By Jeremy Hritz
Contrary to what has been said about New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, he has performed decently against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In his first contest in 2010, Sanchez hit 19 of 29 passes for 170 yards, yet more importantly, he scored on a seven yard touchdown run that ultimately gave the Jets the lead and the win. In the AFC Championship Game of the same year, Sanchez fared better, connecting on 20 of 33 passes for two touchdowns, most memorably hitting Santonio Holmes for a 45-yard touchdown after halftime. In those two games, Sanchez was sacked a total of three times.
While his numbers are not Manning or Brady-esque, they are respectable. The question is, heading into Sunday’s game, can the Jets offensive line that struggled horrifically in the preseason put together another solid showing and give the oft-criticized quarterback time to make plays, or will the Steelers finally generate some pressure and force Sanchez into some bad decisions?
The Steelers Will Win This Game If…
Somebody can step up and make a play.
Going back to last year, the absence of the big play, especially on defense, made the Steelers the most disappointing 12-4 team in team history. Last week, the Steelers had a chance to start the season with a win in the brutal AFC, yet when presented with opportunities to make something happen, the defense missed a tackle and gave up a splash play, and Ben Roethlisberger threw a pick six. These are the types of plays the Steelers need to demonstrate that they can make in 2012 if they are going to compete.
With Troy Polamalu and James Harrison likely out, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Ike Taylor, and Ryan Clark are going to need to force turnovers. And, the drum I have been banging since this offseason, one or more of the youngsters must step up and assert themselves as a force on this defense.
On offense, it is going to require the same recipe: explosive plays. With a home crowd eager to kick off season play at Heinz Field, Roethlisberger connecting with Mike Wallace on a deep strike, Jonathan Dwyer ripping off a long touchdown run, or Chris Rainey taking a dump off pass and making magic, will get the home crowd into the game, which in turn will make it a loud and hostile environment for Sanchez and company.
The Steelers need new playmakers to emerge, and old ones to re-emerge. If that happens, it could be a long day for the Jets.
The Jets Will Win If…
The offensive line gives Sanchez time to thrown. If the Steelers fail for a second week in a row to get pressure on the quarterback, they will begin the season 0-2. Sanchez is coming off of a solid performance, even though it was against a less-than-formidable opponent. However, what cannot be ignored is that the Jets offensive line did not allow a sack against the likes of Marcel Dareus, Kyle Williams, and Mario Williams, a defensive line that blew up the Steelers starting O-line in the preseason. Was the Jets offensive line performance a fluke, or was a preview of what’s to come? In the preseason, Sanchez was sacked five times and threw two picks. If the reality is what we saw against the Bills, Sanchez might be able to do enough to compliment an average running game and leave Pittsburgh with another win.
All Eyes Are On…
Jonathan Dwyer – Dwyer ran hard against the Broncos and finished runs. His second effort resulted in some nice gains that provided a spark to the offense. With Coach Mike Tomlin ready to give him more snaps this week, everyone will be watching to see what he can do.
The Entire Defense – With the exception of Larry Foote in the first half, the defense looked gassed and overmatched by the Broncos offense. The team is in need for a game-changer who can emerge to invigorate this defense.
I wish I was more confident about this game, but the play of the Steelers offensive line, especially in the running game, and the lack of big plays on defense have me slightly concerned. However, it is too early to condemn the season or to write the Steelers off, especially considering the circumstances surrounding last week’s game against the Broncos (injuries, on the road, the return of Manning). I believe that this year’s team is a work in progress, and will improve week to week. And this week, they will make the necessary strides to open at home with a win. Expect a big game from Dwyer, yet an ugly Steelers win.
Steelers 20 Jets 17