Even while looking across the line of scrimmage at the Steelers' stout defensive front seven, the Jets were confident in their chances to Ground and Pound in the Steel City. The Green and White rushed for 106 yards on 27 carries in their victory, including quarterback Mark Sanchez's 7-yard bootleg touchdown on fourth-and-1.
It was the most rushing yards the Steelers have allowed since Baltimore ran for 175 yards against them in Week 16 of 2009 and only the second time a team ran for over 100 yards against the Steelers in their last fifteen games. Head coach Mike Tomlin's crew, still ranked No. 1 in the NFL against the run, had allowed an average of 60 yards on the ground prior to Sunday's contest.
"I think obviously that was a point of emphasis," fullback Tony Richardson said. "Rex pretty much challenged us all in the running game to get back to form. It's one of those things that running the football is not a pretty thing. We know they're going to make some plays, which they did, and we made some. They're a good football team, but I have faith and trust in our offensive line and I think our backs, LaDainian [Tomlinson] and Shonn [Greene], ran extremely hard."
The Steelers' two outside linebackers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, frequently make running the ball nearly impossible, and the task didn't get easier when Jets right tackle Damien Woody underwent arthroscopic knee surgery Wednesday. In his place stepped Wayne Hunter, a veteran tackle and jumbo tight end who made his first career tackle start and contributed mightily in the 22-17 victory.
"It felt great," Hunter said. "Like I said, it was a long time. I was just hoping to pick up where Woody left off. I won't know until I see the game tape but I think I did pretty good."
While Hunter typically squared off against Woodley, his tackle on the opposite side, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, had to deal with Harrison. Ferguson's tall frame and long arms were a perfect deterrent to the smaller, compact Harrison, who was held without a sack and duped on the Sanchez bootleg as he converged on the diving Greene. Also, at least once the former number four overall draft pick in the 2006 NFL draft moved to the right side of the line to assist Hunter in the run game.
"I think Wayne did an excellent job," Ferguson said. "Woody is an excellent tackle and I think we have a really good offensive line coach in Bill Callahan. The fact is that when somebody goes down, we can step up. Wayne did an excellent job filling in there. This wasn't an easy week. It was a game where you had to produce, you definitely had to produce because of Woodley and Harrison and everything that Pittsburgh does."
Many teams decide to air it out when they play against Pittsburgh, but the Jets realize that especially in the winter conditions, it's imperative to be able to run the ball. Ryan is a staunch believer in keeping the ball on the turf and said he would have loved to see twice the number of 23 carries that Tomlinson and Greene shared on Sunday.
Facing such a formidable front seven yet still wanting to run, Ryan and coordinator Brian Schottenheimer utilized a variety of personnel packages to get the job done, including the use of extra offensive lineman Rob Turner.
"Obviously you saw Rob Turner play a lot yesterday," Richardson said. "When you have two great outside linebackers in Woodley and Harrison out there, it's a better matchup. You have a guy like Rob Turner, who is very versatile and can block those guys, you take advantage of that. That's the good thing about our personnel. We can put people in places and allow them to make plays. We did give them some different looks. We went big a lot."
The Jets' longest run on the ground was Tomlinson's 11-yard first-quarter run, but LT (11 carries, 49 yards) and Greene (12-40) averaged 3.9 yards per carry, which put the visitors in manageable second- and third-down situations. Without the guts to run the ball against the league's best rush defense, the 10-4 Green & White might not have moved one win closer to a playoff berth.
"I think it was huge to get to 100 against them," Hunter said. "It's a credit to Schotty. He did his study, he did his homework and he knew what was going to work against these guys. We just stuck to that script."