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Know Thy Enemy: New Yok Jets

This Sunday, Rex Ryan and his New York Jets take on the Pittsburgh Steelers for the right to play in Super Bowl XLV.  Not much more needs to be said.  Which is ironic since Ryan is known for saying his peace and then some.  Whether he genuinely respects the Steelers or is just worried about winding up with his foot in his mouth (rather than his wife’s), he’s been remarkably restrained to the point of boredom.

The closest we’ve had to trash talk was when Ike Taylor said he wouldn’t hesitate to lay out his old buddy Santonio Holmes if given the chance.  To which ‘Tone responded he doesn’t care about the Steelers anymore.  Wait, so a defensive player will still do his job in the biggest game of the year even if his opponent is a former teammate?   And a pothead wide receiver cares more about his current team than the one who flushed him like a bag of weed during a drug bust?

SHOCKING.

Truth is, Rexy can call Mike Tomlin “one of my favorite people” in football and Tomlin can say he loves Ryan’s style all week long.  Trevor Pryce can call Big Ben “a polar bear” while complimenting how he plays the game. None of it matters.  When the whistle blows and the ball is kicked, both teams will bring all they have for a chance to play on the biggest stage of them all.

STEELERS DEFENSE vs. JETS OFFENSE

Mark Sanchez is the key to the game.  Last week, we saw Bert Flacco fold like a cheap lawn chair when the pressure was on.  Sanchez is a similar kind of quarterback who leans on a strong running game and is protected by safe, short throws when they pass.  Thus far, he has avoided the game-changing mistakes other young quarterbacks have made despite shaky protection due to an injury to his usual starting right tackle, Damian Woody.

The two-headed monster of Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson are a young quarterback’s best friend.  Against the Steelers staunch run defense, they combined for 100 yards.  They may not have won the previous meeting but their effective running kept the pressure off Sanchez by controlling the clock and providing manageable third downs.  If they’re kept in check, it becomes an entirely different game with the ball put into Sanchez’s hands.

Taking a page from the Ratbirds, the Jets tried to cover for inexperience at QB by surrounding him with star wide receivers.   Make no mistake, the duo of Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards are second to none.   Mix in slot man Jerricho Cotchery and dependable tight end Dustin Keller and you have an excellent supporting cast.  Still, in last week’s effort against the Patriots, Sanchez missed a number of throws and generally looked shaky outside of one or two key plays (he was helped immensely, for example, by a helluva catch by ‘Tone in the end zone).  While he has the admirable tendency to make a play when he needs to make one, the Steelers best bet would still be to turn the game into a track meet and dare Nacho to beat them.

The last time these two teams faced off, Sanchez didn’t have to worry about the flowing locks of Troy Polamalu.  Troy had a miserable game against the Ravens but if I were I betting man, I wouldn’t like the odds of him playing two poor games in a row.  Troy is exactly the kind of unpredictable wild card which gives young quarterbacks nightmares.  I fully expect him to be the difference between this game and the last one.

All other hands would seem to be on deck.  Bryant McFadden left the Ravens game with an abdominal strain but returned to practice and expects to play.  With Ike Taylor shutting down the opponent’s star receiver, it’s crucial for B-Mac to line up on the opposite side.  William Gay has played solidly when called upon although we saw what happened with him last season.  Not to mention with McFadden hurt, that leaves Anthony Madison as the nickel.

The only other notable injuries are to special teams players Arnaz Battle and Will Allen.  I note this because in the first meeting between the teams, the key play was Brad Smith’s opening kickoff return for a touchdown.  The good news is Smith is injured and, while he will play, may not handle returns.  The bad news is his replacement is Antonio Cromartie, who is every bit as dangerous.  The special teams played a lot better this season but were terrible last week and if one or both of our special team specialists can’t go, that’s not gonna help matters.

STEELERS OFFENSE vs. JETS DEFENSE

If Sanchez is the key for the Jets, Ben Roethlisberger is the key for the Steelers.  Both teams are roughly equal when you compare them position by position.  Except when you look at the quarterback position.  Big Ben is the best big game quarterback in the NFL and perhaps of all-time.  As Hines Ward said following the Ravens game, “When you walk in to the huddle and see #7 there, you know you always have a chance.”

Another big change from last time is the presence of Ben’s favorite target, Heath Miller. Those who saw the first meeting between the teams might recall Matt Spaeth being open all over the field.   But Spaeth does as he is known to do and dropped as many as he caught.  Miller will not disappoint in the same fashion.  Last week, Patriot tight ends had over 100 yards receiving while the Jets D have surrendered a league high 9 TDs to TEs during the season so to say having Heath back is extremely important is an understatement.

Make no mistake, the Jets have one of the finest defenses in the league.  They scheme extremely well and take full advantage of weaknesses in their opponents game.  They also take a page out of the Steelers book by blitzing from unpredictable places and at unpredictable times.  It surely helps that Flozell Adams appears to be over the flu bug although Jonathan Scott was also banged up last week and he was the biggest weak link in the previous meeting.

While the Jets play solid defense, they can be exploited.  Rashard Mendenhall had 99 yards rushing in their prior encounter.  The Patriots, who are a below average running team by nature, still ran the ball effectively with itty bitty Danny Woodhead.  While the Steelers are no longer a ground-and-pound “Stiller Football” style offense, it wouldn’t hurt to pound the rock enough to slow down the pass rush just a little bit.

However, the game will still come down to Big Ben.   Darrelle Revis seems to be hitting his stride so I wouldn’t expect much from Mike Wallace this week.  Luckily, the Steelers are five deep when it comes to receiving threats.  Antonio Brown caught maybe a dozen balls all season and then came down with a 58 yard bomb in the most critical moment of the year.  Drew Coleman, Brodney Pool, Kyle Wilson, and even Antonio Cromartie can be exploited.  Hines and Heath are the steady veterans while Ben has shown no fear in calling the numbers of Emmanuel Sanders or A-Brown when need be.

Fellow CMU graduate Nik Bonaddio ran a statistical analysis of this game which I would gladly explain to you if I didn’t fall asleep during stats class sophomore year.  Suffice it to say, his extremely detailed breakdown has the Steelers winning 24-17.  Sounds about right.  Games like this are won or lost on cheap points.  The first time these teams met, the Steelers gifted the Jets nine undeserved points by allowing a kickoff return and then running an idiotic draw in the end zone for a safety.  After last week’s sloppiness, I don’t expect the Steelers to shoot themselves in the foot yet again.  Good for Steeler Nation, bad for Rex Ryan and Gang Green.

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