Friday, October 11, 2013
W2W4: Jets vs. Steelers
By Rich Cimini
This game screams "letdown" for the New York Jets.
Before we get into the particulars, let's pause for a moment to consider the incongruity of the previous sentence. That we're talking about the Jets in that context, not the Pittsburgh Steelers, is crazy. But crazy is reality in Week 6 of the NFL season.
For the surprising Jets (3-2), it has all the ingredients of a trap game: an emotional win Monday night ... a short practice week ... a winless and well-rested opponent, the Steelers (0-4), coming off their bye week ... and the first-place New England Patriots looming ahead.
What's more, the Jets don't know how to handle prosperity. Over the last 24 games, they've compiled only one two-game winning streak -- Weeks 13 and 14 last season. There's no rule against winning two in a row, Rex Ryan has told his players.
We'll see if they listen. Kickoff is 1 p.m. Sunday at MetLife Stadium. What to watch for:
The rookie vs. the master: Geno Smith attended school in Morgantown, W.Va., only a couple of hours from Pittsburgh, so he knows all about the Steelers' venerable defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau. Giving a quick scouting report of LeBeau to reporters, Smith mentioned the coach's famous recitations of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." That's called doing your homework. LeBeau won't be in the holiday spirit for this game. His once-formidable defense has turned pedestrian, and he'll be looking to change things by unleashing his creative genius on the young quarterback.
This is a scary combination: LeBeau has had two weeks to tweak his defense and cook up new stuff to throw at Smith. And Smith lost a day of preparation because of the Monday night game. He'll see the usual array of fire-zone blitzes from LeBeau, but there will be new looks that will force Smith to think on his feet. He'll be tough to beat if he plays with the poise he demonstrated against the Atlanta Falcons.
Not the Steal Curtain: Perhaps the most mind-blowing defensive stat of the season is the fact that the Steelers have yet to record a single takeaway. Consider: no interceptions and no fumble recoveries in four games. That would be hard to fathom for any team. Because it's the Steelers, who have arguably the greatest defensive tradition in the league, it's even tougher to explain. No team in history has taken an oh-fer for the first five games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. This is one of the main reasons why the Steelers are off to their worst start since 1968.
Why the takeaway drought? The Steelers have been playing from behind, reducing the opportunities for turnovers. They also have an ancient secondary, led by S Ryan Clark (34), CB Ike Taylor (33) and S Troy Polamalu (32). The once-vaunted pass rush has turned benign. LeBeau is blitzing a decent amount (35 percent of the drop-backs, 14th in the league), but there are only four sacks to show for it. In other words, Jets DE Muhammad Wilkerson has as many sacks as the Steelers.
Big Ben is big assignment: The Jets' chances of winning will hinge on how they defend one player -- QB Ben Roethlisberger. With no running game, the Steelers are more Roethlisberger-reliant than ever. He's putting up big numbers -- 308 passing yards per game -- but he's also had a handful of "Geno" moments -- four lost fumbles, five interceptions and 15 sacks. He'll hold the ball longer than most quarterbacks, trying to make a play. Sometimes it works, sometimes it leads to careless ballhandling. The Jets are aware of it, and they will be focused on ball stripping.
Coverage is key: The Jets view the Steelers the way they did the Falcons: It's all about containing the passing game. If Jets CB Antonio Cromartie (knee) doesn't play, the degree of difficulty will increase. If they don't have Cromartie to cover WR Antonio Brown, who's averaging eight catches and 103 yards per game, it'll put tremendous stress on the rest of the secondary. Just watch, Roethlisberger will throw 45 times for 350-plus yards in this game. We know they can't run the ball, as the Steelers are averaging only 58 yards per game. The return of rookie RB Le'Veon Bell has helped, but the offensive line -- sans star C Maurkice Pouncey -- is a jumbled mess. Mike Tomlin benched struggling LT Mike Adams in favor of Kelvin Beachum or recently acquired Levi Brown. The Jets' front seven should be able to control the line of scrimmage.
Act like grown-ups: This game will test the Jets' maturity level. They're feeling good about themselves, but this team is still young and tends to lose focus (see the turnovers and penalties). This won't be a walkover. The Steelers are a proud, physical team that recognizes the urgency of the moment. Tomlin set the tone by benching a couple of starters and banning games in the locker room. They've been outscored by 10.2 points per game, the third-largest margin in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Steelers are better than that; the Jets should prepare for a street fight.