The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the New York Jets by a final score of 24-19 in the AFC Championship game Sunday night.
All was eerily quiet from the New York Jets press room this week leading up to the game as opposed to the normal banter to be expected from Jets’ head coach Rex Ryan in his weekly press conference. The love fest between the two coaches and teams, for that matter, was striking.
The game, however, was certainly no love fest, as the Steelers jumped out to a 24-point lead in the first half, dominating the Jets offense with a spectacular defensive performance and a running game that looked reminiscent of Steelers teams of the past.
The 24-point lead evaporated as the Steelers failed to score another point in the game, and with the lead so gave way the good to some bad, if not ugly play by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Without further ado, “The Good, Bad, and Ugly,” AFC Championship style…
Rashard Mendenhall ran the football the way Steelers fans got used to seeing in the first four weeks of the season, and the way the Steelers had been anticipating since they drafted him in the first round in 2008.
Mendenhall ran the ball 27 times for 121 yards, and a touchdown in the Steelers 24-19 win over the Jets, but what the simple stats don’t say is that Mendenhall single-handedly bowled his way to a majority of those yards after breaking an initial tackle, or two, or three. Out of Mendenhall’s first 50 yards, he gained 46 of them after first contact.
Mendenhall’s first-half numbers against the Jets are something the Steelers have rarely seen in full games this season.
The Steelers must find a way to run the football the way they did in the first half of the AFC Championship Game if they hope to win their seventh Lombardi Trophy.
If they are going to do it, Mendenhall will have to turn in his first-half effort for four quarters against the Packers.
While Bruce Arians has had his head securely fastened to the chopping block for several seasons, and most of that has to do with predictable play calling, and this game is easily a clear contrast of just what the Steelers could do with a consistent play caller at the helm.
In the first half of the game, the Pittsburgh Steelers mixed the pass and the run almost to perfection, and while most who have followed the team awaited the ill-timed reverse coming out of a timeout, it never came.
Then the second half came, and the Steelers reverted back into the predictable offense that failed to score a touchdown over a 30-possession stretch during the regular season. The vanilla play calling, mixed with the evaporation of the offensive line, led the Steelers to a scoreless second half.
As the Steelers prepare to take on Green Bay in Dallas two weeks from today, Arians is going to have to find a way to develop a game plan that mirrors the first half of the AFC Championship game.
For a team that struggled to put the ball in the end zone in goal-line situations, converting two of three opportunities is huge for the momentum and morale.
Aside from an extremely poor decision by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger inside the 10-yard line leading to his first interception in nearly 200 pass attempts, the Steelers handled their business from a play-calling and execution standpoint.
The Steelers' ability to execute in close range to paydirt will be vital to their successful quest to achieve a record seven Super Bowl titles.
The Steelers drafted two receivers in 2010 draft, and while both Emmanuel Sanders (Third Round) and Antonio Brown (Fifth Round) seemed to be projects at best, both have matured tremendously this season.
Whether it’s experience with the system or experience against NFL opposition, Sanders and Brown have proven mature beyond their years at key moments in these playoffs.
Catching just one pass for 15 yards after Brown led all receivers in receiving yards in the Steelers’ AFC divisional round game. it would appear that Brown had a letdown.
On the contrary, in much the same way he stepped up to reel in a 52-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to lead the Steelers to the winning score, Brown found a way to get open for the reception the Steelers needed to move the chains and run out the clock again this week.
Sanders, like Brown, only had one catch this week for 20 yards, but was able to draw crucial coverage attention from the Jets better defenders. His speed led to New York penalties in coverage, and proved a major contribution as a result.
While it is absurd to think that Sanders and Brown will always be in the right place at the right time, their raw ability and talents have become a vital part of the Steelers pass attack as defenses gravitate towards Hines Ward and emerging star Mike Wallace.
The Steelers are known for their pass rush. It’s not a bold statement to say their linebacking corps as a whole is the best in the business at applying pressure to the quarterback, but they certainly didn’t show it against the Jets.
Similar to the first meeting between the two teams, the Jets held the Steelers’ bookend outside linebackers Harrison and Woodley at bay for the majority of the game.
