If last week's AFC Divisional Game between the Steelers and Ravens was Armageddon, as Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs called it, then this Sunday when the Jets travel to Heinz Field to face the Steelers for a second time this season, it might be Apocalypse Now.
The Jets, who during the regular season rose to No. 3 in run defense in the NFL, are are again facing one of the most physical rushing teams in the league.
"These are big guys up front," said defensive tackle Mike DeVito. "It starts with their center, Maurkice Pouncey, a Pro Bowl center who's a great player. And [Chris] Kemoeatu is another big dude right in the middle there and Flozell Adams might be one of the biggest guys in the NFL.
"It's a big, big offensive line. We're really going to have to play our techniques and stay low and make sure we're really focused this game."
The last time the Jets were in Pittsburgh was in Week 15, when they came away as 22-17 victors but were gashed in the running game for 146 yards on 25 carries. The Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall had 17 carries for 99 yards and a touchdown, which was the most yards the Jets had given up to one rusher since the Bengals' Cedric Benson in the 2009 AFC Wild Card Round. Mendenhall rushed for 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns during the regular season and will be a handful this week.
"He's a great back. He has great vision," DeVito said. "I'm sure that they have confidence because they did have some success running the ball the last time we played them. So we have to make sure we tighten up that stuff that we messed up on last time, get better from that and really try to shut down that run game."
In the playoffs the Jets defense, which is typically so stout against the run, has given up rushing yardage mostly because coordinator Mike Pettine has used large numbers of defensive backs. At Indianapolis, the Jets won, 17-16, and allowed 93 yards on 27 carries. In the 28-21 win at New England, they allowed 113 yards on 28 carries. In the Patriots game, however, the Jets dressed 11 defensive backs to gear up for Tom Brady, which makes DeVito confident that the Jets run defense is where it wants to be.
"I think we're fine," DeVito said. "I think we've played some lighter boxes to play for the pass. This defense can stop the run — that's what we pride ourselves on. There's definitely no problem. We just have to play better techniques. We've had a great week of practice, better focus than we did last time. That's going to be important for us to stop him this week. We realize that and we can go back and look at the tape and see what we messed up on and improve in those areas."
In practice dating all the way to training camp, DL coach Mark Carrier closely monitors drills with the linemen that include block-shedding and blocking sleds. In addition, going up against the Jets offensive line has been a great challenge throughout the season. Pro Bowlers Nick Mangold, D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Damien Woody have been a great test for DeVito, but a newcomer along the line of scrimmage, left guard Matt Slauson, credits his success this season to DeVito.
"That guy is a big reason why I'm starting now," Slauson said. "To be able to see his strength and his speed week in and week out and having to block that, it really makes me a better player because I know that I won't see very many guys better than him. These types of guys can wreck games if you don't block them right. Thank goodness Mike is on our team because I wouldn't want to see him in a game."
DeVito, the fourth-year man out of Maine, is a low-key kind of guy, and his humility and effort is unmatched. He registered career regular-season numbers with 46 tackles, two forced fumbles and even his first pro pass defense. Against the Patriots, he forced a fumble by former teammate Danny Woodhead and did a great job of blowing up plays at the line of scrimmage, particularly on a crucial third-down run.
Still, the undrafted free agent is never content with his performance, even the one against the rival Patriots.
"When I look back I always think I can get better," DeVito said. "I don't think I'm ever satisfied with any game that I've played this season. There's a lot of stuff I can improve on. I was just angry out there, especially with that last loss that we experienced up there, and with it being a divisional game and a playoff game. That's as intense as it gets, so I had to leave it all out there."