With no personal vendettas to declare, there’s only the calm before the storm leading into Sunday’s AFC Championship Game collision between the Jets and hard-nosed Steelers at Heinz Field (6:30 p.m., CBS).
If lightning is to strike twice in the same place, the Jets (13-5) will need to continue the offensive efficiency and stifling defense that has carried them this deep into the postseason. After dismantling the heavily-favored Patriots last week, all of Rex Ryan’s Super Bowl XLV chatter sounds prophetic days before a second straight AFC title game appearance.
Last month’s 22-17 victory on Steeler soil marked Gang Green’s first win in Pittsburgh since the 1970 merger, and snapped a two-game skid to keep the Jets’ playoff hopes alive. But Sunday’s task is more daunting against the similarly constructed Steelers.
Pittsburgh (13-4) is a run-pounding team with a dominant defense that influences the pace of a game. With star safety Troy Polamalu and Pro Bowl tight end Heath Miller healthy, the Steelers are a more dynamic team than the squad Gang Green defeated in Week 15.
1. No “Ground & Pound” workaround
The Jets were only one of two teams to combine for more than 100 rushing yards against Pittsburgh’s NFL-best rush defense in 2010. Backs Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson combined for 89 yards, and Mark Sanchez scrambled for another 15 and a score against the typically stingy Steelers. Pitt’s 62.8 rushing yards allowed per game is startlingly efficient, but so is Gang Green’s commitment to “Ground & Pound.” Because of Braylon Edwards’ 100-yard receiving performance in the last meeting, the Steelers can’t commit fully to stopping the Jets’ fourth-ranked rush offense without exposing their secondary.
2. Blankets tucked tight
The Jets secondary is built to handle a mobile quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben’s ability to extend plays when forced from the pocket is contingent on defensive backs falling out of coverage and leaving a receiver open for big plays. Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie are disciplined enough to stay on their assignments. If the Jets lock Revis onto Mike Wallace — who hauled in seven catches for 102 yards against them in December — Roethlisberger will be left with check-down options against a pass-rushing defensive front. Without a deep threat, the Jets can maintain the bend-but-don’t-break approach that’s worked this postseason against Heath Miller and slot receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
3. Looking into deeper skies
Pittsburgh’s defensive success is largely predicated on pressure from vicious linebacker James Harrison and the rest of the front seven, while employing safety Troy Polamalu’s versatility in coverage and blitz packages. When Polamalu is in coverage, he can sit in a zone and use his incredible range to jump deep routes for interceptions. By designing plays with more than one deep threat, Polamalu will have to choose between Edwards and Santonio Holmes. The threat should also keep Polamalu out of the box, opening the field for Jerricho Cotchery and Dustin Keller after the catch.
4. Blitzed into miscues
Veteran end Shaun Ellis and the Jets defensive front should be able to carve a path to Roethlisberger against a Steelers line that allowed six sacks last week. Although Big Ben threw only five picks in 2010, that pressure could result in interceptions against the Jets’ tight coverage. Fumbles, however, are more likely, and the Jets should have a focus on recovering them after letting the Patriots keep two loose balls last Sunday. Roethlisberger lost four of his eight fumbles this season, including one last week that ended in a Ravens touchdown.
5. Using the Wildcat wisely
Brad Smith (groin) was limited in practice, but should return in time for Sunday’s game to complicate Pittsburgh’s game plan. Tomlinson’s botched snap in last week’s Wildcat attempt proved how specific Smith’s skill set truly is for that formation. Smith, a record-setting college quarterback with Missouri, could catch the Steelers’ aggressive run defense off balance if he is allowed to heave a deep pass out of the Wildcat. The risk is worth the reward if Polamalu bites on the run threat; removing Polamalu from coverage could clear routes for Edwards or Holmes.