January 23, 2011 in Sports

NFL preview: What will it take to win?

Los Angeles Times
 

New York Jets vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

Make Big Ben a pocket watch

The Jets typically mix in a lot of overload blitzes, in which they rush extra defensive players from the right or left side. Because they’re usually better off trying to contain Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the pocket, rather than letting him roll one direction and extend the play, they’re likely to have a more symmetrical rush that doesn’t favor one side.

Don’t get 86’d

When it comes to clutch receivers, it’s hard to top No. 86, Pittsburgh’s Hines Ward. He’s far from the fastest guy on the field, but his incredible instincts and savvy allow him to create separation from a defender. Watch for the Jets to put their best corner, Darrelle Revis, on him, even though Ward typically lines up in the slot.

Play Mike Wallace for 60 minutes

Mike Wallace, the second-year Steelers burner, might be the most dangerous deep threat in the game. The Jets lined up Antonio Cromartie on him when they played at Pittsburgh in Week 16, and Wallace made seven catches for 102 yards. Cromartie has been susceptible to getting burned on the long ball (or drawing a pass-interference flag), so the Jets have to be extra careful.

Build a wall

Even though they won in Pittsburgh last month, the Jets did an uncharacteristically poor job of stopping the run. New York came into that game with the third-ranked rushing defense, yet allowed Rashard Mendenhall to gain 100 yards in 17 carries – only his second 100-yard performance in 11 games.

Think fast

The Jets will take a few deep shots, yet for the most part they want to get the ball out of Mark Sanchez’s hands quickly. Expect lots of short throws over the middle. Santonio Holmes is good on those because he’s so dangerous after the catch. (Remember how he turned that quick slant in overtime at Cleveland into a 37-yard game-winner?) And the Jets might look to get tight end Dustin Keller more involved. He had five TDs in the first four games, and none since.

Oh, them again?

Neither Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu nor tight end Heath Miller played in the first game against the Jets. That changed the landscape on both sides of the ball. Things will look different this time.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New York Jets

It’s Miller time

Get the ball to tight end Heath Miller over the middle. He sat out the regular-season game against the Jets because of a concussion, and could be a pivotal player in this rematch. He’s fast and elusive enough to create mismatch problems for New York’s slower inside linebackers.

Avoid Mr. Everything

The Steelers need to play keep-away from returner/receiver/wildcat quarterback Brad Smith, who’s a major big-play threat. It was Smith who returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a TD against them. They can’t let him beat them.

Remember who you are

They are the Pittsburgh Steelers. They stop the run. It’s as simple as that. The Steelers were ahead of every other team in the league in that department by an absurd margin – they allowed an average of 62.8 yards, and second-place Chicago allowed 90.1. Yet the Jets ran for 106 yards against the Steelers.

Make it a (third and) long day

Too often in the first game, the Jets were in third-and-manageable situations. That’s because they ran so effectively on first and second down after halftime. If the Steelers can get them in more third-and-long situations, the likelihood of a turnover goes way up.

Let No. 7 roll

The Jets are going to try to keep Ben Roethlisberger in the pocket. The Steelers need him to be able to get outside, extend plays and create. That’s when some of the biggest plays happen. Despite his Big Ben nickname, he doesn’t have a clock in his head. Give him some time and he’s deadly.

Speed kills

Look for big days from one, two or three of Pittsburgh’s scorching-fast receivers: Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Sanders and Wallace had seven catches each in the first game against the Jets, mostly on intermediate routes. Wallace was targeted 10 times, and Sanders a season-high 13. If they Jets aren’t stopping it, the Steelers will keep doing it.

Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears

Keep No. 12 upright

No quarterback has a hotter hand than Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, who’s coming off a close-to-flawless performance at Atlanta. He’s had some concussion problems, though, and the Bears sacked him twice in the regular-season finale.

Run, but selectively

Yes, the Packers are running the ball more effectively than they did during the regular season, but they’re going against the league’s No. 2 rushing defense, and it makes no sense for them to pound their heads against the wall with rookie James Starks. Green Bay views those quick screens and slants as an extension of the running game, and Rodgers frequently checks out of runs to throw those. Packers receivers are very good after the catch.

Soft hands, heads on swivel

Chicago’s Jay Cutler has done a better job of avoiding turnovers this season, with 16 interceptions compared with 26 in 2009. But every so often, he will throw the ball directly to a defender. It happened Sunday, but Seattle safety Jordan Babineaux dropped a sure interception at the goal line with 100 yards of open real estate in front of him. The Packers have superb defensive backs, led by top-notch playmaking corners Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams. They aren’t likely to let an opportunity slip through their grasp.

Let Clay be Clay

There’s no more disruptive defensive player in the league than linebacker Clay Matthews, who has been terrorizing quarterbacks all season. After starting the season with consecutive three-sack games, Matthews never got more than 1 1/2 in any subsequent game, but that’s largely because opponents commit extra bodies to help slow him. That opens the door for other Packers to make plays.

Chicago Bears vs. Green Bay Packers

Do more with less

As usual, defense is the star of Chicago’s show. The Bears will need to be at their best in that department, and that means rushing four players and dropping seven into coverage. They need to pressure Aaron Rodgers and get him out of rhythm. If Rodgers is feeling the heat, the Bears are doing their job.

Be like Mike

The Bears need to rush Rodgers the way they contained Philadelphia’s Michael Vick. That means guarding against over-running him. For the most part, when they’re in their rushing lanes they don’t want to run past him, unless it’s a planned strategy to, say, loop speedy defensive end Julius Peppers around the back side. Rodgers is elusive and does a great job of buying more time by stepping up into the pocket. “Peppers is the key to their rush,” NFL Network analyst Matt Millen said. “But if you just focus on Peppers, you miss the rest of it. The underrated guys that are playing well for them right now – (defensive tackles) Matt Toeaina and Anthony Adams – are getting a big push inside.”

Know thyself

The historically pass-happy Mike Martz is Chicago’s offensive coordinator, but he isn’t running a variation of the “Greatest Show on Turf,” nor is he trying to. The Bears have become very balanced, not relying just on the arm of Jay Cutler but mixing in a healthy portion of runs. That’s less risky and keeps a defense honest. It also gives Green Bay corners Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams fewer chances to make big plays.

Play Where’s Waldo

The Bears can’t afford to lose track of where Packers linebacker Clay Matthews is on the field. He’s incredibly disruptive and moves around quite a bit. Minimizing his impact will be a top priority.

Make Forte their forte

Against the aggressive Dom Capers blitzes, Cutler needs to take short drops and get the ball out quickly to running back Matt Forte. The Packers had eight sacks in two postseason wins and 47 during the regular season. Try to use their aggressiveness to their detriment.


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