Pittsburgh Steelers: Keys to AFC Championship Matchup With the New York Jets
The Pittsburgh Steelers' journey began in late July when they reported to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Their mission, the Super Bowl.
Now the Steelers are just 60 minutes away from earning the right to play for a seventh Lombari Trophy.
In their way are the New York Jets, who defeated the top-seeded New England Patriots on the road last weekend. It makes the second straight year that the Jets have made the AFC Championship Game.
Earlier this season, New York defeated Pittsburgh 22-17 behind a kick return for a touchdown and a safety. It was also a Steelers team without star safety Troy Polamalu or starting tight end Heath Miller.
Ryan Mundy was unable to be the playmaker that Polamalu can be and Matt Spaeth struggled in situations that Miller usually thrives.
Both will be needed as the Jets are a hot team that are very hungry, behind head coach Rex Ryan, to make it to the Super Bowl.
But the Steelers may be even hungrier, led by their franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who wants his legacy to be about championships, not statistics. He will have to put his team on his shoulders if the Steelers are to make it to the Super Bowl.
Short on Returns
Nothing can deflate a team, or a stadium, like a kick return for a touchdown. So you can imagine when Brad Smith took the opening kickoff of the first Steelers-Jets matchup 97 yards for the touchdown, Heinz Field immediately deflated.
The kick return ended up being the difference in the game and the Steelers cannot afford to give the Jets another this week.
Even if Smith does not dress again, Antonio Cromartie is another dangerous option. He had a big game in the Wild Card round at Indianapolis and is a threat every time he touches the ball.
Pittsburgh’s coverage units struggled against Baltimore last week, allowing a big opening kick return and having a punt return for a touchdown called back due to a holding penalty.
Solid play from special teams veterans Keyaron Fox, Anthony Madison and Arnaz Battle will be crucial, as will solid tackling from standout rookies Stevenson Sylvester and Jason Worilds.
Special teams is one third of the game and Pittsburgh cannot allow this unit to cost them valuable field position or a score.
Santonio Holmes was a non-factor in the first meeting between these teams, finishing with six receptions for 40 yards. However, it is playoff time now and that is when Holmes comes to play.
He has a knack for starring in big games and it doesn’t get much bigger than Sunday’s game.
In his six playoff games, Holmes has scored touchdowns in five of them, including the spectacular game-winning touchdown reception in Super Bowl XLIII.
Even though the Steelers held him in check in the previous meeting, Holmes will be looking to make a big play on the Heinz Field turf to help propel him and the Jets to play another week.
Pittsburgh will have to decide whether to lock Ike Taylor on Holmes or to have him split duty with Bryant McFadden, if he is healthy enough to play, or William Gay.
Dick LeBeau may choose to keep Polamalu deep, as he did last week, to prevent the big play to Holmes.
Ground It Out
Pittsburgh is more than capable of winning on the arm of Roethlisberger, but Rashard Mendenhall ran all over the Jets in Week 15.
Mendenhall finished with 99 yards on 17 carries for an impressive 5.8 yards per carry. He also scored a touchdown. It was one of his best games of the season.
Bruce Arians probably did not call enough runs and could use Mendenhall as more of a focal point in the championship game.
The ball-control offense would take away New York’s outstanding cornerbacks and set up the play-action pass to deep threat Mike Wallace, or even Antonio Brown.
Spotlight Player: Offense
For the second straight week the Steelers will match up against a great defense and an offense with a good ground game and solid receiving weapons. But once again the major edge that the Steelers have is at quarterback.
Ben Roethlisberger, playing in his fourth AFC Championship Game, wants nothing more than to lead his team to another Super Bowl.
After having a pedestrian game against New York this season, Roethlisberger will want to make up for it. He nearly led his team back from a five-point deficit, but ran out of time.
There may not be a better leader in the huddle, and he will give his offense the confidence they need to succeed against this tough defensive matchup.
Spotlight Player: Defense
Troy Polamalu did not play in the first game against New York and his presence certainly would have made a difference.
Pittsburgh’s defense allowed a season-high 106 yards rushing to the Jets, and Mark Sanchez was efficient enough passing to help lead his team to victory.
Polamalu will be able to play near the line if the Steelers have trouble stopping the Jets ground game or play deep to prevent against a big play to Holmes or Braylon Edwards.
On the minds of everyone, though, is will he make that game-changing play like the last time he played in an AFC Championship Game?
In the 2008 AFC Championship, Polamalu intercepted a Joe Flacco pass and returned it for a touchdown to seal the victory for Pittsburgh.
Sunday will be a record 15th time that the Pittsburgh Steelers have played in the AFC Championship Game.
Pittsburgh is 5-5 at home in conference championship games, including 1-2 at Heinz Field.
Ben Roethlisberger will play in his fourth AFC Championship Game in his seven seasons. He is 2-1 in these games with wins over Denver and Baltimore and a loss to New England.
Follow me on Twitter.