January 14, 2005 Edition > Section: Sports
Four Simple Ways To Beat the Steelers
BY SEAN LAHMAN
When the Jets and Steelers last met in Week 14, New York led in total yards, first-down conversions, and time of possession. But Gang Green turned the ball over three times and committed 12 penalties in the first half, squandering an opportunity to win. Fortunately for the Jets, that 17-6 loss in Pittsburgh gives them a clear plan for what they need to do to beat their 15-1 opponents. Here are four keys to the Jets' game plan.
1 SCORE THREE TOUCHDOWNS This doesn't sound like a tall order, but the Jets scored 17 points or less in nine of their games this season, and had a record of 4-5 in those contests. When they score more than 17 points, the team is 7-1, including last week's playoff victory.
When the Jets have been at their best, they have taken an early lead and turned to their running game to control the clock and keep opponents from closing the deficit. When they have struggled, it has been because of stalled drives that produced yards but not touchdowns. Field goals won't be enough to win this game.
Against good teams, the Jets' play-calling tends to be conservative, but long drives just create more opportunities to commit penalties or find some other way to self-destruct. Gang Green needs fewer 12-play drives that end in field goals and more six-play drives that end with a touchdown dance. They must attack the Steelers' defense if they are going to win.
2 SPREAD THE FIELD Here's one strategy that's guaranteed to lose the game: Pound the ball into the middle of the line all day long. The Steelers have an outstanding run defense, with a three-man front that plugs the gaps and a group .It's a defense designed to stop the power running game, a necessity for an AFC North team.
In order to run the ball against the Steelers, the Jets will have to spread their defenders by running formations with three wide receivers, throwing the ball outside the numbers and down the sidelines. If the Jets allow the Steelers' defenders to con gregate between the hashmarks, they'll go nowhere.
Pittsburgh has a decent secondary, but their cornerbacks are vulnerable. Veteran Willie Williams is 34, and at 5-foot-9 will struggle to contain a big receiver like Justin McCareins. Cornerback DeShea Townsend is playing with a broken hand and Chad Scott has a knee injury. Whichever one of those two is the healthiest will start alongside Williams.
Because the Steelers like to blitz so often, those corners will be playing a lot of man-to-man coverage against the Jets. An accurate quarterback like Chad Pennington is ideally suited to exploit those matchups with quick slants and out patterns. McCareins will be hard to stop underneath, and Santana Moss should be able to get open down the field for some big plays. Pennington must make quick reads and throw the ball on target to take advantage of those opportunities.
3 RATTLE BIG BEN In their last matchup, the Jets sacked Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger twice, intercepted two of his passes, and held him to just 9 completions on 19 pass attempts. His 33.6 passer rating in that game marked the only time all season he was below 60 for a game.
The running game is always going to be Pittsburgh's chief focus, but the Jets disrupted Roethlisberger when he did try to throw by putting good pressure on him. The sacks and interceptions were the result of an aggressive pass rush from the Jets' front four. Shaun Ellis had one of his best games of the season against the Steelers, repeatedly burning tackle Oliver Ross and guard Keydrick Vincent with stunts.
Defensive end John Abraham is expected to miss this game, but he didn't play the first game against the Steelers, either. There's no reason to believe the Jets won't be able to disrupt Roethlisberger again. For all the hype about his going undefeated in 13 starts, Big Ben is still a rookie appearing in his first playoff game. He's also bothered by sore ribs that have hampered him over the last few weeks of the season.
4 DON'T RUN OUT OF GAS IN THE SECOND HALF That's what happened the last time these two teams met. Through the first three quarters, the Jets' defense had held Duce Staley to 51 yards rushing on 16 carries - an anemic 3.2 yard average with nothing longer than 10 yards. Jerome Bettis had four carries for 10 yards. That's as good a defensive performance as any team has thrown at the Steelers, and through three quarters the Jets had kept Pittsburgh out of the end zone.
By the fourth quarter, the Jets' defense was winded, and that's when the Steelers reminded everyone why Bettis is nicknamed "the Bus." It's hard enough to contain Bettis under normal circumstances, but it's impossible with fatigued defenders. He steamrolled the Jets for 46 yards on seven carries in that fourth quarter, setting up the go-ahead touchdown with one 12-yard run and putting the game out of reach by scoring on another.
In order to win this game, the Jets need to be able to stop Bettis in the fourth quarter. There are two ways to do that. One way is to keep the linemen fresh by rotating them earlier in the game, but a lack of depth makes it hard to do that and still contain the run early in the game.
The better option is for the Jets to keep their defense off the field by having some long offensive drives of their own. Four of their 10 possessions in the last game ended after three plays or less, and twice in the second half the Jets' offense took less than 90 seconds off the clock before giving the ball back to the Steelers. They simply can't do that again.
So there it is, the recipe for beating a very tough Steelers team on Saturday. If the Jets can do these four things, there's no reason why they can't advance to the AFC Championship game.
If they run the ball up the middle, kick field goals, let Roethlisberger make some big plays, and let Bettis run over them in the fourth quarter, they don't have a chance.