On paper, these two teams are miles apart. The Steelers, despite several notable injuries, are deep across the entire offense. Defensively, they boast a stout line, excellent inside linebackers and a young, improving secondary.
The Jets, meanwhile, don't have the offensive talent Pittsburgh possesses, and could be without their number-two receiver, as Eric Decker is dealing with a torn rotator cuff. Defensively, they have a very strong line, and despite Darrelle Revis' recent struggles, he still has the ability to be one of the best cornerbacks in the game.
When you do the calculus, factoring homefield advantage for the Steelers, it should add up to an easy win. And that's where the biggest concern lies,because this is a team that, historically, has played down to lesser opponents. First and foremost on their gameplan should be overcoming themselves. Do that, and this game should be relatively easy, provided they can do one more thing: get pressure on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, early and often.
Never considered a top-shelf quarterback, Fitzpatrick is still smart enough to pick apart a defense if he has time. But he's demonstrated, time and again, a tendency to panic under pressure. In fact, he's thrown eight interceptions in the last two weeks. It's no surprise he was playing some decent defenses that can generate pressure when needed.
For the Steelers to control Sunday's game, they will have to manage to pressure Fitzpatrick consistently.
Week 3: 1st quarter, 2:30, 3rd and 9
This is either a total win for the Chiefs, a total loss for the Jets, or something in between. In theory, it should have been pretty even, as the Chiefs blitz six, while the Jets leave six in to protect. But, from the very start, the pocket doesn't simply collapse, it implodes. The pressure comes fast, and from every angle, leaving Fitzpatrick no lane through which to escape, or even a hole in which to step up. In fact, there wasn't time or space for him to even step into the throw, and that's where the problem comes from. He actually made a good choice on where to throw the ball, but without being able to step into the throw, he was unable to generate the velocity needed to get the ball to the receiver before the window closed. It floated in, instead, and that gave Marcus Peters the time to react and make a play on the ball, and pull down the interception.
Week 3: 3rd quarter, 1:37, 2nd and Goal from the 6
This play highlights one of the biggest weaknesses in Fitzpatrick's game: field vision under pressure.
The problem really starts with the Jets' center, who gets pushed around like a shopping cart with a fresh shot of wheel grease. Kansas City nose tackle Dontarie Poe evokes memories of former Steeler Casey Hampton on this play, simply making a fool of the man across from him.
Poe ends up shoving the center almost into Fitzpatrick. But this was just a three-man rush, and Fitzpatrick had an escape route to his left, even if just to salvage a few yards and try again on third down. Instead, he attempts to force a throw, unaware of linebacker Derrick Johnson playing the underneath zone. The ball deflects off Johnson's hands and is picked off in the end zone by safety Eric Berry.
Week 4: 3rd quarter, 8:25, 2nd and Goal from the 6
Faced with the same down and distance half a quarter later, Fitzpatrick found himself under pressure. Again. And it forced him into a bad, unnecessary throw. Again.
Now, I don't know what Jets right tackle Ben Ijalana was thinking when he totally ignored Tamba Hali -- no Justin Houston, but still a very good pass-rushing outside linebacker. I'm not sure I want to know, because it may break my brain. All I know is he was wrong. Wrong, wrong wroooooooong.
Fitzpatrick, of course, does what any sane person would do: he runs away. And, for a fleeting moment, he gets away. But then he runs into defensive tackle Jaye Howard, and it's all downhill from there.
Remember, we are, again, facing 2nd and 6 here. There's at least one more down to play with. A wise man takes the short sack at this point, because there is little to no chance of making a good throw. Add in the fact that he threw the ball while falling, and you can kind of see where this was going to go. The fact that the last two plays we reviewed ended in interceptions probably gave that away, too. Still, this was an awful decision. Fitzpatrick's throw goes high, again because he isn't able to get the velocity he needs to get the ball into a small window. It's deflected at the goal line, and falls into the arms of Peters, once again. It was something like his 97th interception of the game. Or something like that.
This game is going to come down to whether or not the Steelers can duplicate their blitzing success from week four, when they sacked Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith four times. Fitzpatrick should be even easier to get to, really, because he prefers to throw the deep ball, while Smith does his damage mostly with short and intermediate throws. The slower the play develops, the better.
If the Steelers fail to get to Fitzpatrick regularly, it could be a very close game. But if the front seven can do their jobs well, they will make Fitzpatrick feel like Freddie Mercury: always "under pressure".