As we all know by now, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be taking on the New York Jets Sunday evening at Heinz Field to decide the winner of the AFC Championship and which team will represent the AFC in the 2011 Super Bowl.
The stakes couldn't be higher for these two teams as they set to do battle on the gridiron. Taking a closer look at this game though, I see three main matchups that will decide the winner on Sunday.
Steelers' Rush Defense against Jets' Running Game
It is well known that the New York Jets have one of the best rushing attacks in the league and finished the regular season with the fourth best rushing attack overall, averaging an astonishing 148 yards on the ground per game.
And not surprisingly, there has not been a huge drop off in the postseason either.
Through the Jets' first two playoff games, they have put up an impressive 289 yards rushing, but that does come with a small asterisk next to it.
The Indianapolis Colts had an awful rushing defense this season, and the Jets piled up 169 yards alone in their Wild Card win between the two teams.
In the Divisional round showdown with the New England Patriots, the Jets scampered for 120 yards on the ground, which does look pretty good. You have to consider though, the Patriots allowed an average 109 yards rushing throughout the regular season, so the Jets' running attack fell just slightly above average for what the Patriots are used to giving up per game.
No offense to New England, who had a pretty solid overall defense, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are a whole different animal.
No team was more brutal for running backs to face than that of the top-rated Steelers unit, which held teams to a mere 62.8 yards on the ground per game.
To put that in comparison with the rest of the league, the next defense behind the Steelers was letting up 90.1 rushing yards per game, nearly 27 more yards!
This is a Steelers team that shut down some of the top running backs in the NFL, such as Michael Turner (42 yards), Chris Johnson (34 yards), Darren McFadden (14 yards), Ray Rice (32, 32 and 20 yards in three games) and Peyton Hillis (41 and 13 yards in two games).
And I haven’t even mentioned Week 15 of the regular season where the Steelers held Jets running backs Ladainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene to a total of 89 yards on 23 total carries for a low total of 3.87 yards per carry.
Pittsburgh's run defense is at the top of the league for a reason. They are an absolute force that has already shut down both Jets running backs once this year. This is a veteran team with a ton of experience and a high level of talent. Coupled with great coaching and game plans, I don’t see the Jets being able to rely on their running game, so the Steelers win this big battle.
Ben Roethlisberger vs. Rex Ryan’s Defense
Now here’s the one big matchup that will decide the game in my eyes.
Ben Roethlisberger is one of the most clutch quarterbacks in the league right now and always delivers. Say what you want about Big Ben as a person, but he is one hell of a football player with a competitiveness inside him that only few others posses at his position.
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have both already been sent home by this Jets defense due to Jets coach Rex Ryan's brilliant schemes to shut down arguably two of the best quarterbacks in the league.
Roethlisberger has the arm strength and touch on his passes to rival the two I just named, but he possesses one thing that neither Manning nor Brady have. That is the ability to get out of the pocket and buy time for his receivers with his feet.
Looking at the first two playoff games, the Jets succeeded not by rushing the quarterback, but by dropping tons of guys back into coverage to try to take away the deep pass and plays along the sideline.
They cannot do that against Big Ben and the Steelers.
For one, the Steelers' rushing attack is by far the best the Jets have faced to this point in the postseason. Rashard Mendenhall gained 99 yards and one touchdown on just 17 carries (5.8 yards per carry) the last time these two teams played, and he is one of the top backs in the league. More defensive players are going to have to be in the box to try to shut him down.
And for two, Big Ben is too dangerous as a runner to just drop off all guys into coverage without trying to pressure him. He will just take what the defense gives him—and take off, at that—if they drop and play deep zone all day.
On the other hand, if the Jets try to pressure him, Roethlisberger is elusive enough to evade the rush, and I don’t care who you have at cornerback, they can only cover guys for so long back there one-on-one.
With speedster Mike Wallace, rookie Emmanuel Sanders, tight end Health Miller in the middle of the field and veterans Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El out there, I just think there is too much talent to keep covered for a long period of time.
This isn’t Miller’s, Randle El’s or Wards’ first rodeo either. They will be able to find holes in zone coverage, and while Big Ben is running around in the back field, they will find ways to get open like they have done all season long.
"Revis Island" only has room for one, and the Steelers have far too many weapons on offense for him to cover everyone. With Big Ben running the show, the Jets' dominant passing defense is due for a letdown this weekend.
Mark Sanchez vs. Pittsburgh's Defense
Out of all of the matchups I have talked about so far, this is easily the Jets' biggest weakness heading into this game.
Don’t get me wrong, just like Big Ben, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez finds a way to get it done, especially this season as it seems like the Jets are constantly winning games in the last few seconds.
Unlike Roethlisberger though, Sanchez is not able to win games on his own. Sure the 4-1 career playoff record looks great, but some of those wins have been because of the great talent around him, not because Sanchez has taken over games himself.
Even including last weekend’s solid 3-touchdown performance, Sanchez averages a mere 184.4 yards passing and 1.4 touchdowns per game in the postseason.
Certainly not the production that is going to have the Steelers' defense up at night.
Sanchez is facing one of the best defenses in all of football, especially against the pass as they have the 12th best rated unit in the league. It is also one that made the Ravens' offense look even worse than usual last weekend.
And with being in the top half of the league in pass defense, you also have to take into account that the Steelers led the league in sacks this season with 48 and were tied for fifth in the league with 21 interceptions. This is a defense that will cause fits for a young quarterback. Looking for an example? How about just last week in Joe Flacco, who has a better arm and one more year of NFL experience than Sanchez.
As previously mentioned, I think the Jets' running game is going to be very sluggish in this one, forcing Sanchez to make more throws to impact the game more than he’s used to. If the Steelers can dial up some pressure, it’s going to make him very uncomfortable in the pocket, which will lead to poor decisions by the young quarterback.
Expect many bad throws and a pick or two for the Steelers' defense, as they provide too much of a challenge for Sanchez.
The Steelers have this game won on both sides of the ball in my eyes and have a quarterback who has already gotten it done in games of this magnitude. The Jets will come out fired up, but the Steelers will pull away at the end, 28-14.
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