposed to be competitive this year. Now, they face a new dynamic of taking the field of a game that most people expect them to win—and for good reason.
The Jets have several matchup advantages that they should take advantage of. Here's how they should do it.
Attack the Tackles
Rex Ryan has a library of exotic blitz packages at his disposal that he loves to use to apply pressure on quarterbacks, but he may not have to use many of them. In fact, the Jets have such an advantage with their defensive line versus the Steelers offensive line that over-thinking is as dangerous as drawing up a bad blitz.
The Steelers are at least adequate at the interior of the offensive line, where former first-round pick David DeCastro resides. Where the Steelers are really having problems is outside at the tackle position.
Through the first month of the season, left tackle Mike Adams and right tackle Marcus Gilbert have been nothing short of major liabilities in pass protection.
This is a similar situation as to what the Jets faced last week against Atlanta, which has its own revolving door at both tackle positions. The problem for the Jets is that their best pass-rushers, Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson, both typically play on the interior of the defensive line.
However, if there is anything that we know about Rex Ryan as a defensive mind, it is that position titles are all but a formality when crafting his defensive front. Ryan is willing to move players all over the defensive line to put the team in the best possible position to succeed.
Both Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples have the athleticism and versatility to line up against either tackle, just as they did on this play against the Bills (who have tackle issues of their own as well).
The best part about this front is that it also defends the run well with Damon Harrison and Sheldon Richardson up the middle.
However, the Jets need to be careful about employing this strategy too often. Eventually Roethlisberger is going to step out of the pocket and make an unconventional play to generate big yardage. As long as this type of front is used in the right situations, the Jets should have no problem getting to Ben Roethlisberger.
Contain Antonio Brown
No matter how well the Jets scheme up their pressures, containing Antonio Brown, the Steelers' top receiving target, is going to be the most difficult task of the night.
It would be logical to place Antonio Cromartie, the Jets' most experienced cornerback, on Brown in coverage for most of the night, but doing so would overlook what Cromartie's true strengths and weaknesses are.
The tall, lanky Cromartie is terrific against deep receivers like Mike Wallace, but he can struggle against smaller receivers like Brown who are excellent at changing direction. Cromartie's size gives him an advantage in jump-ball situations, but at the cost of being able to take shorter strides to stop and turn more efficiently.
Therefore, the Jets' best option would be to place Darrin Walls on Brown. Walls struggled in his first start against the Titans where he allowed a late-half touchdown, but he rebounded nicely last week against the Falcons, yielding a 77.1 quarterback rating while defending a pass, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Jets have reason to be confident in Walls, but to leave him in man coverage on an island against a player as good as Antonio Brown would be nothing short of foolish. The Jets should give Walls plenty of help, using more Cover 2 looks—which is exactly what they did against the Falcons' premier receivers last week:
This type of look is vastly different from the typical Cover 1 coverages Rex usually uses (where there is just one single-high safety), but it got the job done. The Jets did not yield any big plays against the Falcons, with the exception of a spectacular one-handed catch by Julio Jones in the fourth quarter (in which Cromartie was left on an island).
The Jets may give up a few more short completions, but it will prevent the big play. This will condense the Steelers offense and force it to play a game of check downs and short passes, which is simply not in the Steelers' DNA.
The Steelers want to attack with big plays down the field, but the Jets can thrown them off their game by containing Brown while preventing the big play and allow their elite defensive front to take care of the rest.
Attack the Slot
One of the reasons why the Steelers were so willing to part ways with Keenan Lewis this offseason (outside of salary cap issues) was because of the promise of the young Cortez Allen.
So far, the Steelers' vision for Allen has not come to fruition. He has battled ankle injuries and struggled mightily in their game against the Vikings, allowing two touchdowns (including a 70-yard pass) and a quarterback rating of 145.8, according to Pro Football Focus.
Allen was so bad that his play prompted the Steelers to bring back Will Allen, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette reports.
Outside of Allen, the only other player the Steelers have to cover in the slot is rookie safety Shamarko Thomas.
Allen may be a short-term upgrade covering in the slot, but the Jets will still have more than a favorable matchup with Jeremy Kerley in the slot. With the status of Santonio Holmes still uncertain, the Jets would be foolish to avoid attacking the Steelers with short and intermediate passes with their matchup advantage in the slot.
Run the Rock
So far, the Jets have been a balanced attack that has been much closer to a pass-first offense than the ground-and-pound attacks of old, with positive results. Despite a few hiccups, Geno Smith has flourished with the added opportunities to throw the ball.
However, against the Steelers, the Jets may want to revert to the running game a bit more often than usual.
Running against the Steelers used to be a blasphemous philosophy, but their usually stout run defense has been a shadow of its former self. According to Pro Football Focus, the Steelers are the ninth-worst defense in the NFL. Through four games, rookie Jarvis Jones has graded out as the team's best run defender.
The Jets have not been dominant on the ground in any of their games, but they finally have a full slate of running backs at their disposal after Mike Goodson and Chris Ivory returned from their respective suspensions and injuries.
Success on the ground will slow down Jones and Lawrence Timmons rushing off the edge, giving Smith more time to go through his progressions.
This will be the first game the Jets play this season where they are favored to win, thanks to a combination of Pittsburgh's struggles and the Jets' surprising start.
The Jets are not just superior to the Steelers in terms of wins and losses; they have a slew of matchup advantages on both sides of the ball that they can take advantage of. As long as they get a solid performance from Geno Smith with a minimal number of turnovers, the Jets should have little trouble getting their third home win of the season to move to an improbable 4-2 record.
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