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Jets vs. Steelers: Five Questions With Behind the Steel Curtain

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Neal from SB Nation's Steelers blog Behind the Steel Curtain was kind enough to answer five of my questions about his team. He's the first opposing blogger this year who hasn't raved about his team's special teams.

1. Obviously we are looking at a red hot Steelers passing offense. Take us through the hierarchy of receivers and their respective roles in this offense.

Let’s do it like this: Steelers present a 3WR, 1RB 1TE set. The receivers would be Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Lance Moore. Martavis Bryant and Wheaton are rotating snaps now, basically. Le’Veon Bell is the running back and Heath Miller is the tight end.

Ben Roethlisbeger get the snap from shotgun, odds are good his primary read on the play is Brown – the NFL’s leading receiver in catches and yards heading into Week 10. Brown is a phenomenally talented receiver, and, at age 26, appears to be getting better with each game. As his stats indicate, no team has really locked him down this year, and a big reason for that is his precise route-running and his speed in and out of his breaks. I don’t believe there is a better route-runner in the NFL, and no one is faster and more fluid coming out of a cut. This makes him extremely difficult to defend, and is the reason he’s already been targeted over 100 times this season.

It used to be the Steelers used Brown as an extension of their running game. He caught a lot of quick screens based off options Roethlisberger has at the line of scrimmage, depending on coverage. Because of that, teams are pressing him more, and looking for that quick throw. It’s largely limited the screens, but Brown is carrying an average per catch over 14 yards, and is on pace for 120 catches and over 1,700 yards along with 15 touchdowns, so I’m not entirely sure it can be said pressing him at the line is working either. He made a Ravens defender look flat-out ridiculous last week from a move Brown put on him at the line.

That is also opening things up for a talented group of receivers – easily Pittsburgh’s deepest and most productive position. Wheaton, a second year player, has made some great contributions so far this year, and he’s fallen off in a few games as well. He has great straight-line speed, and he’s shown the ability to get open deep down the sideline. That’s where he’s primarily been used so far this season, and has made incredible strides from where he started last year.

Bryant oozes potential, and he has Steeler Nation on its collective ear right now. He’s as graceful and agile as a deer, which is amazingly his most valuable contributory trait, considering he’s 6-foot-4. Although he’s limited in terms of routes, he’s dangerous, and is capable of eating up a deep cushion as well as many fast receivers can. It appeared his best trait coming out of college was his ability to track deep balls as well as lobs in the end zone, and he’s already shown the ability to do both in just three games. He has five touchdown catches in those three games, and they’ve come from as far as 35 yards away and as close as three yards.

Miller is a steady seam-smart receiver who the team will use on quick throws when a defense presents zone coverage on his side. With a defender in conflict is covering a short zone, look for Ben to throw quickly to Miller, they’ve run that a few times this year, and it always gets 10 or more yards.

And finally, Bell, the league’s best pass-catching running back. He’s on pace to shatter the team’s yards from scrimmage and running backs receptions records. He’s incredibly quick, and his vision and footwork have improved tremendously from where he was last year. He loves to cut back to his right side, expect the Jets to bracket him and not give him any space in the open field.

Roethlisberger is the heart of the offense, and he’s on pace to make a strong MVP bid.

2. Talk a bit about what James Harrison has brought to this defense.

Harrison has shown remarkable improvement in terms of stamina and technique six games into his return to the NFL. He retired briefly after not receiving an offer he wanted (perhaps it wasn’t where he wanted), and came back in Week 4. He slogged through the end of that game, an embarrassing loss to the lowly Buccaneers, contributing to a non-existent pass rush that allowed Mike Glennon to steal a late victory that may end up being costly. As his conditioning has improved, so have his numbers. He has four sacks in the last two games, including two against his favorite quarterback, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco. A healthy portion of Harrison’s career highlight video will contain plays he made on Flacco, who looked as lost in last week’s game as he did when Harrison used to welcome him to the league his first two seasons.

