Game Day Matchups

Neal Coolong breaks down the top matchups for tonight's AFC Championship Game between the Jets and the Steelers.

WR Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders vs. CBs Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie

The Jets did not use Revis, their stud cover corner, on Wallace very often in their Week 15 contest. Cromartie had Wallace more often than not, and gave up about half of Wallace's 102 yards. After focusing on Hines Ward, Revis later took on Sanders and may have gotten away with a hold or two down the field. Sanders, the Steelers' third receiver, is coming off an impressive game against the Ravens' zone coverage, one in which QB Ben Roethlisberger targeted him 7 times, 4 of which were completions. Wallace had less effective of a game against Baltimore, but the Steelers were clearly trying to work the ball deep.

That may not be the game plan against the Jets, but skinny posts to Wallace if Revis is on him, and double moves on Cromartie will almost certainly be employed. The Jets have indicated Cromartie will line up across Wallace, and Revis will be across from Ward. The Steelers will want to run the ball out of their 3-WR set as much as they'll want to pass, hoping to exploit the Jets' nickel package, but to sell that, their young, athletic receivers will have to get open against the Jets' various schemes.

RB Rashard Mendenhall vs. OLBs Bryan Thomas and Jason Taylor

The Patriots abandoned the run when their deficit against the Jets grew, but they were having success against the defensive right edge. The Jets' defensive game plan was a good one, blanketing the field with defensive backs and daring the Patriots to attack through the air. This strategy worked, largely in part to the success they had offensively. Thomas and Taylor did not support the run very well, getting beat consistently by the left side of the Patriots offensive line.

It wouldn't be a surprise to see Pittsburgh look away from their standard tendency of rushing to the offensive right, and attack the Jets on the weak side. Mendenhall has quick feet, and his vision has improved over the course of the season. If the Steelers are able to establish Mendenhall much like they did in their Week 15 meeting, they can force the Jets into more of their base package, giving them more opportunities in the passing game.

FS Ryan Clark vs. TE Dustin Keller

Baltimore tried to make Todd Heap the centerpiece of its offensive game plan, and it appeared it would be an effective one through the first two quarters. Clark had responsibility on Heap's touchdown reception, but he was right on Heap the rest of the game, getting a pick on an errant pass to him and knocking another one away. If the Steelers can use Clark on the smaller but just as athletic, Keller, they can keep SS Troy Polamalu closer to the line of scrimmage where he does his most damage.

Keller led the Jets with 55 receptions this season, and has 6 in two playoff games. He provides a secure outlet to second-year QB Mark Sanchez. No one will confuse Keller for an outstanding in-line blocker, hence the reason the Jets have four TEs who see the field. He'll do his damage down the seam and in the middle of the field, a quick option for the often-shaky Sanchez.

SS Troy Polamalu vs. QB Mark Sanchez

While it's not accurate to say whether any team would have won a game if a player who didn't play was on the field, it's hard to say any opponent's game plan would be the same with Polamalu on the field than off it. Adding fuel to that fire, Sanchez hasn't yet played against a defensive back as dynamic as Polamalu in his four previous playoff victories. Polamalu was quiet against Baltimore, but as he's repeatedly demonstrated, it only takes one play for him to make an impact. Because of that, Sanchez needs to prepare for everything; deep and short coverage, blitzes and general confusion.

Polamalu can be utilized to give outside help to big play receivers Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards, but more than likely, he's going to be a key figure in run support. The Jets rushed for 106 yards as a team, more than any other Steelers opponent this season. Their power running game is offset by Sanchez's ability to make big throws at critical times. Polamalu will move around the field, disguising his intentions, hoping to confuse the young passer into crucial mistakes.

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