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Jets-Steelers pregame stretch...

December 17, 2010 - Ray Eckenrode

Blogger's note: We're entirely too busy to write a rambling, 1,500-word preview of this week's game with a Sinead O'Connor reference in it ... so this is only 1,300 words.

At a glance

Broadcasters: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms.

Annoyance factor: After the parade of drek we’ve had in the past month, this will be like heaven. Listen to Nantz identify the players by their correct names and accurately describe what happens on the field. Listen to Simms provide insightful analysis that shows he’s paid attention to the previous 14 weeks of the season. Ahhhhhhh. Don’t get used to it, though. On Thursday night, we’ll have to deal with the one word that strikes fear into the hearts of football fans everywhere; Theismann.

Refereee: Pete Morelli

Competence factor: Morelli, of course, infamously overturned Troy Polamalu’s game-sealing pick in the Steelers 2006 playoff game at Indianapolis. Challenges could be crucial in this game as Morelli has a reputation as a guy who stays under the hood until he sees something that’s not there.

Smarts say: The Steelers opened as a 6-point favorite and that line has stayed put. The over/under on the game is a paltry 36 so Vegas is hoping for something like 21-15 (five field goals?) Steelers. You can see what the Vegas insiders think when the Las Vegas Hilton’s Supercontest picks are posted here sometime Saturday afternoon:

A run defense of mythic proportions?

It’s impossible to run against the Steelers, right? Everyone knows it.

But is this NFL truth becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as teams now barely even try to run against Pittsburgh? It’s starting to look that way.

Last week, the Bengals, one of the best running teams in the NFL last year, attempted exactly 12 rushes (excluding QB rushes) in a game that was close into the early fourth quarter.

The week before, the Ravens attempted 17 rushes in a game they LEAD until late in the fourth quarter.

Before that, the Bills attempted only 17 rushes, as well, in a game where Fred Jackson was averaging more than five yards a carry!

So … which came first? The Steelers stopping the run or opponents stopping running against the Steelers?

It’s a theory that should get another test this week when the New York Jets and their shaky young quarterback, Mark Sanchez, arrive at Heinz Field on a chilly December evening.

Here’s what the Jets should do: Run Ladanian Tomlinson left, run Shonn Greene right, throw some checkdowns and be happy to punt when and if it doesn’t work. Knowing how the Steelers offense is playing and the kind of game Bruce Arians will call, that should get the Jets into the fourth quarter in a three-point game either way (10-7 Steelers, 13-10 Jets, something like that).

Suffering sack attack

In the last five games, Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked roughly four times per game (19 total) prompting many in the national media to realize what we've known here all along: Pittsburgh's offensive line is terrible.

That being said, it's unfair to put all the blame for the recent sack epidemic on the OL. (Dis)credit them for about two of those sacks per game and assign one to Roethlisberger and one to Offensive Uncoordinator Bruce Arians.

The line issues are well documented and we won't rehash too much. When you've got backups playing on a regular basis they're weaknesses become amplified each week as opponents get more and more tape on them and find more and more holes in their games. If you're expecting the Steelers line to get better as the playoffs near, our advice would be not to bother.

The situation with #7 taking too many sacks is a bit touchier. Everyone knows that he often makes game-changing plays by holding the ball and dancing in the pocket. The opposing argument, one we've made here many times, is that we don't want Roethlisberger to stop doing that, but rather, to pick his spots. But how do you know if a broken play is going to become a touchdown until it does? It's easy to say he needs to get rid of the ball in rhythm at least 10 times a game but what if one of those 10 plays was going to be a broken-play touchdown? All of this begs a much larger question: If Roethlisberger must take these risks to be his best, does he have a much shorter potential career than other franchise quarterbacks as the toll of taking these risks piles up on him?

Which brings us to our least favorite subject: Bruce Arians and his continued cluelessness. Arians shortcomings here are particularly infuriating because he KNOWS he's got a patchwork offensive line that isn't going to get any better and he KNOWS he's got a quarterback who holds the ball an extremely long time yet he CONTINUES to put both of them in down-and-distance situations where the defense can comfortably expect a pass and comfortably execute their pressure schemes. Until Arians gets his first-down playcalling right, and the Steelers are looking at 2nd-and-5 and 3rd-and-1 regularly instead of 2nd-and-8 and 3rd-and-5, the sacks are going to keep coming at a pace of four per game.

There is no other Troy…

As we were wrapping up this pregame blog, the news broke that Troy Polamalu was unlikely to play this week. That should come as no surprise to you if you read our Sunday game wrapup.

It should also come as no surprise to you when we tell you he probably won’t play again until the playoffs. Even though the Steelers have tried to dance around it by calling it an ankle or calf injury, Polamalu has a strained Achilles tendon. That’s an injury that takes 4-6 months to heal completely. If you keep playing on a strained Achille tendon it’s possible it will tear or rupture. That possibility will still exist when Polamalu returns for the Steelers first playoff game, but the risk-reward equation there is more in line with taking that chance.

The Polamalu injury impact will be mostly psychological this week as news broke late enough that it’ll be very hard to the Jets to make much adjustment to their gameplan (which is why teams don’t want to reveal these things until they’re mandated to do so). But you can bet Carolina and Cleveland coaches will be poring over film from last year to see how team’s exploited Polamalu’s absence.

While it will certainly hurt to be without Polamalu, the quarterbacking parade of Sanchez, Clausen and McCoy (if he stays healthy til then) is not exactly murderer’s row.

One final point: With #43 out of the lineup, Dick LeBeau will turn to Lawrence Timmons when he’s looking for a splash play blitz. Steelers fans are aware of the kind of player Timmons can be but it would be nice if the nation found that out early Sunday evening.

The pick

The Steelers are banged up. The Jets are banged up. The Steelers are trying to nail down the #2 seed. The Jets are trying to reverse a free fall. The Steelers coach is quietly intense. The Jets coach is verbosely intense. This one has all the makings of another nailbiter classic that could turn on a Santonio Holmes punt return or a James Harrison strip sack. Mark Sanchez worked on his footwork all week with Mark Brunell but it looks to us like Sanchez’s footwork would be just fine – if he were planting his feet in a warmer climate. Dude looks uncomfortable playing football in cold weather and wait until he gets a load of that wind whipping off the rivers Sunday night. If Pittsburgh can avoid turnovers, we like them to take this one at the wire … Steelers (-6) 24, J-E-T-S 17.

Prediction record

Last week: Steelers (-9) to win, but Bengals to cover; CORRECT, INCORRECT

Season straight up: 7-6, .538 (Baseball Hall of Fame, first place in the NFC West!)

Season vs. spread: 3-10, .231 (This is why we don’t really bet.)

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