PITTSBURGH (AP) – The rundown nearly always begins with the names Polamalu and Harrison, Revis and Scott. Fair enough, because defense is the calling card for the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets.
Look at the other side of the ball, though, and the list is impressive: Roethlisberger, Ward and Wallace; Tomlinson, Holmes and an emerging Sanchez.
Yes, the teams playing for the AFC championship on Sunday have playmakers on offense, too.
Does that mean Heinz Field’s scoreboards will light up with points? Don’t count on that.
But count on some of those offensive standouts having a significant impact.
Holmes, for instance, was a postseason star for the Steelers two years ago, when they won their record sixth championship, and is doing it again this month in his first playoffs since being traded to New York. He even admits his lunging touchdown catch in last week’s victory at New England probably was more difficult than the reception from Ben Roethlisberger to beat Arizona in the Super Bowl.
Regardless, they were huge plays.
“Your mindset has to be you are going to be the guy to make that play,” Holmes says.
Just as a coach’s mindset has to be to get the ball to a guy like Holmes.
“Having not really followed the Steelers, other than some of the playoff games and stuff that they have done,” Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottheimer said, “every time you look at the stats — which we all kind of do throughout the course of the year — you always saw his name at the top of the big-play list, catches over 20 yards, things like that.”
The Steelers (13-4) have a guy like that in Ward, who has been coming through for a mere 13 seasons. And another in Mike Wallace, the speedy second-year wideout from Mississippi.
Ward no longer is the top target, although his 59 receptions were just one less than Wallace had. Because he does so much else — block as well as any receiver in the game, according to Jets coach Rex Ryan; calm younger players in the locker room, on the sideline and on the field — Ward remains as much a key as Wallace, who had 10 TD catches and averaged 21.0 yards a reception, tops in the AFC among regulars.
“He brings guys to his level,” Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. “He is so smart that if and when a play breaks down, he has a great camaraderie with Ben and a great feel of which way he is going. And it’s also computed in his brain what the coverage was. He will find a spot, or he is strong enough to shake his guy loose. He is one of the best of improvising that we have, along with our quarterback.”
“That kid’s about as good a vertical receiver as there is in the game right now,” Ryan said.
Which leads to another question:
“So who do you put him on?” Ryan asks.
One of your playmakers, of course. Which is where the likes of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie come into the picture. That leads us back to defense, which seems inevitable with these teams. After all, Pittsburgh ranked second overall and the Jets (13-5) were third. The Steelers yielded a league-low 232 points; the Jets were sixth at 304.
Roethlisberger, whose ability to extend a play by avoiding sacks, taking hits and still throwing, or rolling away from the pocket to make room for his rocket arm, recognizes the challenge. Especially with Revis, who has been the epitome of the shutdown cornerback in the two playoffs victories.
“It’s tough,” he said. “As a competitor, you don’t want to ever say you are scared of anybody or you don’t want to go after someone, but you’ve got to use your head. Being a competitor is being smart as well. Knowing how good he is and with all those other guys they have over there, you can’t just be like, ‘Forget that, I’m a competitor. I’m going after him. I don’t care what happens.’ You have got to be able to use your head and know when to attack.”
Being smart certainly helps negate some of the playmaking talents of a dangerous receiver or a stingy defensive back. But sometimes, physical skills take over, and a playmaker becomes a difference maker.
For Pittsburgh’s D, that often means star safety Troy Polamalu, who was injured for New York’s 22-17 win at Heinz Field on Dec. 19. Polamalu’s unpredictability — he has enough freedom to pop up anywhere in the defensive alignment — makes it that much more difficult to avoid him.
“I think of how phenomenal of an athlete he is,” Steelers DE Brett Keisel said. “There isn’t anyone in the league that can cover space like Troy can. There isn’t anyone that has a feel for the game, I think, like Troy has. You don’t see anyone jumping over on fourth-and-1 situations on a quarterback sneak, timing the blitz up perfectly to where they snap the ball, and he is over there making the play.
“That’s the biggest thing: You know you are going to get a couple of special plays from that guy, especially when it comes around to playoff time. We look forward to seeing some spectacular moves from Mr. Polamalu.”
The Jets don’t.
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