As the Northeast freezes, the Jets’ visit to Pittsburgh on Sunday promises chilly air with thick clouds of desperation and a strong chance of smash-mouth football at Heinz Field (4:15 p.m., CBS).
Looking to rekindle the flame of a dimming season, the Jets (9-4) will have to halt their two-game skid and find traction against the Steelers’ fourth-ranked defense. The Jets offense hasn’t located the end zone since Thanksgiving while Pittsburgh’s defense scored twice last week.
The Steelers (10-3) aren’t unbeatable on their own turf, though, having dropped two of their three losses at home. However, Rex Ryan hasn’t coached a victory in Pittsburgh since December 2006, when he was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator. Another stagnant first quarter for the Jets will make late-game heroics unlikely in a hostile environment.
Play Holmes’ vengeance card
Santonio Holmes, acquired from Pittsburgh in April for a bargain, fifth-round pick, will want to teach his old team a lesson. Holmes has 620 yards and four touchdowns in nine games, including two 100-yard performances this season. Unleashing the 26-year-old receiver on the Steelers’ 23rd-ranked pass defense could finally end the Jets’ touchdown drought while satisfying Holmes’ desire to dominate the field he called home for four years.
Getting up to the task
After opening the season with five mistake-free outings, Mark Sanchez has thrown 12 interceptions in his last eight games. Given Pittsburgh’s stingy run defense (incredibly, it allows only 60.1 yards per game), Sanchez and coordinator Brian Schottenheimer must keep defenders from stacking the box by employing a fast-paced strategy that keeps ball-hawking safety Troy Polamalu (six of Pitt’s 17 picks) and his secondary on their heels. Wayne Hunter, filling in for injured right tackle Damien Woody (knee), is the Jets’ wild card against the Steelers’ pass rush.
Send them all
Ben Roethlisberger isn’t easily rattled, but the Jets still need to try. The Steelers’ offensive line has allowed 35 sacks this season (sixth-worst in the NFL) and could be overwhelmed if Roethlisberger takes too much time maneuvering in the pocket. Cornerback tandem Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie should be trusted in man coverage against Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, respectively, leaving tight end Heath Miller, who is returning from a concussion, as Roethlisberger’s only escape.
Getting in position to win
With the inconsistent Jets stalling offensively, the onus is on special teams to create shorter fields for Sanchez. Steelers punter Jeremy Kapinos netted only a 30.6-yard average per punt last week, meaning Holmes, rookie Joe McKnight or Jerricho Cotchery could reduce the distance to the goal in the return game.