Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will surely turn around and hand the ball off to running back Rashard Mendenhall a number of times in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, but the matchup of two brash, physical teams won't be a one-dimensional slugfest.
"He's a tough guy to bring down when you're rushing the passer," safety James Ihedigbo said. "He extends plays and always finds the deep ball. He's a playmaker himself and we're going to try to limit him and shut him down this week."
The two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback put up 3,200 passing yards and 17 touchdowns to only five interceptions in 12 games this season after serving a four-game suspension. In the 31-24 divisional-round win over the Ravens, Big Ben was 19-of-32 for 226 yards and two touchdowns. He had been utilizing wide receivers Hines Ward and Mike Wallace all season, but in the most crucial moments found rookie wideouts Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.
Nickel cornerback Drew Coleman will be in charge of handling the young horses in the Steelers receiving corps.
"With Ben and their receivers, Sanders and Wallace and Hines and even Brown, those guys are a lot faster than the Patriots receivers, more athletic," Coleman said. "So we definitely have our hands full. Those guys are very quick, like the Wes Welker-type and Danny Woodhead-type quick. So we're definitely going to have our hands full when it is time to find the guys when Ben is running or scrambling. Then at the same time you have to be prepared for Ben to tuck it."
In the wild card and divisional rounds the Jets have been able to hem in legendary quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but both of those teams had limitations in their receiving corps. Indianapolis had lost TE Dallas Clark and WR Austin Collie to injuries, while the Patriots lacked a true deep threat with typical slot receivers Deion Branch and Wes Welker becoming their primary outside targets.
Sunday in Pittsburgh, coordinator Mike Pettine will have to prepare for Wallace, whom cornerback Antonio Cromartie called "one of the best, if not the best, vertical guys that can get up the field."
"We'll mix our looks to him," Pettine said. "Sometimes he'll be isolated. Sometimes we'll jam him at the line and play over the top. Again, we want to keep presenting different looks. I think that's one of the reasons we have been successful these past two weeks is that we have been able to disguise our man coverages, disguise our zones and try to just make it uncomfortable on the quarterback reading what we are in.
"A lot of times in NFL offenses, the receivers have to be on the same page as well, have to make sure they are running the route the quarterback thinks they should be running, and I think that's been a big part of our success."
The Jets have not divulged their coverage plans this week, but it's fair to say that the game plan will be markedly different from the one utilized against New England, just like that one was different from the one Pettine employed against Indianapolis. Head coach Rex Ryan knows that he can likely lock up cornerback Darrelle Revis on whichever receiver he likes and work from there, but no matter who he covers or what the scheme, Cromartie is champing at the bit to play against a team that likes to throw vertically more than New England did.
"Our whole thing is just to make sure that we do our thing on the back end and just protect the deep ball and go out and make plays," Cromartie said. "It's a chance to make a play on the ball. I'm just definitely looking forward to it and, when the ball is thrown in the air, just trying to make a play on it and go from there."
The Green & White were sixth against the pass this season, and that was even without Revis at full strength for a number of contests. The play of Cromartie (three interceptions, 17 PDs) and Coleman (five forced fumbles) has been a revelation. When safety and defensive quarterback Jim Leonhard went down with a season-ending leg injury the secondary struggled, but in recent weeks they've held QBs down. And will face yet another tough task in the spotlight at Heinz Field.
"The last couple of weeks, especially in the playoffs, we've toned it up," Coleman said. "We've been more together as far as the secondary, linebackers and the front, just getting communication throughout the whole board. We've had great practices, everybody is flying around, and we have confidence about our chances."