Aside from LaMarr Woodley’s sack on Mark Sanchez, the Steelers were virtually nonexistent in terms of a pass rush. Getting to him only one more time the rest of the game.
Had that one time not been a sack fumble by Ike Taylor that led to William Gay scoring the game-winning touchdown, the outcome of the game and the Super Bowl matchup could be completely different.
Where, oh where did the pass rush go? Where, oh where can it be? Well the question of whether Troy Polamalu is truly healthy has to be asked.
A lot was made of the Steelers not having Polamalu in the first meeting between the Jets and Steelers, but they played without him in both games, as Polamalu was nonexistent in the championship game as well.
James Harrison proved to be of little bother in this game also, failing to register a single quarterback hit, let alone a sack.
If the Steelers are going to beat a much better Packers offense they are going to have to pressure Aaron Rodgers far more than they were able to do to Mark Sanchez.
The Steelers started out the game playing as well as they have all season. While they may have gotten more credit than they deserve for Rashard Mendenhall’s breakout performance, they were opening holes that Mendenhall could have driven a truck through at times.
When Maurkice Pouncey went down in the later portion of the first half, it became clear just how valuable the rookie Pro Bowler is to the Steelers offensive efforts.
The second half exposed Doug Legursky and the Steelers line quite a bit, as the overall production in the running and passing games suffered as a result.
The Steelers inability to prevent the Jets front seven from getting instant penetration off the line of scrimmage rendered the running game powerless as Roethlisberger dodged and scrambled for his life most of the second half.
After giving up less than 50 yards passing in the first half, the Steelers would go on to give up 233 yards passing and two touchdowns at the hands of Sanchez and his inconsistent stable of receivers.
The Steelers inability to stop the intermediate passing game of the Jets forced them to back off even further from their pass rush as they dropped eight and rushed three for most of the second half.
As a result of the Steelers' inability to stop the pass, the Jets found room to run the football in the second half, and quite appropriately found a way to score 19 unanswered points.
The Steelers pass rush has covered for an average-at-best secondary this season, and they can ill afford to dial down the pressure against Aaron Rodgers and a far superior receiving corps.
Rookie center Maurkice Pouncey was diagnosed with a high left ankle sprain after the Steelers 24-19 win over the Jets. The injury, which happened in the first quarter of Sunday’s game, could be a potentially crippling blow to an already banged up offensive line in Pittsburgh.
Rarely does a rookie come into the NFL and have such an impact they are an instant Pro-Bowler, even less are the chances that a rookie can have that type of an impact on the offensive line, much less at center.
Maurkice Pouncey did just that this season, as he went from the Steelers first-round pick to the anchor of the Steelers’ offensive line and one of the best centers in the NFL.
When Maurkice Pouncey went down after having his ankle rolled on by a Jets defensive lineman, he was unable to put weight on the ankle in any way as he tried to leave the field. Pouncey was eventually carted off to the locker room and reemerged on crutches.
Pouncey will have two weeks to heal what has the tendency to be a lingering injury. The Steelers desperately need Pouncey to heal quickly as they will be facing one of the more dominant nose tackles in the NFL in B.J. Raji.
With Doug Legursky finding it difficult to deal with a less than healthy Jets defensive line, it could be the a nightmarish matchup of biblical proportions for Legursky and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Super Bowl XLV.
Two teams have shown up in black and gold uniforms over the last two weeks in Pittsburgh. One team is quite possibly the most dominant team in the NFL. Refusing to give up anything defensively and able to score almost at will.
The other team fails to block, run the football or stop anyone from passing the football.
Each team has taken residence on the field for a full half of the football game, and both times the Steelers found a way to overcome the their Jekyll-and-Hyde personality in order to find a way to win.
If the Steelers are going to have a chance to bring home a seventh Super Bowl title, they are going to have to find a way to bring some form of consistency to the way they are playing football.
The Steelers identity has been as strong pass rush and stopping the run on defense, and they are going to have to be deliberate about keeping that identity to have success against the Packers.
Offensively, the Steelers are nothing short of vulnerable up front, and with the Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji and Charles Woodson bringing their Dom Capers defense to Dallas, the Steelers cannot afford to come with less than their best effort.
Only time will tell in terms of health what the Steelers will be able to do to come together collectively.
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