He’s not a long-term option, and I’m curious just how much longer it will last. He’s played very well against pretty good left tackles (Anthony Costanzo of Indianapolis and Eugene Monroe against Baltimore), and D’Brickashaw Ferguson will be a great test for him. More agile than bulky, quality technical tackles tend to not get off-balance when Harrison bends as low to the ground as he does. An inside rip move followed by a low arc-bend is really Harrison’s main move, something I’m sure Ferguson and the Jets are seeing in his film. I think this is a key match-up in this game, and it should be a good battle.

3. How will Troy Polamalu's injury impact Pittsburgh's approach defensively?

There was a time a Polamalu absence brought about a completely different look for the Steelers’ defense. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case anymore. Unlike Harrison, Polamalu doesn’t appear to be finding a fountain of youth. He’s noticeably not as fast as he used to be, and while he’s still disruptive at times around the line of scrimmage, the team clearly is not wanting to use him in man coverage as often as they used to. His ability in coverage in general has declined a bit.

While Will Allen (his likely replacement Sunday) is no Troy Polamalu, I’m not entirely sure the Steelers defense will see much of a drop-off. Because Allen is noticeably thinner and less physical than Polamalu is, they may even benefit from Polamalu’s absence in a coverage sense. The Steelers will likely use more Cover 2 in this game, keeping Allen away from the line of scrimmage, which puts more pressure on linebackers Sean Spence and Vince Williams (not the greatest coverage linebackers in the league). But in doing that, it will provide the Steelers with more inherent over/under coverage on an excellent short-area receiver like Percy Harvin.

I would imagine the Jets game plan will be to get Harvin a large amount of touches in this game, and try to challenge the Steelers’ speed around the edge. I’d expect the Jets to want to continue to push the line of scrimmage, but really try to get their players in short space, and force missed tackles – something the Steelers struggled with quite a bit earlier in the year.

Without that spontaneous presence at the line of scrimmage (Polamalu reads plays well and can force a stop based on that), I would expect the Jets to challenge their running game to win it for them, helmet-on-helmet.

4. Name me one Steeler we should know who we currently don't.

I’d say Steelers cornerback Brice McCain. Not to take this question literally, I’m sure there are plenty of Jets fans who know who McCain is, but going after a larger perspective, I think his match-up on Percy Harvin will be critical. Expect McCain to start the game on the outside, opposite William Gay, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Jets move Harvin around against the Steelers’ nickel package, looking to get him locked up on McCain.

McCain replaced deposed CB Cortez Allen in the starting lineup, and I don’t expect to see Allen in the team’s nickel this week, either. I could be wrong, but Allen has had a rough season, just a few games into a new five-year contract. McCain has been solid so far this season, but Harvin creates problems when he gets the ball in his hands. I don’t feel Harvin is a particularly talented route runner, so not allowing him to get the ball is a better way of stopping him. If he does, though, I don’t see McCain as being a great open field tackler. To me, that’s a match-up the Jets really want in this game. Whether it’s for good reasons or bad ones, I think McCain will be a name you’re discussing during and after this game.

5. How are the Steeler special teams?

Not very good, to be honest. We haven’t seen kicker Shaun Suisham on anything but extra points and kickoffs recently, which is obviously good, but punter Brad Wing is below average, and has botched two hold attempts this season – one against Cleveland in a 31-10 loss (the flood gates opened up after it) and one last week off an extra point, which somehow turned into a 2-point conversion off his “pass” to tight end Matt Spaeth (think Garo Yepremian, only he managed to throw the ball forward).

Along with that, the Steelers have one of the worst kick return units in the NFL, one of only a few teams averaging less than 20 yards a return. Why teams don’t aim to kick it at or around the goal line is beyond me. Last week, they allowed what appeared to be the easiest touchdown off a kick return since Permian faced Dallas Carter in the Texas State Championship. But hey, at least they’re a fairly average punt return team. Overall, I’d say all their ‘teams units are collectively below average – which is a concern to me, considering the best way for a home underdog to steal a victory is to make plays on special teams. The Jets have opportunities to do that in this game.