Ben Roethlisberger won a Super Bowl his second NFL season. His counterpart today in Pittsburgh — second-year Jets QB Mark Sanchez — wants to ensure that the Green & White will have a chance to compete for the Lombardi Trophy this January.
The 9-4 Jets, who likely saw their AFC East hopes vanish in a 45-3 loss to the Patriots in Week 13 and then followed up with a 10- 6 defeat to the Dolphins in Week 14, aren't in a must-win mode just yet. But they must get better play from Sanchez in particular and the offense as a whole these final three weeks or they just might be staying home when the dance starts.
Frigid conditions await Sanchez this afternoon at Heinz Field as temps are expected to range from 17 to 22 degrees and there will be periodic snow flurries. The acclaimed Steelers defense, ranked second in points allowed (15.2) and tied for first in football with 39 sacks, will test a struggling young signal caller.
"You're a hero when you win and you're the goat when you lose," said Sanchez, who has completed 44 percent of his passes in two cold December contests with four interceptions. "That's the nature of playing this position and you have to have thick skin, you have to be mentally tough and it's a good challenge for me early in my career where people might doubt me — even in the building. You have to be sharp and show that you can be accurate."
The kid gloves are off this winter. That was apparent last Sunday when Rex Ryan acknowledged that he considered pulling Sanchez in the second half against the Dolphins and then a day later when the head coach commented on his franchise passer's footwork.
"It's about taking the right amount of steps and matching up the timing," said Sanchez this past week. "When the pocket collapses, you just have to ad-lib a little bit and do your best to put two hands on the football. That's another thing we talked about — you can't leave it uncovered like that. There are a lot of things we're working on."
Sanchez was sacked a career-high six times against the 'Fins and the Jets offensive line is in transition entering Blitzburgh. Wayne Hunter, a 6'5", 303-pounder in his seventh season from Hawaii, has replaced Damien Woody in the lineup as Woody had arthroscopic surgery to repair his MCL this week. The Jets would figure to have an extremely difficult time moving on the ball on the ground today considering the Steelers own the NFL's top rush defense at just 60 yards a contest.
The Jets need a confident Sanchez or else this game could get away from them. Pittsburgh won a 23-7 contest last week over the Bengals and didn't even need an offensive touchdown as both all-world S Troy Polamalu and LB LaMarr Woodley returned Carson Palmer interceptions for touchdowns.
"Now is the time to really stick to the game plan and just be smart with the way you go about moving in the pocket, hanging on to the ball, your footwork and all that," said Sanchez.
Roethlisberger, who became the first quarterback in NFL history to compile a 13-0 regular-season record as a rookie back in 2004, is an exception. He tasted unbelievable success early on when you consider the Steelers won three road playoff games his second season and the 6'5", 241-pounder became, at 23, the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
In his second regular season of action, Roethlisberger completed 66.4 percent of his passes for 2,621 yards with 17 TDs and 11 INTs. Sanchez, off to a fast start in 2010 with eight touchdowns and zero interceptions through five games, has completed just 53.3 percent of his throws for 2,852 yards with 16 TDs and 12 INTs.
"These are things that happen with a young quarterback. You go through times where they may struggle a little bit and then you have times where they're on fire," said RB LaDainian Tomlinson, who has caught more Sanchez tosses (49) than anyone else on the roster. "During the times when they are struggling, as his teammates we have to make plays for him. We have to be able to keep encouraging and be the rocks that he can depend on when times get tough for him."
And that means giving him time in the pocket, catching passes on the numbers and providing a second dimension with a Ground & Pound component. A week after the Jets defense bounced back, it would be a welcome sign to see Sanchez with some spring in his step.
"You remind him about all the times he was playing well and all the great throws he was making. Just turn it loose. Turn it loose and have fun," said Tomlinson, the future Hall of Famer. "It's the same game you've been playing since you were a kid. Don't doubt yourself now. There are a lot of people who want to be in your position and a lot of people who can't do it. But you're picked because you can do it."
According to Ryan, Sanchez had a good week of practice. But there are dramatic differences in preparing against the scout team and actually facing Casey Hampton, James Harrison and the aforementioned Woodley and Polamalu (although on Friday Polamalu wasn't expected to play against the Jets after aggravating an Achilles'/calf injury vs. the Bengals). You can see the simulated blitz looks and multiple coverages in Florham Park, but the Pittsburgh physicality isn't there.
"This game can't get here soon enough for him — he's ready to go," said Ryan of No. 6. "But I think he realizes, too, that this opponent is really good. You have to be smart, you have to take care of the football, and he understands that. But the competitor in Mark Sanchez, he's out there, he's ready."
Once considered a lock for the playoffs, the Jets still are in good shape to return to the postseason. But they've hit a critical juncture and they need their young quarterback to take a step forward.
"We need to play our best," Sanchez said, "and it's about time we started playing at our best."