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December 10, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Jets' Toughest Test Waits in Pittsburgh

BY SEAN LAHMAN
December 10, 2004

All season long, critics of the New York Jets have pointed to their weak schedule as a means to question the legitimacy of Gang Green's postseason ambitions. And the critics have a point. Only two of the teams the Jets have faced so far have a winning record: The Jets beat the Chargers (9-3) by six points in September and lost to the Patriots (11-1) by six in October.

The Jets have an opportunity to bolster their credentials over the last four weeks of the season; each of their opponents are likely headed to the playoffs. The biggest challenge will come on Sunday in Pittsburgh against the Steelers, arguably the best team in the NFL.

In many ways, the Steelers and Jets are very similar. Each team has an outstanding running attack and a solid defense that plays well in every phase of the game. The Steelers rank second in rushing yards; the Jets rank third. Pittsburgh ranks first in total defense, the Jets are seventh. The teams rank second and fourth, respectively, in turnover differential (Jets, +15; Steelers, +12).

Yet the styles of play are very different, and that's where things start to look troubling for the Jets. In Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense, the linebackers are the big playmakers while the defensive linemen are called upon to plug the lanes and occupy opposing blockers. When they want to put pressure on the quarterback, the Steelers do it by blitzing. Twenty-one of their 36 sacks have come from the linebackers - Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, James Farrior, and Larry Foote. Another five have come from defensive backs. Because the pass rush can come from a variety of players and directions, there's going to be tremendous pressure on the Jets' backs and tight ends to help pick up the blitz and give Chad Pennington time to throw the ball.

The Jets, by contrast, have relied almost exclusively on their front four to pressure the quarterback - New York's defensive linemen have registered 23.5 of the team's 27 sacks. While that approach has generally worked well, they'll be playing without their best rusher on Sunday. Defensive end John Abraham, who leads the team with 9.5 sacks, will be sidelined with a sprained knee.

Getting pressure on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is going to be critical for the Jets. The rookie sensation plays with a talented receiving crew capable of making big plays if he has time to throw. Hines Ward is a three-time Pro Bowler, and Plaxico Burress is one of the league's most dangerous deep threats, averaging 18.8 yards per catch.

While the Steelers don't throw the ball often, Roethlisberger has been deadly when he's had time in the pocket. If the Jets are able to pressure him with any kind of consistency, it could effectively shut down that element of Pittsburgh's game.

Another major reason for the Steelers' success this year has been their renewed focus on the running game. Last year, the offense got pass-happy with Tommy Maddux and quickly ground to a halt. When the Jets and the Steelers met last year, the Jets were able to silence the Steeler offense for a 6-0 win. This time around, look for the Steelers to rely heavily on the powerful backfield tandem of Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis. Staley is averaging 4.5 yards per carry and returned last week after missing four games with a hamstring injury. Bettis, who began the season as a goal-line specialist, rushed for at least 100 yards in each game that Staley sat out.

There's no mystery to the Steelers' running game. They don't try to trick opponents; they just pound it up the middle. Staley and Bettis are both great inside rushers, and Pittsburgh's offensive line has some tough, physical run-blockers.

To contain them, the Jets will need a solid afternoon from defensive tackles Dewayne Robertson and Jason Ferguson. After struggling as a rookie, Robertson reported to camp this year 15 pounds lighter and has consequently seen great improvement in plugging gaps at the line of scrimmage.

Ferguson, a veteran run-stuffer, often forces opponents to double-team him. Both will have their work cut out for them on Sunday. Rookie linebacker Jonathon Vilma and weak side linebacker Eric Barton will also be instrumental in trying to stop Staley and Bettis from getting tough yards in short-yardage situations. The big hitters in the secondary, particularly cornerback David Barrett and safety Reggie Tongue, should also lend a helping hand.

Pittsburgh has always been a tough place to play. The Jets have never won there and have an all-time record of 2-14 against the Steelers. On paper, it's not hard to argue that the Jets have just as much talent as the Steelers. But Gang Green has sometimes struggled to execute, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Against weaker teams like the Dolphins, 49ers, Browns, and Cardinals, they've played just well enough to win. The Steelers, by contrast, have faced off with the best teams in the league and emerged victorious, handing the Patriots and the Eagles their only losses of the season.

For the Jets to win, they need to contain Pittsburgh's blitz and give Chad Pennington an opportunity to get the short passing game going. That would open things up for Curtis Martin and the running game, and give the Jets a chance to control the clock. Meanwhile, the defense must keep the Steelers from doing the same thing when they have the ball.

Herm Edwards and the Jets coaching staff have done a good job of convincing their players that they can compete with the best teams in the league. Now's the time to prove it.

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