Mike Tomlin vs. Rex Ryan
The adage is that players determine the outcome. In a game with two talented teams going in opposite directions, preparation and motivation will have a key impact on how those players perform. Tomlin has a team that's averaging 10 penalties a game over the past four games. While those penalties haven't resulted in a loss, taking an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality could be the Steelers' undoing. Facing a pass rush as intense and as complicated as any the Steelers have seen this season, Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians are going to have to find a way to give QB Ben Roethlisberger some time on passing downs.
Ryan faces without question the largest crisis he's faced in the 32 games for which he's been the Jets head coach. He's ladled heavy endorsement on a quarterback (Mark Sanchez) who has hit a wall, performance-wise. He based his offense around the run, but it's no longer productive. And now, he's down one strength coach after Sal Alosi tripped Dolphins special-teams player Nolan Carroll along the sideline in Week 14. Distractions are rampant in Jets Land. How prepared the team is for a huge AFC contest with Pittsburgh is up to Ryan.
Woodley is coming off a Player of the Week-type performance against Cincinnati, where he notched two more sacks (8.5 for the year) along with an interception that he returned for a touchdown. Woodley will also see Hunter, because normal starter Damien Woody had arthroscopic surgery on his knee this week. That's good news for Woodley. Woody had allowed five sacks in 411 drop-backs, while Hunter has allowed four sacks in 106 drop-backs.
Hunter is probably still having nightmares from four weeks ago, when Houston's combination of Mario Williams, Antonio Smith and Mark Anderson spent three quarters of the game in Sanchez's face. Hunter will likely need help in his assignment, which will hamper the Jets' overall scheme. Their decision to try to run frequently against the league's top-ranked run defense could be made due to Woodley's sizeable advantage over Hunter.
SS Ryan Mundy vs. QB Mark Sanchez
It's putting it mildly to suggest Sanchez is struggling. In his last three games (vs. Cincinnati, at New England and vs. Miami), he completed 47.6 percent of his passes, and threw one touchdown pass and five interceptions. Worse, the Jets have increased his passing attempts in each of those games. He had 28 against Cincinnati, 33 against New England and tied a career-high with 44 attempts in the loss to Miami in Week 14. Without Troy Polamalu in the lineup, and with a bevy of talented playmakers at his disposal, Sanchez will test Mundy in the passing game.
Polamalu's streak of consecutive AFC Defensive Player of the Week awards will end Sunday due to a lingering lower leg injury. Mundy, the Woodland Hills product, will most likely fill Polamalu's spot, making the first start of his three-year career. While he's obviously not Polamalu, neither Sanchez nor the Jets have a good feel on Mundy's tendencies through a full game. The Steelers' secondary has taken advantage of teams throwing the ball 40+ times, having at least one interception of every passer who's thrown that often this year, except New England's Tom Brady. Sanchez is no Tom Brady.
Aliquippa native Darrelle Revis has been bothered by a hamstring injury. When SS Jim Leonhard went on the IR with a broken leg, Eric Smith filled in for him, but Smith is out with a concussion. Ryan said CB Dwight Lowry will start for Smith, giving the Jets a secondary mix that resembles the one New Orleans sent against Pittsburgh in a Week 8 Saints win. The Saints were out two cornerbacks and lost a third during the game, forcing them to put a safety at corner. By putting Lowry in the deep secondary along with FS Brodney Pool, they can put more speed on the field.
The Steelers have been aching for a deep play from Wallace, who hasn't scored a touchdown in three weeks. Ward has 16 catches in his last three games, but also has failed to reach the end zone. It's difficult to run against the Jets, so Wallace and Ward are going to have to attack the Jets' depleted secondary.
Does familiarity breed contempt? Neither player hyped their match-up much this week, but on the field, the former teammates are both known to talk quite a bit. Both have backed that talk up with outstanding play so far this year. Taylor may not shadow Holmes the whole game, but he knows when he's locked on him, jamming him at the line is the best way to slow the speedy receiver down.
Holmes and the Jets have lived and died with their ability to create room between the hashes. He's dangerous after the catch, and the Jets like to get him the ball across the middle, where he can accelerate to the edge, or break up field. While Taylor will get help on those plays, he has to protect the sideline as well, expecting a double move. In what looks to be a low-scoring, defensive match-up, Holmes has the game-breaking ability to blow the game open for the Jets.