Friday, January 21, 2011

Key Questions To Steelers-Jets AFC Championship Game

1.) Is there a home field advantage?

The Jets came into Pittsburgh on December 19 and beat the Steelers 22-17 at Heinz Field. They went on the road in the first round of the playoffs and beat Indianapolis, then went to New England and beat the Patriots. They won't be intimidated coming into Pittsburgh. Under Rex Ryan and with Mark Sanchez at quarterback they are 4-1 in the playoffs, all on the road. The Steelers are 6-3 at Heinz this year, 7-1 on the road. Having said that, the crowd at Heinz Field last week was as loud as I have ever seen it. It is the first time, in that stadium, I have ever felt the crowd impacted what happened on the field.

Keys to look for: Expect the crowd to bring it again, particularly if the Steelers get ahead early. Otherwise the extreme cold could dampen their enthusiasm. Unless, of course, the booze renders temperatures moot.

2.) The Jets seem to have changed their defensive philosophy in the playoffs. Will it continue?

This is the most interesting tactical question of the weekend. Last week the Jest dressed 11 defensive backs against the Pats and played them all. They showed a lot of different coverages, but seemed to confuse the Pats by dropping eight and showing a two-high safety look. They used a similar look against Peyton Manning and the Colts. In the two games they have brought an extra rusher only 13% of the time. It will be interesting to see if they revert to form and bring pressure more consistently against Ben Roethlisberger who was sacked three times and fumbled twice in the first matchup.

Keys to look for: The guess here is the Jets will bring the heat consistently this week as they try to exploit the Steelers biggest weakness, the offensive line. Look to see how the Jets defense lines up pre-snap and what kind of personnel groupings are on the field. Bringing defensive backs on the blitz typically is less effective against Roethlisberger because of his size. They Jets may try to confuse Ben by dropping lineman into zone coverages, but I'd be surprised if he has trouble with his pre-snap reads.

3.) How will the Jets matchup against the Steelers receivers?

In their first matchup All-Pro corner Darrelle Revis spent much of his time lined up across from Hines Ward. That left Antonio Cromartie matched up with Mike Wallace and Drew Coleman paired with Manny Sanders. The Steelers looked to attack Coleman first, then Cromartie. Wallace & Sanders each had 7 catches for a combined 180 yards. Speculation is the Jets will move Revis, who has been nursing a hamstring injury all season, over onto Wallace. I doubt it. Cromartie has good speed and can run with Wallace, while Ward has a tougher time getting separation and can be blanketed by Revis. Those matchups play into the Jets' corners' strengths. The Jets will have a much tougher time with Manny Sanders and Antonio Brown. The speed of the young receivers will provide a significantly more difficult matchup than what the Jets had with either the Colts or Pats, both of whom lack dangerous secondary targets. Coleman is going to see the ball coming his way all day no matter who he covers.

Keys to look for: Watch to see if the Jets corners play press coverage on the outside. If they don't, look for Ben to audible into hots and bubble screens that get the ball out quick to his receivers in space. If the corners do press, watch to see whether the Jets bring pressure and provide safety help over the top. This is what the Steelers will try to exploit deep.

4.) Will either team be able to run effectively?

In their first meeting New York rushed for 106 yards, the most by any team against the Steelers all season. They utilized a heavy formation with an extra tackle as a tight end on 22 of 57 plays. The Steelers in turn piled up 146 yards on the ground. The Jets offensive line is the one unit that clearly is better than the Steelers. The problem is they go up against the Steelers' biggest strength, a front seven that had a record-setting year against the run. These two teams ranked first and third against the run. The Jets allowed 90.9 yds/gm while the Steelers were even more stout allowing only 62.8. The Jets ran the ball and dominated the clock against both Indy and New England and that allowed Sanchez to be effective in the passing game. They absolutely have to run the ball to have a chance this weekend. The Steelers have had trouble running the ball effectively in recent weeks, but will run early and try force the Jets to bring a safety down into the box. If they can do that, it will make play action and the passing game that much more effective.

Keys to look for: Expect both teams to mix up their play calling and run some play action on early downs, but try to establish the run even if they don't have success early in the game. If healthy, look for the Jets to try Brad Smith running the wildcat. The Steelers have had trouble with that in the past. Otherwise it's all in the hands of the quarterbacks and that's a big advantage for Pittsburgh.

5.) Is the addition of Troy Polamalu the biggest difference between the initial matchup and this one?

Troy is a great player who undoubtedly strengthens the Steelers defense even though he didn't have a good game against the Ravens last weekend. But the addition of Heath Miller who missed last month's game with a concussion will be more important. Miller will be a beast of a matchup for the Jets linebackers and safeties. Matt Spaeth was targeted nine times in the first matchup because the Steelers loved what they had. They will like those matchups even more with Miller on the field.

Key to look for: Look for the Steelers to spread the Jets corners and then target Miller over the middle, particularly if the Jets continue to play two safeties deep. They may also run some screens with Mendenhall, something they rarely did during the regular season.

6.) Where can the Jets exploit the Steelers defense?

The injury to Steelers corner Bryant McFadden is significant because of the domino effect it has on a secondary which lacks depth. If McFadden can't go it most likely leaves William Gay on Braylon Edwards and forces Anthony Madison into the nickel package against Jeremy Cotchery. Both of these are bad matchups for Pittsburgh. Edwards size will be a problem for Gay who is better in the slot where he is often used to bring pressure. Madison is a good special teams player who will be a liability in man coverage no matter who he goes up against. Look for the Steelers to play some more zone coverages to protect these two.

What to look for: Watch for Keenan Lewis to possibly get time in both the nickel and dime packages. He matches up well size-wise with Edwards who has been excellent in the playoffs. It's a risk for the Steelers either way, so heavy pressure and zone may be LeBeau's best option. In that case look for tight end Dustin Keller to get more targets in the middle of the field. Keller is a good receiver whose usage has diminished as the season has gone on. He could be the x-factor for the Jets offense.

7.) What other things could impact the outcome?

It almost goes without saying that turnovers and special teams can determine the outcome of any game. It's hard to predict turnovers and it's worth nothing there were none in their earlier meeting. Roethlisberger has gone a career high number of attempts without throwing an interception, but Tom Brady was in a similar situation last week and threw one on the first drive.

The Jets have an edge in special teams. Brad Smith's opening kickoff return for a TD in the first meeting was the difference, but his health is a question mark. If he can't go Cromartie takes his place returning kicks and has been equally dangerous. Both kickers are a bit suspect and the Jets have the better punter.

What to look for: The Steelers coverage teams were awful toward the end of the season and got torched again last weekend by the Ravens. They may decide to pooch kickoffs high and short to limit the big return, but it virtually guarantees the Jets starting no worse than the 30-yard line.

8.) So who wins?

This matchup favors the Steelers. The Jets play right into the Steelers strengths. New York's formula for winning is pretty simple. Control the ball with the run game and play action, limit mistakes and keep the opponent from hitting on big plays. So far it's worked. It won't this week. The Steelers have a better defense and are much more balanced offensively than the Colts or the Patriots. They outgained the Jets 378-276 and recorded 25 first downs to the Jets 17 a month ago. The Jets won because they had about a hundred more return yards and were able to limit the Steelers to one sack for zero yards. You can't count on either of those things again this week. For the Jets to win they are going to have to create turnovers by pressuring Roethlisberger. I don't see it. The Steelers have too many offensive weapons and Ben is playing the best football of his career. The Steelers defense is the best in the game. I think the Steelers take care of business at home and move on to Dallas.

Pittsburgh 27 New York Jets 13

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