NFL Preview - N.Y. Jets (9-4) at Pittsburgh (10-3)
By Chris Ruddick, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - What a difference a couple of weeks make.
It wasn't long ago that the New York Jets were being bandied about as one of the elite teams in the National Football League. But following an utter beatdown by the New England Patriots and an uninspired offensive performance in a loss to the Miami Dolphins, some people are now questioning whether or not the boastful Jets are even a playoff team.
It won't get any easier this week, when the Jets head to Pittsburgh, a place they have never won, to face a Steelers team that has won four in a row and is on the cusp of an AFC North title.
The Steelers' train continued to roll this past week against the Cincinnati Bengals, as defenders Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley both returned Carson Palmer interceptions for touchdowns to carry Pittsburgh to a 23-7 win.
The Steelers (10-3) maintained the top spot in the division despite not scoring an offensive touchdown, as their defense held the bottom-dwelling Bengals to 190 total yards en route to a fifth win in six chances.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, playing with a bandage around the nose he broke in Week 13's critical win over Baltimore, connected on 21-of-33 throws for 258 yards, 115 of which went to Hines Ward on eight hookups.
Polamalu, whose late sack and forced fumble set up Pittsburgh's winning touchdown in a 13-10 victory over Baltimore on Dec. 5, has four interceptions in his last four games
"Obviously we rode the wave that our defense provided [Sunday]," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "I'm glad [Polamalu] is on my team. No one is playing better in my opinion. When we need a play he provides it."
New York quarterback Mark Sanchez has to be aware of Polamalu on Sunday, but may have other things on his mind after his head coach mentioned in his postgame press conference last week that he was actually thinking of replacing his second-year signal-caller.
Few would have questioned Rex Ryan had he pulled Sanchez, as the Jets' offense was non-existent in the 10-6 home loss to the Dolphins. The young quarterback finished 17-of-44 for 216 yards with an interception and a lost fumble.
"The turnovers obviously hurt us early. We had a lot of poor execution on offense in particular," Ryan said. "I'm very concerned...We have to make sure we find a way to get better."
Prior to an embarrassing 45-3 loss to the division-leading Patriots, the Jets had won four in a row, with three of those victories coming in overtime or in the closing seconds.
New York hasn't scored an offensive touchdown since the third quarter of their Thanksgiving Day win over the Cincinnati Bengals. The Jets looked as if they had an easy one in the loss to Miami, but usually-reliable wide receiver Santonio Holmes had a perfect pass from Sanchez go through his arms.
Holmes will be looking for some revenge this week, as he faces the team that he won a Super Bowl MVP with two seasons ago. After a series of off-field problems, he was dealt to the Jets this past offseason for a fifth round pick.
"It's been on my mind for quite some time, I just never let it play a factor until now," Holmes said of going back to Pittsburgh. "I spent four years there. It's definitely time to show these guys, 'Why let me go?'"
As bad as the Jets have been of late, they still control their own destiny for a playoff berth at 9-4. However, the schedule doesn't get any easier after this week's tilt, as New York travels to Chicago next week for a game with the NFC North-leading Bears at Soldier Field.
The road has been kind to Ryan's team, though. The Jets are 5-1 away from home this season and 10-4 on the road since Ryan took the helm last year.
As if there wasn't enough trouble in Jets-land, the team is still dealing with the fallout from "tripgate", an incident that saw team strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi trip Dolphins cornerback Nolan Carroll along the Jets' sideline.
The Jets have since suspended Alosi indefinitely.
Both teams can secure a playoff spot this week, but all Pittsburgh needs to do is win. However, a Steelers' victory coupled with a loss by the Ravens would secure the AFC North title for Pittsburgh. The Jets, on the other hand, need to win but also must receive help to lock up a postseason berth.
Pittsburgh has dominated the all-time regular-season series between these teams, winning 15 of the 18 non-playoff matchups, but the Jets posted a 19-16 overtime victory at the Meadowlands in the most recent encounter, which took place in 2007. New York has never emerged triumphant in six overall visits to Pittsburgh, which includes a postseason loss in 2004, and suffered a 17-6 setback that same season in its last regular-season trip to Heinz Field.
That 2004 AFC Divisional Playoff, a 20-17 Steelers' verdict in overtime, stands as the clubs' lone postseason meeting.
Tomlin is 0-1 against the Jets for his career, while Ryan will be opposing both Tomlin and the Steelers for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
Few units have been more scrutinized this past week than the Jets offense, and in particular Sanchez (2,852 yards, 16 TD, 12 INT), who has thrown an interception in eight straight games while failing to find the end zone in the last two. While Sanchez's play has certainly been lackluster, he hasn't gotten much help from his receivers. Holmes (41 receptions, 4 TD) dropped a sure touchdown in the loss to Miami, while Jerricho Cotchery (36 receptions, 2 TD) mishandled a pass over the middle that surely would have been a big gain. If the Jets are going to make headway against a very formidable Steelers defense this week, they are going to have to throw the ball. Tight end Dustin Keller (45 receptions, 5 TD) has virtually been a non-factor the last four weeks and has not scored since Week 4. If Sanchez is going to get untracked, though, he may rely on the former first round pick out of Purdue. The running game was non-existent against the Dolphins and leading rusher LaDanian Tomlinson (837 rushing yards, 49 receptions, 5 TD) is starting to look every bit the 31 years of age he is. The former league MVP has managed just 3.4 yards-per-carry over the last four weeks. Making matters even worse for the Jets' running attack is the fact that right tackle Damien Woody is likely out for the remainder of the season with a knee injury.
