Steelers 24, New York Jets 19.
- Heath Miller’s return to the lineup had a tremendous impact on the running and passing game of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Miller has been lauded as one of the elite tight ends in league circles for several years. Sunday night was one of his most impressive games to date. NFL Network’s Solomon Wilcots put the spotlight on Miller twice on two separate run plays. On the first, Miller drove Jets inside linebacker (and leading tackler) David Harris a full seven yards down the field. Miller locked up on Harris, inside the shoulders, and put him on skates. Rashard Mendenhall could have carried a dozen eggs through that hole without incident. On the second highlight, Miller blocks another Jets linebacker, Bryan Thomas, right into the endzone. Miller seems to be the only player who is playing through the whistle. A play that started on the four or five yard line ends with Miller tossing Thomas on his rear end towards the back of the end zone. Miller was targeted a team-high 4 times in the passing game. Ben Roethlisberger missed him for an easy touchdown in the first quarter, but Heath Miller cemented his contribution on the ground.
- Bruce Arians. Few Steelers fans have called for the “head” of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians as often as I have. We routinely lament Arians’ lack of imagination in the Red Zone; his infusion of finesse into our beloved Steelers scheme; his reluctance to use a fullback in situations that clearly call for a lead blocker; and, perhaps worst of all, his tenure with the Browns (usually an automatic disqualifier). If I slam him when the team fails to do what it’s supposed to do, I have to give him some love when they exceed expectations. Arians (likely influenced by head coach Mike Tomlin) went to the run when it mattered most. It’s a little known fact that Arians also leaned on the run in the Super Bowl vs. the Arizona Cardinals in order to buy some time for his weary defense. His efforts shortened the game and facilitated the ability of the Steelers to close that game out without allowing too much time for Kurt Warner to engineer a comeback. Scott-Kemoeatu-Pouncey/Legurski-Foster-Essex-Adams and the tight end triumvirate of Miller, Johnson & Spaeth beat the Jets front-7 to a pulp. No play epitomize the effectiveness of this approach more than Rashard Mendenhall’s run to close out the first quarter. The Steelers new, fast mini-bus delivered a crushing blow to Jets safety Eric Smith.
- Ben Roethlisberger. Statistically, Sunday’s game was as bad as it gets. Roethlisberger’s passer rating at the end of the game was 35.2. Yet, he played a great game against a great defense. The Jets defense, coached by Rex Ryan, had put the smack down on Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the weeks preceding their trip to Pittsburgh. 10-19, 121 yards, 2 interceptions and 0 touchdowns. That’s ugly. It’s worth noting that Roethlisberger was inches away from completing 2 touchdown passes in this game, too. He missed a wide open throw to Heath Miller early and, Mendenhall slipped in the flat with only Antonio “I HOLD, I Don’t TACKLE” Cromartie in his path. Roethlisberger’s game was punctuated by a sweet flip pass to Mendenhall; a huge 12-yard rush while facing 3rd-and-12 on that historic first drive; a touchdown run; and a few big throws to Miller and Brown on the game’s final drive.
- Special Teams. The Steelers won the “hidden yardage” battle against the Jets on Sunday. Pittsburgh punted once and swarmed all over Brad Smith and Jerricho Cotchery consistently. This area of the game was decisive for the Jets in Week 15. Brad Smith took the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. This time, the Steelers special teams out-kicked, out-returned, and out-covered the Jets. Mike Westoff is one of the best in the business, but his charges were not up to the job in the AFC Championship Game.
- Rashard Mendenhall. He did it all. Without his performance in the first half, the Steelers might well be at home with 30 other teams in this league. Instead, Rashard cranked out 121 yards on 27 carries. His day also included a touchdown in which he placed the ball over the goal line while wearing Bart Scott like a pair of too-tight shorts. Mendenhall ran hard; caught passes out of the backfield; and, did not turn the ball over. He gets the Game Ball.
Next stop? Dallas. “Can’t wait!!!!”