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DEFENSIVE BATTLE

By Justin Paley
Jets Insider.com Staff Writer
December 10th, 2004

When the Jets and Steelers meet in Pittsburgh on Sunday, points will be at a premium. That’s because the teams have two of the best defenses in the NFL.

When the Jets and Steelers meet in Pittsburgh on Sunday, points will be at a premium. That’s because the teams have two of the best defenses in the NFL.

Among the other things the teams have in common are young, talented quarterbacks that played in the Mid-American Conference and running backs that have been climbing the NFL All-Time Rushing list this season. All this should add up to an exciting match-up between the 9-3 Jets and 11-1 Steelers.

Steelers head coach Bill Cowher, now in his 13th season as head coach of the Steelers, knows the Jets will be tough.

“We will face our stiffest challenge this weekend, I think there’s no question when you look at the Jets,” Cowher said.

The Jets were glad to get QB Chad Pennington back last week after the star QB missed the previous three weeks with a strained rotator cuff. Pennington was 20-of-27 for 155 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Houston last week. On the year, Pennington is 164-of-243 for 1,798 yards, 11 TD’s and four interceptions. Pennington talked about what the Jets offense has to do against Pittsburgh.

“You have to be patient, take care of the football and not give them easy ones,” Pennington said. “They do a great job pressuring the quarterback. That is one of their strong points.”

Pennington talked about the Jets game plan.

“I think you just have to be versatile,” Pennington said. “Any time you play a good defense, you have to be versatile. You can’t just line up and say we are going to run the ball every down and pass on third down. You have to be versatile, you have to mix it up and keep them off balance.”

At age 31, RB Curtis Martin has shown no signs of slowing down and leads the NFL with 1,305 yards. Martin is six yards away from tying Steelers RB Bettis for fifth on the NFL All-Time Career Rushing list and 26 yards away from 13,000 career rushing yards. It will be a homecoming for Martin who grew up in Pittsburgh and attended the University of Pittsburgh. Martin said his mom and about 40 friends will attend the game. Martin talked about the team’s confidence level.

“It is high,” Martin said. “I think it is as high as it has been this year. I think we are pretty confident. I think we have seen what we can do. We don’t have anyone doubting anything and we have been able to win some tough games in tough situations. We feel pretty confident about what we are capable of.”

RB Lamont Jordan has done a nice job as well. He has 356 yards on 66 carries this year.

The Jets offensive line have been unsung heroes all season long, protecting Pennington and blocking for Martin.

The Jets offense will have their work cut out for them against the Steelers number one ranked defense. The Steelers allow 253.8 yards a game and only 77.4 yards a game on the ground. Pennington talked about how Pittsburgh is so good against the run.

“The defensive lineman do a good job of playing a two-gap technique which means they are really not penetrators, they don’t allow for creases to happen because they don’t penetrate up field,” Pennington said. “They do a good job of not letting the offensive line get movement. Secondly, I their safeties do a good job of run forcing and creating the eighth element to where you can’t block them and they have an extra guy more than you have to block.”

The Steelers defense has done a nice job getting to the opposing quarterback as they are number one with 38 sacks. 14 of those sacks have come from the linebackers led by James Farrior. Farrior was the Jets first round pick in 1997 and played from 97-2001 with the Jets. Farrior leads the Steelers defense with 93 tackles this year. Jets head coach Herman Edwards talked about why Farrior is such a good player.

“He can play in space, he can play pass coverage, he can blitz, he can cover in man-to-man,” the HC said. “I mean, he can do it all. He's a complete linebacker.”

Coming into the season, no one was sure how the Jets defense would perform. They were returning just four starters and had a new defensive coordinator in Donnie Henderson. They have exceeded all expectations and emerged as one of the premier defenses in the NFL. They have only surrendered 14.6 points per game, tops in the NFL.

They will look to shut down Steelers rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger, who is 10-0 as a starter. Roethlisberger was the 11th overall pick in the 2004 draft and this season has passed for 1,940 yards, 14 touchdowns, and six interceptions. The former University of Miami Ohio star has been named NFL Rookie of the Week seven times this year.

Cowher has been pleased with Roethlisberger’s performance.

“He was a very was a very mature kid coming in and that has allowed him to step in to where he has stepped in the second week,” Cowher said. “He has shown a lot of poise and I think that he has grown with every game, in the experience factor, but he hasn’t changed. I think the most impressive thing is that he’s been a very grounded guy who is a great competitor and has worked very hard week in and week out.”

“The best thing about Ben is that as a young quarterback, he is not trying to force things,” Pennington said. “He has just inserted himself to be a piece of the puzzle and realized that he relies on his teammates and they rely on him to get the job done.”

Edwards has also been impressed with Roethlisberger.

