When the Jets and Steelers met in Week 15, the Jets were coming off consecutive defeats to the Patriots and Dolphins and were all but out of the AFC East title race. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, had won four consecutive games and had recently seized control of its destiny in the AFC North with a thrilling comeback win at rival Baltimore two weeks earlier.
While the Steelers had the better form entering the game, it was the Jets who emerged from their meeting with a 22-17 victory. The win earned the Jets a playoff spot, and they have made the most of that opportunity, with road wins over the Colts and Patriots paving the way for an appearance in the AFC championship game Sunday at Pittsburgh.
The Steelers, who have not lost since falling to New York, overcame a 14-point deficit to beat Baltimore 31-24 in the divisional round on Saturday. Now, as the rematch with the Jets looms, it's time to take a closer look at some of the ways the Steelers struggled in the regular-season meeting with Rex Ryan's club.
The PFW Spin
How did the Jets emerge with a win in one of the NFL's most difficult places to win? Let's count the ways — and outline how the Steelers can counter in the rematch:
• A 97-yard TD on a kickoff return from Brad Smith staked the Jets to a 7-0 lead 12 seconds into the game. Facing a stout defense like Pittsburgh's, any points generated through big plays on defense or special teams are a blessing, and Smith's return gave the Jets a major boost right off the bat. Smith (groin) missed the Jets' 28-21 win at New England Sunday, but Antonio Cromartie is a very capable replacement — decisive and fast. Whether it's Smith or Cromartie returning kickoffs, the Steelers must be sound in coverage. Staying on the topic of special teams …
• The Jets' punting, punt coverage and punt returns were major edges for New York. P Steve Weatherford had three punts downed inside the 10-yard line, a credit to him and the Jets' coverage teams. Jets PR Jerricho Cotchery had returns of 19 and 13 yards. The former set up a field goal; the latter didn't result in points but helped the Jets flip field position, and Weatherford and the Jets' coverage teams responded by pinning Pittsburgh on its four-yard line.
The Steelers were fortunate to have a penalty nullify a Lardarius Webb punt-return TD early in the divisional playoff game with the Ravens and are under pressure to improve — P Jeremy Kapinos and his coverage teams included — in the second meeting with the Jets. This is no small matter in a game pitting two strong defenses.
• The Jets were able to find ways to keep the chains moving against the Steelers' defense in the second half. New York converted 5-of-9 third downs in the final 30 minutes of regulation after coming through on just 1-of-4 third-down attempts in the first half. The Jets were also able to pick up four yards on a 3rd-and-5 from the Pittsburgh 11 in the third quarter, which gave them just a yard to convert on fourth down. And they did that and more, with Jets QB Mark Sanchez scoring on a play-fake run from seven yards out.
Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer called a prudent-yet-creative game vs. Pittsburgh, sticking with the run — the Jets' 106 rushing yards were a season-high vs. the Steelers, and their 27 carries equalled a season-high against Pittsburgh — but finding ways to surprise the Steelers via the ground game. Of note: Two of the Jets' third-down conversions were rushes on plays where the Jets had to gain four yards or more, including an 10-yard run off left end from RB LaDainian Tomlinson on a direct snap on 3rd-and-6. Those were the the only two first downs the Steelers surrendered on running plays in situations of 3rd-and-3 or longer in the regular season. Overall, teams rushed just seven times on third downs of between 3-10 yards in the regular season vs. the Steelers.
Teams often abandon the run against the Steelers. The Jets didn't, and they were willing to run even when it seemed very likely they would not. This worked in their favor. The Steelers will certainly have to keep this in mind as they put together their game plan.
One last note: the Steelers actually moved the ball very well against the Jets in the first meeting, racking up 378 yards (232 yards passing, 146 yards rushing) and converting 11-of-17 third downs. And this was without TE Heath Miller, who missed the game with a concussion, and with the Jets doing a very good job taking Hines Ward (three targets, two catches) away. However, the Steelers did surrender a safety in the fourth quarter, which took a game-tying field goal out of play on the game's final drive, which ended at the Jets' 10-yard-line after an incomplete pass in the endzone. In addition, Steelers SS Troy Polamalu missed the game with an Achilles injury.
With Polamalu and Miller back in the lineup, the Steelers will be a little stronger than they were in the first meeting. However, the Jets' effectiveness on offense and special teams in the December matchup certainly will give Pittsburgh something to think about this week.