I'm eagerly awaiting Sunday afternoon when the Pittsburgh Steelers host the New York Jets at Heinz. The Jets are in desperation mode. That scares me a bit. Quite a bit in fact. We've seen desperation mode from teams before this season - the New Orleans Saints namely. And they played amazingly fast and hard against the Steelers. Of course, that was in the loud, rowdy Superdome. Sunday's game will be at home. Early Sunday evening crowds at Heinz in December are always raucous. That makes me feel a bit better. When I really think about how the game will likely play out, I keep returning to the same thought: how is Mark Sanchez going to beat the Steelers defense under these circumstances? The Jets have more than enough playmakers to shock the Steelers defense, and Sanchez has shown that he can play a mistake-free yet attacking brand of quarterback. But he hasn't in recent weeks, and he'll have one heck of a test against the Steelers and their unique style of play.
To some of my other thoughts on this week..I'm eager to hear yours as well.
* Prior to the Steelers Week 13 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, I wrote that I felt it would be important for the Steelers trio of young wide receivers (Wallace, Sanders, A. Brown) to make something happen after the catch. It wasn't clear at that time if Brown would even play, but turns out he has earned himself a hat the past two weeks, and likely for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs. Against the Ravens, Wallace in particular was good picking up big yardage after the catch. Two weeks in a row now, Wallace has caught one of those quick fire throws from Ben Roethlisberger, made the first guy miss, then scampered speedily for big gains. Keep an eye of if Wallace gets another play or two like that called for him. Also, all eyes remain on Sanders and Brown. The Jets' secondary is skilled and they're not afraid of playing one-on-one coverage on the outside. That could free up some nice opportunities for Sanders or Brown at some point. Something tells me one of the two makes a huge play this week.
* One of the more interesting sub-plots of the game in my mind is how Dick LeBeau will scheme against Mark Sanchez. Will he force Sanchez to be patient and accurate and dink-and-dunk his way down the field? Or will LeBeau bring his corners up closer to the line of scrimmage and force Sanchez to beat them deep? Obviously it's not a one-or-the-other proposition; he can and will mix-and-match. But from a big picture standpoint, what kind of looks will LeBeau give the struggling second-year quarterback? On a somewhat related note, I hope that Bryant McFadden gets put on Braylon Edwards rather than Santonio Holmes. With a still hurting hamstring, McFadden would have his hands full with Holmes, who you know is going to be in Sanchez's ear all week and all game about getting him the ball. I think I'd just as well see Ike Taylor on Santonio, with Polamalu shading his way. And finally, don't forget about Jericcho Cotchery, a very effective third receiving option that's had his struggles this year but is still wholly capable of hurting a defense if he's neglected. That will probably be who you see William Gay assigned to on a number of snaps. Here's to hoping Willie G. has one of his better games this coming Sunday.
* If the Jets can't run the ball or force Ben Roethlisberger into multiple turnovers, I can't really see the Jets winning this game. I don't think Mark Sanchez is accurate enough or in a spot mentally where he can beat the Steelers without loads of help from other phases of the game. One way though that the Jets could hang around, hang around, hang around, and then win late is if the Steelers leave points on the board. No, I'm not talking about being better in the redzone, though that sure would be a welcomed sight. I'm referring to missed field goals actually. Sean Suisham has exceeded Steeler Nation's expectations tenfold since being signed four weeks ago. Suisham is a perfect 9-for-9 on both his XPT and FG attempts. He must be thrilled and excited unlike at any other point in his career, save, maybe when he was a rookie. I wonder if he realizes that the fun is just beginning. Let's face it. Suisham is going to continue getting opportunities to kick down the stretch and postseason. I sure hope I'm wrong, but hard to imagine the Steelers suddenly becoming an efficient redzone offense. It's possible, but odds are Suisham's going to have the weight of the Nation resting on his right leg in huge moments in the weeks to come.
* Not only has Suisham been perfect with his kicks, he's done a little punting in a pinch as well. Renaissance man. Not quite actually. His kickoffs have left plenty to be desired. It hasn't hurt the Steelers yet thanks to the tip-top work done by the kickoff coverage unit. The Steelers special teams face a nice challenge this week in the Jets. Brad Smith is one of the league's better kickoff returners. And with Jim Leonhard injured, I'm expecting to see Santonio Holmes returning multiple punts this Sunday. It's been fun watching the Steelers young ST head-hunters (figuratively speaking, of course) make play after play this year. Let's hope it continues.
* It was fun seeing Hines Ward get back to his usual ways during last week's win over the Bengals. Ward had just one catch for 13 yards against the Ravens, with a huge drop thrown in there to boot. Some grumbled it was just a sign of his decline. Not so fast. Ward looked great against the Bengals hauling in 8 receptions for 115 yards. He made his patented intelligent plays against zone coverage, and he sprinkled in a highlight reel catch on a 1st and 30 play. He got up with the same enthusiastic burst of energy and huge grin as he always does. Despite missing essentially an entire game with a concussion, as well as not seeing much action when Charlie Batch was under center to start the year, Ward is going to finish with a solid ~65 catch, 800-850 yard season.
* I hope Byron Leftwich is preparing himself mentally and physically to play. Roethlisberger is definitely going to play until someone has to drag him off the field or he literally can't walk. But he's pretty darn beat up. I'd just as well see an ugly defensive slug fest than Roethlisberger get hit time and again. Even if running the ball proves to be a grind, keep at it if the protection looks shaky against the Jets pass-rush. I think we can win this game without doing much on offense, but I'd sure hate to lose Roethlisberger for any extended period of time by asking too much of him this week. Plus, the Jets could very well be a playoff opponent. Perhaps not the right time to show everything anyway. We'll see. Fascinating matchup for a lot of reasons. I'm excited.