Playoff breakdown: Jets-Steelers
Troy Polamalu, who missed the Week 15 matchup, will play big role for Steelers
Jets had perfect game plan against Pats, but can't play same way vs. Steelers
Either Ben Roethlisberger or Mark Sanchez will add to his playoff lore Sunday
Breaking down the AFC Championship, Jets at Steelers, Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, CBS
1. The presence of one player -- Troy Polamalu -- could make all the difference Sunday. For much of his career, Polamalu has been linked with Baltimore's Ed Reed and Indy's Bob Sanders as the three best safeties in the National Football League.
Reed's smarts, athleticism and knack for the big interception make him a nightmare in the secondary. The undersized Sanders is a fearless thumper against the run (often to his own physical detriment). But Polamalu may have a slight edge on both. He defends both the run and the pass with aplomb and has an innate sense of where the football will end up.
Whether he is hugging the line of scrimmage or barreling in from 30 yards away, Polamalu eventually ends up among the pile of bodies and, often, in the middle of it. "I honestly think Troy Polamalu is probably the greatest player I've ever played with or ever seen play in person," said Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes, a former Steeler. "The thing he did in my four years of being there was disrupt [an offense]. He's jumping over the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball. He's tackling running backs in the backfield. He's jumping up, intercepting balls one-handed, returning [them] for touchdowns. Keeping the ball away from him and not turning it over can definitely keep him from disrupting our team."
Polamalu missed the Jets' 22-17 win in Week 15, when the Jets rushed for 106 yards, played great defense and saw quarterback Mark Sanchez make enough big throws to key the victory. In Sunday's rematch, though, with Polamalu creeping toward the line of scrimmage, LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene may not see the holes they saw in the regular season. Moreover, Mark Sanchez, who has now tallied four road playoff victories, will have to account for Polamalu's whereabouts on every down. Sanchez's confidence is at an all-time high, but he has to guard against trying to make throws that aren't there. If he doesn't, he may find Polamalu on the end of some of his passes.
2. The Jets defense was masterful against Tom Brady and the Patriots offense, but the same formula could be tough to execute against Pittsburgh. Rex Ryan's game plan against Brady had the all-but-certain MVP flustered and frustrated in the pocket. Brady's fifth pass was intercepted. On his very next attempt, he was sacked. While the Jets will be able to get pressure against the Steelers offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger's size and ability to keep plays alive will make it more difficult.
In a game expected to be close throughout, the last thing the Jets can afford is Roethlisberger shaking free of defenders and hitting Mike Wallace for a 50-yard gain. (Both Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders caught seven passes apiece in Week 15 and combined for 180 yards receiving). The Jets will have to get more than a hand on Roethlisberger. They will have to make sure they put him on the ground.
Against New England, Ryan was able to disguise his coverages at times by rotating bodies in and out of the secondary and being unafraid of using extra defensive backs, even on non-passing downs. With Brady carrying New England's offensive load (and the Patriots lack of a consistent running game) the Jets could afford to dial up so many different pass coverages. Pittsburgh, though, will more readily stick to the run than New England did, and if Rashard Mendenhall is facing a lot of nickel and dime defenses, he could break free if he reaches the second and third levels of the Jets defense.
Mendenhall rushed for 99 yards on 17 carries in the Week 15 matchup. He also scored a touchdown. How the Jets defense decides to attack Roethlisberger and Mendenhall could be the story of the game.
3. Dustin Keller must emerge as a viable option for Sanchez. The Jets tight end started the season on a remarkable roll. He caught five touchdown passes in his first four contests as the Jets rolled to a 3-1 record to start the season. Though Holmes's return to the lineup following a four-game suspension to start the season cost Keller some targets, he is going to be an important option for Sanchez against Pittsburgh, especially if Polamalu is creeping up to stop the run.
In his third season, Keller caught a career-high 55 passes and averaged a career-best 12.5 yards a grab while doing so. (He had three catches apiece in playoff wins over Indianapolis and New England). Just as Pittsburgh's Heath Miller loosens up the middle of an opposing defense, Keller serves that role for the Jets. And with the Steelers forced to contend with the speed and big-play capability of Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery, Keller could end up being the Jets' X-factor on offense.
Roethlisberger and Sanchez have already built postseason résumés to envy. Roethlisberger is 9-2 as a starter in the playoffs and became the youngest quarterback in history to win a Super Bowl (Super Bowl XL, at 23). Sanchez has compiled a 4-1 record in the postseason, with a record-tying four wins on the road, including his recent back-to-back wins over Indy's Peyton Manning and New England's Tom Brady.
What Roethlisberger and Sanchez share is an ability to shed trouble in the pocket and keep a play alive. Sanchez has done it for most of the year, Roethlisberger for most of his career. (Receivers on both teams know to keep trying to get open, even when it appears that a play has broken down). In what is expected to be a frenetic, physical contest, the quarterback who best stands up to pressure in the pocket and makes the fewest mistakes will be the quarterback who carries his team to the Super Bowl -- and adds to already sturdy playoff legacy.
The Jets have been on a remarkable run, but the return of Polamalu and Miller will be just enough to send Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl. Steelers 20, Jets 17
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