“He has great composure,” Edwards said. “He's very, very smart. He's not going to do a lot of bad things with the football. A good runner, strong. He's a complete player.”

The Steelers running game leads the AFC. Duce Staley returned last week after missing a month with a hamstring injury. Staley has carried the ball 168 times for 758 yards and a TD. Bettis has performed well this season, rushing for 627 yards and 11 touchdowns. Bettis is 20 yards away from 13,000 career yards. The Jets have allowed just 99.8 yards a game on the ground.

Roethlisberger appreciates having a good running game and a good offensive line. “It’s great,” Roethlisberger said. “I don’t have to do too much. I don’t have to be a superstar on this team. I can just try and steer the ship, I don’t have to drive the ship. I think one of the things that really helps, our running game complements our passing game and vice versa. I think our line – you can’t say enough about how much and what a great job they’ve done this year.”

WR Hines Ward (64 receptions, 800 yards) has been Roethlisberger’s favorite target. Jets CB David Barrett has performed well lately and will probably be assigned to cover Ward. Barrett has two interceptions in the last two weeks.

“You throw the ball anywhere in their area and they’re going to make plays,” Roethlisberger said about the receivers. “That’s why they’re veteran leaders and that’s why this team has been successful, because we’ve got great veteran leadership and the ability to do things like that.”

The Jets get a break as WR Plaxico Burress is out with a hamstring injury.

A key match-up will be the Steelers offensive line against the Jets defensive line. The Steelers have a big o-line and will look to prevent the Jets from getting to Roethlisberger, who has been sacked 25 times this year. The Jets d-line will be without DE John Abraham who is out with a knee injury. Abraham hurt his lateral collateral ligament in the second quarter of the win over Houston.

Jets DT Jason Ferguson said the Jets are ready to step up to the challenge this week.

“We have played good against one elite team in the league but we definitely have to get up there and make some plays against this team,” Ferguson said.

The loss of Abraham means that Bryan Thomas will start and Trevor Johnson should see time as well. Thomas, the Jets first-round pick in 2002, talked about the biggest difference between this year from the last two years.

“That I see the game better,” Thomas said. “I know what is going on. At first, I was out there and I was trying to do what I did in college and just go out there and not watch film and not study a player and not know certain formations of theirs. Now I grasp that and have gotten a lot better.”

Edwards is confidence in Thomas and Johnson.

“This year I think Bryan’s having his best season,” Edwards said. “He's grown up. He's matured more. He's doing the extra things you have to do to be a good player in this league. He's been a solid player for us. Trevor has a great motor. He's smart. He's good in coverage. He can drop in coverage. He can play both sides. We anticipate when he goes in the game, he's going to be okay. He's going to play good.”

While Roethlisberger and the Steelers have gotten national coverage, the Jets have been flying under the radar. Jets C Kevin Mawae talked about reason why.

“We don’t have a quarterback throwing for 50-something touchdowns this season,” Mawae said. “We didn’t come from a 0-4 start. We are just out there doing it the way we always do. We go out there and play consistent, we play hard, we try not to make any penalties and we don’t turn the ball over. That is the way we do it and that is the way we are going to continue to do it.”

Pennington gave his keys to beating Pittsburgh.

“I think it is important you don’t let Pittsburgh get a big lead on you,” Pennington said. “The way they beat the Eagles and the way they beat the Patriots, they were able to jump out to big leads. The crowd got involved and they forced both teams to have to pass to try to get back into it and that played right into their hand. You want to play it tight, you want to play it close to have a chance.”

MISCELLANEOUS TIDBITS:

-The Jets are 0-5 all-time at Pittsburgh but only one of those losses has come under Edwards.

-While it is not likely to happen, the Jets can clinch a playoff spot this weekend. They have to beat Pittsburgh combined with a Buffalo loss or tie to Cleveland, a Denver loss to Miami, and a San Diego win or tie over Tampa Bay OR a win over Pittsburgh combined with a Buffalo loss or tie against Cleveland, a Denver loss to Miami and a Baltimore win or tie against the Giants.

-The 9-3 record is the best start the Jets have gotten off to since they began the season 10-2 in 1986.

-The Jets are second in the NFL with a +16 in the takeaway/giveaway category.

INJURY REPORT:The Jets are relatively healthy as they head into the match-up with Pittsburgh. LB Victor Hobson was upgraded to probable and is close to coming back.

-DE John Abraham (knee):Out
-LB Victor Hobson (ankle):Probable
-LB Jason Glenn (forearm):Probable
-WR Jerricho Cotchery (hamstring):Probable

Game time is at 4:05 p.m. Sunday. Local TV is CBS Channel 2 and local Radio is on 1050 ESPN Radio and 770 WABC Radio. Check back often to Jets Insider.com for all the latest Jets/Steelers news and reports.

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