When the New York Jets and the Pittsburgh Steelers take the field in the AFC Championship Game, among the main goals for both teams will be to place the opposing quarterback under constant siege and ensure their own signal caller remains as comfortable in the pocket as possible.
In the Divisional Playoffs, the Jets demonstrated how the brilliant execution of this stratagem can alter the outlook of a game from the opening kickoff to the final whistle.
Coming into the playoffs, the New England Patriots ranked second in the AFC (fifth in the NFL) on the New York Life Protection Index, the authoritative measure of a team’s aptitude in pass protection, while Gang Green narrowly finished outside the top five in the conference, coming in at No. 7 (11th in the NFL).
However, the roles were dramatically reversed in the third clash between the heated division rivals last week.
The Patriots defense didn’t register a sack or a single quarterback hit during the entire contest, allowing Mark Sanchez, the Jets’ second-year field general, to enjoy the best game of his young career.
Sanchez tied a franchise single-game postseason record by throwing three touchdown passes, joining Chad Pennington, Joe Namath, Pat Ryan and Vinny Testaverde, and registered a sparkling quarterback rating of 127.3 in guiding the Jets to their second consecutive AFC Championship Game.
Who will win the AFC Championship Game?
And Sanchez’s glowing success can primarily be attributed to an offensive line charged with the duty of keeping his uniform squeaky clean, an assignment that has truly been taken to heart in the postseason.
During the regular season, the Jets tied for 4th in the conference in fewest sacks allowed. But in the playoffs, the Jets not only lead the AFC in this category, they rank first in the league.
Surprisingly though, the Patriots offensive line, who were second in the AFC in fewest sacks allowed, was uncharacteristically porous against the Jets, surrendering five sacks and seven quarterback hits.
As a result of an unstable pocket and solid coverage in the secondary, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was never able to get into the rhythm that made him the overwhelming favorite to win the NFL’s MVP Award.
The rest is Jets history.
But the Pittsburgh Steelers will be the Jets’ stiffest challenge to date.
The modern-day Steel Curtain recorded a league-high 48 sacks this season, a key ingredient to an AFC North Division-winning 12-4 campaign.
Pittsburgh’s second-ranked defense sacked opposing quarterbacks 44 times in their 12 wins, an average of 3.67 sacks/game and 91.7 percent of their sack total, while registering only four sacks in their losses.
In addition, the Steelers averaged 4.92 quarterback hits per game in their wins and 3.75 hits per game in four losses.
So, as evidenced, in order for Pittsburgh to be successful, one of their primary goals will be to generate a tremendous amount of pressure on Mark Sanchez, which they failed to do against the Jets (one sack, two quarterback hits) last month in a 22-17 loss.
This is where the Jets must duplicate their success in Indianapolis and New England, a task much easier said than done.
On the opposite side of the ball, the Jets defense tied for fourth in the AFC with 40 sacks, but the Steelers offense was second in the conference in sacks allowed (43) and ranked 26th in the league on the New York Life Protection Index.
But although pass protection isn’t high on the list when gauging Pittsburgh’s success this season, it still doesn’t change the Jets’ defensive goal to make it as long of a day for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at Heinz Field as they made it for Tom Brady in Foxborough.
Essentially, the game will boil down to the battle in the trenches, especially between the Jets offensive line, in concert with their pass protection schemes, and the Steelers defensive line, combined with the blitz packages they will bring to the table.
Who will win?
Any guess is as good as the flip of a coin.