The Pittsburgh Steelers 2012 home opener against the New York Jets is finally here as they look to even their record at 1-1 on the young season. Below are 7 things to watch for specifically in this game along with my prediction at the end of it. In case you missed it, here is my full preview of the game that was posted on Friday.
Woodley Versus Howard - Of his 48 snaps played last week against the Denver Broncos, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley dropped into coverage on 10 of those and rushed the quarterback on 14 others. Woodley did not record a sack in the game and only had 2 minimal pressures to show for his efforts. On Sunday against the Jets, Woodley will be going against right tackle Austin Howard, who made Bills defensive end Mario Williams invisible this past Sunday. With James Harrison not playing in this game, the Jets will likely make sure that Howard gets help at times in the form of tight end Jeff Cumberland, who will start in the place of Dustin Keller, who will miss the game with a hamstring injury. Woodley must hold the point of attack against the run well and he must make his presence felt more this week in the pass rush if he wants to ensure the Steelers will not go 0-2 as he predicted they wouldn\'t this past week. Look for Woodley to get help from defensive end Ziggy Hood on a few pass rush plays as Hood will try to take Howard up the field so that Woodley can loop in around to hopefully get in the face of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.
Pouncey Versus Pouha - The Jets will likely get nose tackle Sione Pouha back this week after he missed the opener last week against the Buffalo Bills. The 320 plus pound Pouha has battled a bad back this offseason so Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey figures to have the upper hand in this one. The Steelers figure to run right at the teeth of the Jets defense early on in this game. Pouncey practices every week against behemoth nose tackles Casey Hampton and Steve McLendon, so he is well experienced in attempting to move big defenders out of the way. Pouncey will have help in double teams at times from guards Willie Colon and Ramon Foster and on many of those plays he will be asked to get off Pouha quickly and out to the second level to take on a linebacker. A great game by Pouncey, and the Steelers run game should be able to wear down the Jets defensive front 7.
Sanders Versus Lankster/Trufant - With Darrelle Revis out for this game Kyle Wilson will now slide to the outside in his place. Slot receiver Emmanuel Sanders will likely draw coverage from Ellis Lankster when the Jets are in their nickel package, but there could be times where he sees the smaller Marcus Trufant should the Jets go with four defensive backs. Both of these corners should be regarded as mismatches, so expect that Sanders could see some opportunities for big plays when the Steelers use their 11 personnel package of three wide receivers. Sanders is perhaps the best route runner on the team so it would not be surprising to see at least a 4 or 5 catch day from him as the Steelers offense is sure to attack the middle of the field via the passing game.
Hill Versus Taylor - Another week and another former Georgia Tech wide receiver for Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor to have to cover. This week it is Stephen Hill who hopes to pick up where Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, also a former Yellow Jacket, left off. Hill had a great debut last week against the Bills as he was targeted 6 times and caught 5 balls for 89 yards and 2 touchdowns. Taylor will likely be asked to mix in both press and off coverage against the rookie, but he needs to make sure not to fall victim of the great double move that Hill possesses. The Steelers defense prides itself in not giving up the explosive play and it will be up to Taylor to tackle the catch quickly, something the Steelers defensive backs had problems doing last week as a group against the Broncos.
Rainey Day? - Rookie running back Chris Rainey might finally get a chance this week on punt returns after the coaching staff chose to use Antonio Brown last week in Denver. As we saw in the preseason finale, Rainey can flip the field in a hurry and is a threat to take any return to the house. The Florida product also figures to see a few more snaps on offense this week and offensive coordinator Todd Haley has to do his best to get the speedster at least 5 touches in this game out in space. This game sets up for the Steelers to register quite a few explosive plays and it would not be surprising to see Rainey be responsible for a few of them.
Third & Long Sanchez - Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez is no Ben Roethlisberger when it comes to third down and 6 or more yards to go for a first down. During his career he is 142-of-289 passing on that down and distance (49.1%) with 16 interceptions versus just 9 touchdowns. That boils down to a 55.9 standard passing rating. Only 82 of those 142 passes completed resulted in first downs, which is a lowly 28% conversion rate. Sanchez performed well on third downs last week against the Bills, but he also was playing with the lead on 8 of his third down passing attempts. Keeping the Jets behind the chains and behind in the score in this game will eventually force Sanchez into making some throws he does not want to make. The Jets gained an average of 4.5 yards last week against the Bills on first down. A number this week below 4.0, should mean that the Steelers win this game.
No Tebowing - Let\'s face it, Tim Tebow played the game of his life in the AFC Wild Card game last January and it didn\'t help that Taylor played the worst of his. The Steelers are well aware of what Tebow can and can\'t do, and they should expect to see him on the field for at least 10-15 offensive plays in the Jets Wildcat offense. Tebow also plays on the punt team as the up back, and you know at some point that the Jets are itching to run a fake punt with him back there. It is so obvious that it would be embarrassing if the Steelers special team units allow a big game changing play via the fake.
Prediction - The Steelers will more than likely be without both Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu in this game, but the Jets loss of Revis, Keller and linebacker Bryan Thomas helps even out the score. While the Jets easily took care of the Bills last week, they still gave up a ton of yardage on the ground. The Steelers running game should have good success early on and set things up for the passing game via play action. One game does not make Sanchez a Pro Bowler and I think the Steelers front 7 will be able to get some pressure on him this week. As long as the jets quarterback is forced to move the ball via long drives, he will eventually make a mistake. As long as the Steelers offense doesn\'t give up any short fields via a turnover in this game, I like a big win this week.
Final Score - Steelers 31 Jets 17