AFC Championship Preview: Differing Approaches for Jets and Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Jets. Two different approaches to building a franchise, yet with very similar results.
The similarities are glaring from an overall philosophy standpoint. The Steelers and Jets both rely heavily on the defensive side of the ball and love to pressure the quarterback. They package many different blitzes and schemes to confuse an opposing quarterback, run a 3-4 base defense and tend to be a very physical ball club. They’re also led by two defensive gurus in the Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and Jets head coach Rex Ryan.
On offense, both love to be physical at the line of scrimmage and pound the ball with their running backs. Yet when needed, they’re not afraid to air it out with their former first-round pick quarterbacks. The Jets are a loud bunch who never shy away from a little trash-talk. The Steelers are never too loud off the field, but have an essence on the field that spells confidence and swagger. From a simplified outlook, both teams are extremely similar in nature.
However, the way each was built is derived from two completely different approaches.
The New York Jets have built this football team with expensive free-agent signings and trades, while the Pittsburgh Steelers have quietly put together an in-house system, drafting quality players and developing them into stars. Who's to say which way is the right way? The Steelers have won a Super Bowl, but the Jets have had incredible success with head coach Rex Ryan, reaching back-to-back AFC championship games in his first two seasons. Different blueprints, same destination.
After a 4-12 season with head coach Eric Mangini in 2007, the frustrated Jets slowly turned their wheels toward building a win-now team. With the signings of OLB Calvin Pace and NT Kris Jenkins, they were changing the aura of the franchise. Eric Mangini went 9-7 the next season, an improvement, but was clearly not cut out for the job. Welcome, Rex Ryan.
When Ryan arrived, there was no questioning what had to be done for the franchise. They needed to win—immediately—and compete amongst the elite. Owner Woody Johnson and general manager Mike Tannenbaum are still craving Super Bowl rings.
Along with Pace and Jenkins, and the big-mouth chatter from Rex, the Jets needed to win immediately. In the past two seasons, they’ve signed pass-rusher Jason Taylor, running back LaDainian Tomlinson, middle linebacker Bart Scott and safeties Brodney Pool and Jim Leonhard, and traded for the likes of wide receivers Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes and cornerback Antonio Cromartie (three guys with some character question marks). The final piece included drafting a quarterback that they believed would be a success from day one in Mark Sanchez.
Every piece that they built on short notice has become intricate to their success and the face of the franchise. A similar path was taken by the Dallas Cowboys in 2008, who were attempting to push for the Super Bowl the very next season and immediately failed. What the Jets have done is astounding to say the least. Rex Ryan deserves much of the credit for keeping his team poised and focused on the ultimate task.
On the other side of the football field is the most prestigious dynasty in all of football: the six-time Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Led by motivator Mike Tomlin, the Steelers have already experienced the beauty of winning it all under his reign. Tomlin, like Rex, is loved by the athletes surrounding him due to the confidence he instills in his players. My favorite scene of the Steelers' victory over the Ravens was Tomlin punching the air in joy like he was a boxer celebrating a knockout blow.
While the Jets seem to buy critical pieces to their roster, the Steelers build their players through the draft. Everyone one of their staple franchise guys was drafted by their organization or has been there for several years. It’s a family atmosphere in Pittsburgh that involves growing pains shared together.
Just take a look at some of the important members that have been drafted by this organization: quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Rashard Mendenhall, wide receivers Mike Wallace and Hines Ward, defensive linemen Casey Hampton and Ziggy Hood, secondary Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu and linebackers LeMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison. Every single one of those guys is recognized as a Steeler. And when you think of the Steelers, you picture these beloved athletes. It’s unlike the Jets, who have Jason Taylor (Dolphins), LT (Chargers), Braylon Edwards (Browns), Antonio Cromartie (Chargers) and more who might be associated with other squads.
My favorite reflection of the Steelers' system is shown by former Steeler Joey Porter. Porter was a staple to this franchise: a loudmouth, heavy-hitting force. Porter excelled as a pass-rusher but after 2007 he headed south for Miami. Speculation was that Porter’s absence would deflate the Steelers. Instead, they plugged in someone who was waiting in line—outside linebacker James Harrison. Harrison won the defensive player of the year the following season accumulating 16 sacks, seven forced fumbles and 101 tackles.
Even guys like LB Larry Foote, CB Bryant McFadden and WR Antwaan Randle El, who were signed as free agents this offseason, were drafted by the Steelers. Foote and McFadden served brief, one-year stints in another city before coming back to Pittsburgh. Randle El was a Redskin for four years before coming home to the city where he branded his name.
Unlike the big offseason splashes the Jets made, the Steelers simply held a homecoming for former players and signed a measly offensive lineman. That lineman being former Dallas Cowboy Flozell Adams, who at this point in his career is average at best.
The Steelers never make noise in the offseason, yet are soundly competitive each season. The Rooney family system is the reason behind six Lombardi Trophies. Going for a third in five seasons is a testament to their success. Now they face a daunting task against a talented Jets team.
You can argue one way or the other over which style is correct. Some brash fans will stand behind the win immediately and sign everyone system. Others will lobby for the more patient, competitive system that develops a family environment.
Either way, the Jets and Steelers find themselves in the same venue, fighting for the same objective—a chance to play in the Super Bowl.
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