JETS-STEELERS PREVIEW: No keys, push to start (the Jet offense)

Who are the New York Jets?

After 14 weeks of heroic comeback wins, anemic offensive exhibitions, and one of the worst drubbings in franchise history, the 9-4 Jets are the ultimate enigmatic Rubik’s Cube of the National Football League.  Multi-faceted, unable to crack, and one big box of frustration for their fans and football pundits alike.

Mark Sanchez and the Jet offense needs to get going against the Steelers after being stuck in the mud for two-straight weeks. (JetsInsider.com Photo)

The highly-sought after answer to this polysemous puzzle  may finally arrive Sunday in Pittsburgh, the setting for the proverbial crossroads of their season.

Losers of two straight to divisional opponents in deplorable fashion, the Jets find themselves in desperate need of a win Sunday to restore confidence to both their deflated offensive unit and their post-season dreams.  A season which began with much optimism and fanfare has begun to fade, faster than one can say “Black and Yellow”.

While a win on Sunday is not out of the question, it most certainly will not be easy.  In the Steelers, the Jets see everything they wish to be — a highly disciplined elite football team which prides itself on a hard-nosed running attack and a shutdown defense.  First in the league in rush defense, second in points allowed, fourth in total yards allowed, Mike Tomlin’s defensive unit appears to be anything but the perfect remedy for a Jet offense which hasn’t reached the end zone since Thanksgiving night.

Jets receiver Santonio Holmes sure knows a thing or two about the Steeler defense after going up against in practice every day for four years in Pittsburgh.

“These guys run to the ball, said Holmes on Thursday.  ”They’re eleven men attacking the football.  They don’t try to give up any big plays.  They try to keep everything in front of them.”

“They use the strength of their defensive line and their linebackers to get pressure on the quarterback and cause a lot of confusion with zone blitzes and things like that. That’s probably one of the biggest aspects that we have to focus on with that game.”

In order to have any shot, the Jets must beat Pittsburgh at their own game.  The same game that Rex Ryan has been spitting since July–ground and pound.

“We have to be ourselves and go out and be the team we put together,” said Ryan, Friday.  The team we had envisioned for this season.  (We want) to be a physical football team, a team that will play sound and great defense and a team that (has) an all-weather offense.”

“If we do those things and we’re true to ourselves, we’ll be just fine.”

It’ll definitely be easier for the Jets to “do their thing” with Steeler’s star safety Troy Polamalu likely to be sidelined with an Achilles heel injury.  Polamalu aggravated the injury last week against Cincinnati and is likely to sit out until the playoffs.  Without Polamalu manning center field, the Steeler secondary becomes a lot more average than it already is (232.9 passing yards allowed per game).

Offensively, Pittsburgh has had similar struggles to that of the Jets.  The Steelers have scored all of two touchdowns in their past 31 drives, while settling for 9 field goals.  Regardless of their recent struggles, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger remains a sizable threat out of the pocket with his arm and has demonstrated an affinity for making plays with his feet.

“He’s a big guy, said Jets linebacker Jason Taylor, Thursday.  ”He’s like a defensive end playing quarterback.  He’s strong.  He’ll shrug you off (and) he’ll stiff-arm you.  He keeps plays alive with his legs very well and he can throw the ball down-the-field.”

“Their offense almost becomes kind of street ball-ish after it breaks down.  A lot of quarterbacks try to do it, but none as effectively as Ben.”

In the end, Sunday’s outcome will once again come down to the Jets being able to get out of their own way, offensively.  If Sanchez and the offense can establish any semblance of a rhythm and put some points on the board, the Jet defense should be up to the task of shutting down Roethlisberger.  With Polamalu out, Brian Schottenheimer must go to the air early and often and test the Pittsburgh secondary.  Looking to feature guest-of-honor Santonio Holmes wouldn’t be  a bad idea either.

Establishing the passing game early will open things up for Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson to see some daylight in the running game — the bread and butter of the Jets’ gameplan.

PREDICTION: JETS 14, STEELERS 10

The Jet defense holds up for the second-straight week, while Sanchez finally pilots the offense back into the end zone–at least once.  The Jets win a hard-fought slugfest, which definitely won’t be pretty.

INSIDER TIDBITS

Matchup history

Sunday’s scrap at Heinz Field will mark the 19th meeting between the two teams.  Pittsburgh has historically dominated the Jets, posting an all-time record of 15-3 against New York.  In fact, the Jets have never registered a victory in Pittsburgh, posting an 0-6 lifetime record in the Steel City.  As far as recent history goes, the Steelers have also won seven of the last ten meetings.

Last time they met…

The then 1-8 Jets, with Kellen Clemens at quarterback, squeaked out an improbably 19-16 overtime victory over the Steelers in the Meadowlands on November 18, 2007.  The Jet offense was led by 117 yards on the ground by running back Thomas Jones.  After exchanging punts in the first two possessions of overtime, a 38-yard field goal by kicker Mike Nugent sealed the win for New York.  This victory would serve as one of the few bright spots for Eric Mangini’s Jets in an otherwise disappointing 2007 campaign.

No place like Holme

One of Sunday’s underlying subplots is the return to Pittsburgh for Jets receiver Santonio Holmes.  Holmes, who spent the first four seasons of his NFL career in the Black and Gold, downplayed the notion of Sunday being an emotional matchup for him.  ”I honestly don’t know,” said Holmes on Wednesday. ” Right now, I’m focused on the (plan) that we put in this week, how we’re going to practice, how we’re going to prepare for this week and I’ll let all the emotions out come Sunday.”

Injury Report:

For the Jets, S Eric Smith (concussion), OT Damien Woody (knee), and DE Trevor Pryce have all been ruled out for Sunday after missing practice this week.  S James Ihedigbo, who was limited in practice all week (ankle and knee) is listed as questionable. C Nick Mangold (shoulder), DT Sione Pouha (finger), CB Darrelle Revis (hamstring), and WR Brad Smith (hand) are all probable.

Along with Polamalu, listed as doubtful for Pittsburgh is DT Steve McClendon (stinger).  Steelers DE Aaron Smith (triceps) has been ruled out.

Broadcast Info: Sunday, 4:15 P.M. ET, TV: CBS (Jim Nantz/Phil Simms) Radio: 1050 AM ESPN Radio (Bob Wischusen/Marty Lyons

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