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Pregame stretch:
Steelers vs. Jets

October 11, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

Pittsburgh Steelers (0-4) vs. New York Jets (3-2)
Sunday, 1 p.m. EST, CBS

Announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms and Bill Cowher
Annoyance factor: Conflicted. Many Steelers fans we know long ago swore off Nantz/Simms for a radio simulcast during the games, but will they turn the TV volume back up to hear what Coach Cowher has to say? And will Cowher be appropriately brutal in assessing the rubble of his former unit? And, more importantly, will Cowher acknowledge at any time that Simms is speaking gibberish? For that matter, will Nantz confess his long-standing hatred for Cowher and all things black and yellow?
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Weather – or not?: Cloudy, 20 percent chance of showers, mid 60s. At this point, it appears the nor’easter spinning up the coast will have cleared NYC by game time, but such storms tend to be unpredictable.
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Referee: Terry McAulay
Competence factor: Since the dawn of Twitter, this is the longest we can ever remember the NFL’s refereeing assignments not leaking. McAulay is a former Super Bowl white hat and his current crew averages about 11 accepted penalties per game, which is bottom third, but is top third in pass interference flags.
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The line: New York -1
Smarts say: This line gives you an idea of just how much money is still being bet on the Steelers by people who cannot accept they are as bad as their record. After opening at Jets -2.5, it swung as far as pick 'em, before Vegas could get enough money on the Jets to get it back to the current level. Such uninformed betting – called “public” betting – often skews lines for teams with national/international fan bases, like the Steelers, Packers and Cowboys. A legit spread in this game would probably be something like -5. The over/under of 41.5 means something like Jets 23-20.
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Key matchup:
Steelers offensive line vs. Jets “Fortunate Sons”
Because: Did you see the New York defensive line Monday night? If Ben Roethlisberger did, he’s been having nightmares all week. Wilkerson, Richardson, Harrison (Muhammad, Sheldon and Damon if you’re scoring at home). Ages: 24, 23 and 22. Two first-rounders sandwiched around a free agent who’s earned the nickname “Big Snacks” (plural). All studs (think Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Kiesel in their primes) and all probably salivating at the prospect of facing Pittsburgh’s banged up and sieve-like offensive line. Linemen in a 3-4 are often primarily thought of as run cloggers (and teams are averaging 78 yards/game at 3 yards/carry vs. the Jets) but these guys have also contributed 6.5 sacks and a couple of forced fumbles in their disruptive routines. While it would be almost physically impossible for Pittsburgh’s offensive line to play worse than it did in London, the prospects don’t look promising for it playing a whole lot better.

Quick hits:
+If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you have taken our advice and observed for yourself that Ziggy Hood gets blown five yards backward off the line of scrimmage on easily more than 50 percent of the plays he’s on the field. The fact that we was only moved down the depth chart this week after 2+ seasons of poor play only highlights how deep the dearth of talent on the Steelers roster really is. Cam Heyward clearly has been better than Hood, but do not confuse that with being good, at least not yet.
+ Probably no move signifies how fast and how far the Steelers have fallen than the re-signing of linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, who was let go two months ago when it was clear he’s not good enough for the NFL. The only problem was that the guy Pittsburgh kept in his stead, Kion Wilson, quickly proved himself to be more not good enough. Sad.
+ More sad irony: We’ve lamented a lot in this column that the Steelers have struggled at left tackle because they’ve never been bad enough to draft in the position where you get an elite left tackle (first six picks). Well, they now have a left tackle in Levi Brown who was picked fifth in 2007. Of course, he’s never played to that level and comes to Pittsburgh as someone who is not good just not as bad as the current options. On the bright side, with the Steelers headed for the kind of record that’ll get them a top six pick, there are some intriguing left tackle prospects out there for 2014, most notably Jake Matthews at Texas A&M and Taylor Lewan at Michigan. + In case you missed it, former Colts GM Bill Polian called Ben Roethlisberger’s performance against the Vikings one of the greatest individual efforts he’s ever seen in pro football with Roethlisberger virtually playing one-on-five in his own backfield all afternoon. While there’s some truth in Polian’s comments, it highlights the trap Pittsburgh has been dancing around for years and finally fallen into. Roethlisberger is clearly best when scrambling and improvising, but that’s also when he’s clearly most susceptible to injuries and turnovers. There are many talent evaluators who whisper that not only would the quarterback figuratively “not know what to do if he had a pocket” but that he literally would know what to do because he’s never had to learn to read defenses, sit in the pocket and get rid of the football. So, we’ve got a situation where the Steelers offensive line needs to be bad at pass protection, just not too bad, for the team to excel offensively. Obviously, the current offensive line has gotten too bad for Ben to be good. Got it?

The pick: The New York tabloids declared “A Star Is Born” after Geno Smith’s performance in dispatching the Falcons on Monday night, which means one thing, Geno Smith is due for a fall. The question here, though, is whether Pittsburgh is good enough to take advantage of an obvious trap game for the Jets. That’ll mean they need to catch the pass or two that Smith throws right to them and fall on the fumble or two that is right in their hands (unlike what they did in London). It means they’ll need to limit their own turnovers to zero or one. It means they’ll have to take a chance on fourth down or maybe even run a fake punt or field goal. Coming up with a game plan to win here is easy. Executing that game plan is another matter. It requires that you have enough good players and, you know …..J-E-T-S 28-20.
Last week: We were wrong about the Steelers getting the first of few wins on the year in London, but the Vikings plus the points came through, leaving us at 2-2 straight up (which where we thought the Steelers would be) and 3-1 against the spread.

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