Saturday, January 22, 2011

To the Steel City…AND BEYOND: JETS at Steelers Preview

First, I would like to apologize for a lack of blog posts this week. I just moved into my new apartment at a new school and things have been pretty busy. But now I’m getting back in my groove and am ready to give you all something to read as much as possible.

So here we are again. The “Same Ol’ Jets” are back in the AFC Championship game for a second straight season. There is a much different feel about this title game appearance and I’m sure everyone senses it. The Jets may be three point underdogs, but no one seems to be counting the Jets out this year. At this time last year, the Jets were preparing to face a [healthy] Colts team that should have been undefeated. Jet fans believed they could win it, and on paper it definitely seemed possible, but I would be lying if I said last season was a disappointment even with the loss. Teams are not supposed to be able to go that far with rookie head coaches and rookie quarterbacks, but that team pushed as far as they could.

This year, this team has grown even more. We no longer worry about Mark Sanchez throwing the game away. This year, we count on him to win. This year, we not only hope to make the Super Bowl, but we expect to. These players have proven this season and this postseason that they have what it takes to be champions; that they have what it takes to win the big game. Now it’s time to bring it all together and win one final road game.

The Jets defeated the Steelers 22-17 back in Week 15. That one was also played in Pittsburgh. This was the first time the New York Jets franchise had won a game in Pennsylvania. Gang Green started very fast, opening the game with a 97-yard kickoff return touchdown by Brad Smith. This is something we can hope for this week, but definitely cannot count on. Brad Smith should be active, but who knows how explosive he can be on kickoffs. Should his ability be limited, Antonio Cromartie will take over once again.

The Jets will need to start the same way, fast. This is another game that the Jets do not want to fall behind early in. Pittsburgh’s defense is the top scoring defense in the league, only giving up 14.5 points per game during the regular season. The unfortunately great news is that the Steelers’ defense is injured. Troy Polamalu is still battling an Achilles injury and definitely did not look close to 100 percent against Baltimore last week. He played a lot of centerfield and did not play a big role in the run defense. My guess is that he still is not close to 100 percent, but his presence itself plays a huge role for their defense. Healthy or not, no one wants to come in contact with Polamalu. The ball will be kept away from him and he will be a huge focal point for the Jets’ offense.

Another key injury to watch for on the Steelers’ defense is cornerback Bryant McFadden. McFadden started last week against Baltimore, but left the game soon after with an abdominal strain. His injury seems bad enough that this could be the case again. Pittsburgh coaches say he will start, but it is very possible he sits soon after. He will likely be covering Braylon Edwards, so whether he starts or William Gay has to take his place, Edwards should see plenty of targets in this game. 

The Jets ground game will need to get going once again this week. The Steelers own the best run defense in the league, and boasted it against the Ravens last week, giving up only 35 yards on the ground. The Jets were able to rush for 106 yards in the Week 15 matchup, a number they will need to at least match if they want to score some points this week. The ground game needs to be effective to keep the Steelers’ defense honest and to establish the play action. The way to accomplish this is to keep sticking with the run early and force it to work. Shonn Greene and LT have run well so far in the playoffs and need to keep their momentum going. If he goes, Brad Smith may play a huge role in the ground game as well. We saw the Jets score on a play action bootleg by Mark Sanchez in Week 15; a sign that trick plays may create problems for the Steelers’ defense.

Sanchez will obviously play a huge role as well. He and the rest of the Jets offense were in a slump the last time they played the Steelers. This time, they are on a roll. Sanchez threw three touchdown passes last week against the Patriots. If there’s any weak spot on the Steelers’ defense, it’s the corners on the outside. They are beatable, and the Jets have the right tools to take them down. Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes have both played important roles for the Jets’ offense in the playoffs so far and will be able to continue to do so against the Steelers’ cornerbacks.

The X-Factor in this game will be Jerricho Cotchery once again. As good as Edwards and Holmes can be, Cotchery is always the forgotten soldier on the field and has more than enough ability to make big plays. Last week, Cotchery produced 96 receiving yards including a 58-yard catch-and-run setting up one of the Jets’ four touchdowns. Getting him the ball will benefit the Jets’ offense significantly. Cotchery has the ability to be a number one receiver and is lucky to be matched up with nickel backs instead of a team’s top corner. If Bryant McFadden is unable to go, William Gay jumps into his spot, meaning special teamer Anthony Madison will play the nickel back position. Madison does not have much game experience with the defense and gives Cotchery a more than favorable matchup.

The defense will need to play a better game than they did in Week 15. Pittsburgh’s offensive line is banged up considerably and the Jets will need to take advantage. They were able to sack Ben Roethlisberger three times in the previous matchup, but allowed him to keep plays alive on many other occasions. The defense will need to keep Big Ben in the pocket and force him to get rid of the ball quickly. Other than that, they only allowed him to complete 52 percent of his passes and only allowed one touchdown pass. Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 99 yards last time (it was originally listed as 100 yards but a yard was taken away a few days after the game). This cannot happen again if the Jets want to win. The defensive line will need to be the run stoppers they have been all season and keep Mendenhall from going off on them again.

The Jets can definitely do this. I am more confident in this team than I have ever been to win a big game. I said before that I was not disappointed with last year’s outcome, but a loss this time around would be devastating. Like Ben Roethlisberger, Mark Sanchez lost his first AFC Championship game in his rookie season and is back again in his second season as a road team. Big Ben won it that second time around and went on to win the Super Bowl over the Seattle Seahawks. Sanchez and the Jets will look to ride the same wagon.

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