— Here’s a breakdown on the trends, tendencies and matchups that will have a major impact on Sunday’s AFC Championship.
Bombs away? No way
Throwing deep against the Jets is a risky proposition — if the pass rush doesn’t get you, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie will.
Despite the risks, opponents attempted a few bombs per game against the Jets. Some teams took their chances when Revis was injured, or tried their luck against New York's not-so-great nickel defenders. Others teams, such as the Steelers, derive much of their offense from bombs and had no choice but to go deep a few times.
During the regular season, opponents attempted 79 passes against the Jets that traveled 25 or more yards in the air. The results: 14 completions, 448 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions. That’s a 17.7 percent completion rate and an efficiency rating of 40.16. The league completion percentage on 25-plus-yard passes is 32.6 percent, almost twice the rate against the Jets. The league efficiency rating on 25-plus-yard passes is 72.3.
Like I said. Risky.
Only a handful of quarterbacks had any success throwing deep against the Jets. Jay Cutler completed four long passes for the Bears; file that away for the Super Bowl. Joe Flacco completed three bombs and drew two pass interference penalties, though the Ravens couldn’t do much else. Most opponents were not nearly as effective: Kyle Orton was 1-of-7, Brett Favre was 1-of-8, and even Tom Brady was 1-of-8 with two interceptions (plus a pass interference penalty) during the regular season.
Ben Roethlisberger was 1-of-5 on 25-plus-yard passes against the Jets, completing one 29-yarder to Emmanuel Sanders. Roethlisberger looked to Mike Wallace three times on bombs in Week 15, but they couldn’t connect. Don’t give Revis all the credit for the Wallace shutout — Revis covered Sanders much of the game, with Cromartie handling Wallace.
Take the bomb from Big Ben, and you take away much of the Steelers offense. The Jets aren’t likely to give up the kind of game-changing bomb the Ravens allowed in the fourth quarter of the divisional playoffs. The Steelers will have to counter with a very un-Steelers like weapon: the screen pass.
The long and short of it
Guess who attempted more passes behind the line of scrimmage this season: Ben Roethlisberger or Tom Brady?
Yes, it’s a trick question. The answer is Roethlisberger. He threw 75 passes that traveled less than one yard in the air last season. Brady threw 73. Batted passes and stop-the-clock spikes were not included. We think of the Patriots as a tricky screen-passing team, the Steelers as a team that mixes power running with deep passing. It turns out that the Steelers also have an effective super-short passing attack. No one ever will confuse Roethlisberger with screen-happy Drew Brees (152 attempts behind the line of scrimmage), but the Steelers have added more flat passes and quick screens to their offense this season. Not all of those short passes are traditional screens to running backs. Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Hines Ward, and the other receivers and tight ends combined to catch 32-of-39 “screens” for 206 yards.
Now, not all of these passes are really screens. Some are emergency dump-offs to avoid sacks or quick throws to catch cornerbacks napping. But the Steelers used a wide variety of well-designed screens when nothing else was working against the Ravens last week. With Brown or Wallace darting behind a hard-blocking teammate like Ward, the Steelers can move the chains while punishing defenders who are too busy blitzing to mind their underneath responsibilities.
The Jets are very aggressive on defense and will fall for the occasional screen. Unfortunately, the Steelers couldn’t get their super-short passing game in motion in Week 15. Roethlisberger attempted five passes behind the line of scrimmage. Two fell incomplete, two resulted in no gain and a loss of one. The only successful short pass was a five-yard toss to backup tight end Matt Spaeth. The Jets shut down both the shortest and longest passes the Steelers attempted. No wonder they came out on top.
Despite their Week 15 ineffectiveness, the Steelers had such success in the screen game against the Ravens on Saturday that they are likely to return to it this week. It’s safer, and usually smarter, than trying to burn the Jets deep.
First things first
The Jets run the ball on 62.6 percent of first-down plays, one of the highest ratios in the NFL. They run well on first down, averaging 4.33 yards per carry.
The Steelers have the toughest first-down run defense in the league, allowing just 2.52 yards per carry. The Steelers' run defense is so tough that opponents stop trying, rushing on first down just 41.2 percent of the time.
Everything the Jets do on offense flows from those first down runs: by forcing second-and-medium and third-and-short, they keep their entire playbook open, forcing opponents to worry about everything from LaDainian Tomlinson off tackle to the Braylon Edwards bomb to the Brad Smith Wildcat. Similarly, the Steelers defense is predicated on that first-down stop: When the opponent is forced to pass, the lunatic blitzing can commence.
The Jets rushed 12 times for just 22 yards in Week 15. They often added a sixth offensive lineman to the formation and once snapped directly to Smith, but nothing worked. The Steelers defense allowed just 13 points in that game; the Jets scored seven points on a Smith kickoff return touchdown and two more points on a safety. The Steelers defense did what it had to do, forcing long yardage situations and keeping the Jets out of the end zone for most of the game.
Steelers defenders will tell you there is always room for improvement. The AFC Championship game will be a defensive battle, and the Steelers need a near-shutout to give their offense a chance. That starts with the first-down stuffs.