Stillers vs. Jets Preview (Game #12)
The 9-2 Pittsburgh Stillers, fresh off a late scare from the Vikings last week, play host to the NY Jets, who will likely be in a sour mood after a close, disappointing divisional loss to the Patriots. This game figures to be an outstanding matchup between two hard-hitting teams that are both eager to improve their lot in terms of playoff seeding.
* When the Jets have the ball, they'll be looking at giving the Stillers a heavy dose of Pittsburgh native Curtis Martin, who is simply having an outstanding all-around season. Martin has rushed for 1,070 yards while adding 34 catches. Assisting Martin is superb all-around FB Richie Anderson, who, unlike some fullbacks, can truly "do it all", and on top of that, do it well. The Jets O-line isn't terribly overpowering, but they are a solid crew that has propelled the Jets to the #4 spot in rushing, and have only allowed 16 sacks all season. Center Kevin Mawae, who is the best center in the NFL, anchors the line, along with guard Randy Thomas and LT Jason Fabini. TE Anthony Becht has snared 28 passes this season, and gives the Jets a solid target from the TE spot. The WR corps is a pretty dangerous one. Coles and Chrebet start, with highly-touted rookie Santana Moss serving as the #3 receiver. Moss just recently came back from a long period of injury, but as he gets acclimated, so does the Jets' passing offense stand a chance of improving. An amazing stat is that, while Coles has found the end zone 6 times, the crafty, efficient Chrebet hasn't hit paydirt even once. Coles and Moss can be quite dangerous, and the Stillers defense will have their hands full in keeping these quick receivers from making big plays. At QB, of course, is no less than the Vertical Testicle, Vinny Testeverde. My Cousin Vinny has had a very fine career, but is having only a so-so season, having thrown 8 INTs and only 10 TDs. Under coach Herman Edwards, the Jets, of course, are a ball-control, ground oriented offense, so Vinny's passing has been scaled back a bit in favor of the ground game. The key matchup is Curtis Martin versus the Stiller defense. I still have nightmares of the January '97 playoff game, aka The Fog Bowl, in which no one on the Stiller defense laid a hand on Martin all day, and he ran wild to lead the Pats to an embarrassing rout of the Stillers. The Jets will look to pound the ball with Martin throughout the game, unless they happen to get down by a large margin. What makes Martin so dangerous are 3 things: 1. Martin is quite capable of pounding the ball up the gut, as well as wide around end. 2.) Martin is a terrific cutback runner who has great vision and patience, and can burn a defense when they are too aggressive and fail to maintain their lanes of responsibility. 3.) Martin is a very dangerous pass-catcher out of the backfield, and poses a threat both as a safety valve as well as an intended receiver. The Stillers must limit Martin and keep him from moving the sticks and chewing clock, thus forcing Vinny to have to carry the load.
* When the Stillers have the ball, the supposedly biggest crisis to hit Pittsburgh since the Johnstown Flood is the fact that Jerome Bettis will not play, due to injuries to his groin and hip. Frankly, this does not faze me, and in some small measure, I'm kind of glad that this occurred when it did. Back in late '96, going into the playoffs against Martin and the Pats, Bettis was also hobbled with a groin. And instead of playing football with intensity and adjustments, the entire team stood around in a funk, feeling sorry for themselves because The Less-Tubby Tailback (back then) couldn't play. Despite the absence of Bettis, there's more than enough depth and more than enough weapons on this Stiller offense to move the ball and score points. Chris Fu will get the nod at RB, with Amos Zereoue, who has a slightly injured shoulder, spelling him on occasion. Fu (who unlike Bettis, actually weighs 255) hasn't played much this year, and will probably need the first quarter to get acclimated to the speed and the blocking. The Jet pass defense has been stingy, but the run defense has been spongy all year. Top-notch DEs Shaun Ellis and John Abraham serve as the bookends of the D-line, and both are capable of bringing the heat and wreaking havoc. The LB corps is experienced and very good. Marvin Jones, who leads the Jets in tackles, mans the middle, flanked by ageless vet Mo Lewis and other OLB James Farrior. The Jets secondary got ravaged from injury recently, and starting CB Aaron Glenn is out for this game with an MCL. The other starting CB, Ray Mickens, has a sprained ankle but is expected to play. With Glenn out and Mickens a bit hobbled, this is the perfect opportunity for Ward, Burress, Shaw and Edwards to abuse the Jets on occasion. The key matchup will be the Stiller ground game against the Jets front 7. The Jets have not been a good run-stuffing team, ranking just 25th in rush defense. There are obviously several weaknesses in that front 7 that have been exploited this deep into the season, and the Stillers rushing attack should be able to garner adequate yardage with Fu and Amoz toting the ball. Both backs actually give the Stillers better quickness and better versatility in the passing game than Bettis does, so, while Bettis' skills will be missed, it's not like he's being replaced by a couple of scrap-heap signees who were selling insurance last week.
* Spec Teams: The Jets have a solid trio of KO returners -- Yeast, Coles, and Morton -- who are decent. Yeast and Morton also return punts, although Moss could help perform these chores if the staff is confident in his ability and health. John Hall has had a solid season as the Jets' kicker, and ever-reliable punter Tom Tupa does the punting. Kris Brown had a bit of a struggle last week, clanging one PAT off an upright and missing a 40-yard FG toward the closed end of the stadium. Brown has had his struggles at Heinz Field, and, given that this could be a close ballgame, I'd recommend keeping a paper bag nearby for ventilation each time Brown lines up for a FG. Troy Edwards has been a tremendous spark for then special teams the past 2 weeks, and might supplant Hank Poteat in the punt return duties. The rest of the Stiller special teams have been anything but special, so don't rush to the fridge during any special teams plays until the whistle has blown.
* Synopsis: The Jets are no pushover on the road, having gone 5-0 this season in away games. And, rest assured, the Jets will come out for this game with a vengeance after last week's tough loss. The Jets realize that they pretty much need to win out the rest of their schedule if they want a first-round bye, so they'll be clawing like hound dogs on Sunday at Heinz Field. The Stillers, on the other hand, should realize that they sit in the cat-bird's seat atop the AFC, and after last week's 4th quarter debacle that nearly lost the game for them, they should collectively realize, and be preparing for, a focused, disciplined, aggressive, intense effort against the Jets. The Jets are a very capable team and have a lot at stake. However, the difference in this game will be none other than Vinny Intercepteverde, who has always been a tonic for all that ails the Pittsburgh Stillers. Vinny owns a pathetic 2-9 career record as a starter versus the Black & Gold, and has thrown more INTs and awful passes in the Steel City than Cliff Stoudt and Mark Malone, combined, ever did. Vinny has always been intimidated and scared of the Stillers, and his costly turnovers and bumbling will be the difference in a hard-fought 19-13 Stiller victory.