The Jets' running game will likely once again be held in check this week, as the Steelers are yielding a league-low 60.1 rushing yards per game and have allowed a meager 50.1 per week on the ground during the winning streak. The four touchdowns the defense has surrendered on the ground are also the fewest in the NFL. Over the course of the winning streak, the Steelers have allowed just 9.1 points per game. Inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons (108 tackles, 3 sacks) and James Farrior (93 tackles, 4 sacks) have been exceptionally stingy against enemy backs and get plenty of space to work due to five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton's (15 tackles, 1 sack) ability to tie up blockers, while outside linebacker James Harrison (79 tackles, 10 sacks, 2 INT) has been a force against the run as well in addition to his prowess as a pass rusher. The 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year heads up a group that's tied for the NFL lead with 39 sacks, while Woodley (44 tackles, 9 sacks) and Farrior, who's netted a sack in four of the last six games, have also thrived in coordinator Dick LeBeau's blitz-happy scheme. Polamalu (62 tackles, 1 sack, 6 INT) is the headliner of the secondary and may the team's most important player, as he tops the Steelers in interceptions and is regarded as one of the game's best-run stopping safeties.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
There are not many quarterbacks who take a week-in, week-out beating like Roethlisberger (2,336 passing yards, 13 TD, 5 INT), who showed no ill effects from the broken nose he suffered in Week 13 against Baltimore this past week versus the Bengals. He's averaged just under 260 passing yards per game on the year, with wide receivers Mike Wallace (46 receptions, 946 yards, 8 TD) and Hines Ward (49 receptions, 4 TD) having benefited the most from Roethlisberger's presence. Wallace serves as Pittsburgh's main big-play threat and is among the league leaders at 20.6 yards per reception. However, the second-year speedster could have his work cut out for him this week, as he figures to be matched up against New York All-Pro corner Darrelle Revis. With the Jets playing mostly man coverage, the Steelers will certainly utilize returning tight end Heath Miller (33 receptions, 1 TD), who missed last week's game with a concussion. A ground attack that ranks a respectable 10th overall in rushing yards (120.2 ypg) is led by running back Rashard Mendenhall (1,073 rushing yards, 9 TD, 20 receptions).
Pittsburgh's offense has managed just two touchdowns in the last three games and could find some tough sledding this week, as they face a Jets defense that ranks third in the NFL in yards allowed. Albeit against a lesser opponent, New York's stingy secondary allowed Miami just 55 yards through the air this past week while holding the Dolphins to 131 yards overall. New York's defense is led by one of the top cornerback duos in the NFL in Antonio Cromartie (35 tackles, 3 INT) and Revis (21 tackles, 8 PD). The Jets have also had success against the run, ranking third-best in the league with an allowance of 88.5 yards per contest. Defensive lineman Sione Pouha (55 tackles, 2 sacks) and Mike DeVito (50 tackles) have done a terrific job clogging the middle, while end Shaun Ellis (34 tackles, 5 sacks) is one of the few Jets who have gotten to the quarterback consistently this year. The Jets rank 11th in the league with 32 sacks, but took down Miami's Chad Henne five times in the Week 14 loss. Already without safety Jim Leonhard, the Jets lost replacement Eric Smith to a concussion last week that will keep him out of Sunday's test as well.
The safest source of fantasy points out of this matchup may come from an outstanding Steelers' defense that features a pair of IDP monsters in Harrison and Timmons, with Mendenhall a very low-risk choice at the running back position as well. Roethlisberger also merits starting consideration among Pittsburgh players, but keep in mind he's only thrown one touchdown pass over the last three games and will be facing a tough Jets defense spearheaded by a dynamic duo at the cornerback position. The story is similar for the Jets, who'd likely get the most mileage from Holmes, wide receiver Braylon Edwards and Keller.
If you are a fan of high-scoring offenses, you may want to find something else to do Sunday afternoon. This is about as good a defensive matchup as you are going to find. The Patriots showed in Week 10 that you can get to the Steelers' defense by spreading it out and throwing the ball, but in perhaps the biggest understatement of the year, Mark Sanchez is not Tom Brady. It's hard to think the Jets can win with having him throw the ball 40 times. The team who wins the turnover battle is going to win this contest, and there are not many more opportunistic players in this league than Polamalu, who has made big plays in each of the last two weeks. With Sanchez on the other side this week, he may have a few more.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 17, Jets 6
12/16 18:30:51 ET