Fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers are 2 days away from either believing that all is again right with the world or that the 2012 season is hurtling toward an abyss. The answer, of course, will come when the J-E-T-S’es come to Heinz Field on Sunday fresh off their 48-point performance against the Buffalo Bills in Week One. The Steelers, of course, come in licking their wounds after a 31-19 loss in Denver to the Mannings, capped off by a terrible pick-six thrown by Ben Roethlisberger to Tracy Porter.
Both the Jets and Steelers have significant players out or in question due to injury. LB James Harrison won’t play for the second straight week with a knee problem, and S Troy Polamalu is questionable with a calf injury he suffered against the Broncos. On the other side, CB Darrelle Revis is questionable – at best – with linger symptoms from a concussion he sustained agains the Bills, and S LaRon Landry and TE Dustin Keller are iffy with lingering hamstring and foot issues, respectively.
What to look for on Sunday in Pittsburgh:
1. Will the offense get untracked? Although the Steelers were able string together some lengthy drives on Sunday night, controlling the ball for more than 35 minutes, the offense looked disjointed and out-of-sync. The play calling was run-heavy early and pass-heavy late, with little effective mixing of the two. Roethlisberger made some nice plays, but also had the aforementioned pick-six, missed a wide open Heath Miller in the end zone for a TD, and was seldom able to connect down the field with Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown. The running game was good and bad – good when Jonathan Dwyer was in and bad when Isaac Redman was in. I fully expect Dwyer to continue to take over as the #1 back until Rashard Mendenhall returns. The Jets’ defense isn’t what it was during their back-to-back AFC Championship runs, and it would be ordinary at best if Revis doesn’t play, thus getting untracked early on Sunday will be a key.
2. Is the defense too old and slow? Is this 2011? You’ll likely recall that after the Week 1 debacle in Baltimore in 2011, many wrote off the Steelers’ defense as too old, too slow, and in decline. Well, the Steelers finished 2011 at 12-4 and ranked #1 in the NFL in defense, although it was less dominant than it had been in prior years, particularly against the run. The same criticisms are being levied this year after Manning picked the defense apart during the second half of Sunday’s game, with the Steelers generating little pass rush and having difficulty stopping the run at key times. The absence of Harrison continues to be a problem, as neither Jason Worilds nor Chris Carter generated consistent pressure on Manning. The Jets’ much-maligned offensive line held the Bills without a sack last week, shutting down Mario Williams completely. The Jets figure to try to pound the ball on Sunday with Shonn Green, but the defense will need to generate more pressure on Sanchez than it did on Manning to be effective, especially if Polamalu misses the game.
3. Does Todd Haley make you miss Bruce Arians? There were few bigger critics of Arians and proponent of Haley than me, but Haley didn’t get off to a strong start on Sunday. The game plan early was run-run-pass to a fault, then the running game disappeared near the goal line when 3 straight pass plays were called on 1st and goal inside the 5. The second half was the opposite, with a pass-heavy mix that allowed Denver’s pass rushers, Dumerville and Miller in particular, to largely ignore the run and pin their ears back and rush Roethlisberger. There’s no doubt Haley has a good offensive mind. Hopefully he demonstrates it on Sunday more than he did last week.
4. Are the Jets really this good? Sunday’s score looks nasty enough, but the Jets showed they have some issues despite their rout of the Bills. The defense allowed Buffalo to run for 195 yards despite the Bills losing Fred Jackson early in the game. The game got out of hand early due to several Ryan Fitzpatrick interceptions and a punt return for a TD, but Buffalo largely outplayed the Jets from late in the first quarter onward. Mark Sanchez was very good against the Bills’ defense, but he was barely touched and played with a massive lead from the first quarter onward. The Jets are still very likely to be an 8-8/7-9 type of team, and they are one that the Steelers should be able to handle at home. If not, the season could get ugly.
5. Prediction: With 4 of their first 6 games on the road, the Steelers need to take care of business during their rare Heinz Field outings early. Dick LeBeau tends to dial the defense back when Polamalu sits, something that good NFL QB’s can exploit. Mark Sanchez, however, is not a good NFL QB and has been pretty meh in his prior outings against the Steelers. The Steelers are the desperate team on Sunday, and while it won’t be easy, they’ll find a way to get it done. Steelers 23-16.