Coming off an emotional win against the heavily favored Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome, the (3-2) New York Jets sit a game out of first place as the (0-4) Pittsburgh Steelers come to town. It seems like the perfect opportunity to capture a share of first place, especially with the New England Patriots playing the unbeaten New Orleans Saints this week. With that said, this looks like the classic letdown game. The Steelers are winless and often look hapless, but they have certain areas of strength that the Jets would be foolish to overlook. This leads into the first key.
Quinton Coples: The Steelers can't run the football. Their offensive line is in shambles. Their skill position players are far diminished from the units of yesteryear. And yet, they have been productive at moving the ball through the air (9th in the NFL in yards per game), largely because of the Ben Roesthlisberger—Antonio Brown connection, which has accounted for 412 yards. I'm not sure that Brown is the best matchup for Antonio Cromartie, and the Darrin Walls/Kyle Wilson/Dee Milliner trio has proven inconsistent at best. If the Jets hope to stop the Steelers' passing game—essentially neutralizing their whole offense in the process—they need to get to Big Ben early and often. The Steelers sport a ragtag offensive line, with a backup center playing in place of Maurkice Pouncey and a new left tackle playing in place of the downright awful Mike Adams. They have allowed 15 sacks (6th most in the league) and have looked discombobulated throughout the year. The Jet that most needs to step up is Quinton Coples, who has been quiet since returning from injury three weeks ago. He hasn't been a total lost cause, as the Falcons gave him a fair bit of attention--freeing Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson--and he did register 3 semi-hurries last week, as well as one quarterback hit (which was negated anyway because of a penalty in coverage). With pass-rushing specialist Antwan Barnes out for the year, look for the Jets to put Coples in more situations to get into the backfield. If he can be disruptive and make Roesthlisberger throw under pressure (or better yet, bring him down completely), it would be huge for the Jets' chances.
Geno Smith vs. Troy Polamalu: The Steelers' pass defense is mediocre, having allowed a passer rating of 91.4 to opposing quarterbacks (14th highest in the league). What really stands out about the Steelers is that they have a league low 0 interceptions, and a league low 4 sacks. Throwing interceptions under pressure is the biggest hole in Geno's game right now, but the Steelers don't look like they'll be able to exploit it. He usually looks great when given time to throw, so we could be looking at a big game from Geno. Moreover, the Steelers are suseptible to the long pass—they have given up 4 passes of 40+ yards, 5th most in the league. I would look for Marty Mornhinweg to exploit this weakness throughout the game. Of course, he needs to be careful of Troy Polamalu over the middle, as the crafty veteran has been one of the best ballhawks in the league over the last 10 years, despite the fact that he hasn't picked off a pass yet this year. If Geno can avoid Polamalu, he could be primed for a big game through the air.
Heath Miller vs. Demario Davis: The Jets' linebacker duo of Demario Davis and David Harris may have looked dynamic and dominant against the Falcons last week (they did account for 22 tackles between them), but a closer look indicates that they gave up 13 catches on 14 targets, many of them to Tony Gonzalez. Steelers' tight end Heath Miller may not have the pedigree of Tony Gonzalez, but he is one of the most complete tight ends in the NFL (when he is healthy), and will certainly pose a problem this Sunday. He had 6 catches on 8 targets for 70 yards in the Steelers' last game, and has always presented a big body for Roethlisberger to look for in the red zone. Stopping opposing tight ends has been the Jets' Achilles Heel for a while. The Harris/Davis combination need to bring their A-game this Sunday against one of the best tight ends in the league.
Players to Watch: As mentioned before, Antonio Brown is one of the bright spots on a Steelers offense that has been struggling. His precise route running and crafty first-step may pose problems for Antonio Cromartie (should they be matched up), especially given Cromartie's four inch height advantage. Cromartie has generally strugged this season, likely because of some nagging injuries.
According to Pro Football Focus rankings, Cromartie is 97th CB out of 104. #nyj— Brian Costello (@BrianCoz) October 10, 2013
Missed this earlier but Cromartie practiced fully yesterday and was limited today. Also they added "knee" to go along with his "hip" injury— Brian Costello (@BrianCoz) October 10, 2013
I will be watching #31 closely this Sunday to see if he can regain some of the form that he displayed last season. Given the Jets' recent problems in pass protection, it is absolutely vital for Cro to get over the hump. I will also be watching Ricky Sapp this Sunday, as he is likely to assume some of Antwan Barnes' snaps in pass rushing situations. While I believe that Coples is most likely to benefit, I will be paying close attention to Ricky this Sunday. If he fails to make an impact in the next few weeks, it might be the last we see of him in an NFL jersey.