Which matchups will define New York Jets-versus-Pittsburgh Steelers?
The New York Jets (1-2) are preparing to visit the Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2) in a battle of AFC teams hoping to get back to .500 after a disappointing Week 3 loss.
I’m looking at these particular matchups as the most important ones of the game for the Jets if they wish to be victorious in Zach Wilson’s return.
Jets EDGE Carl Lawson vs. Steelers LT Dan Moore
Jets edge rusher Carl Lawson is off to a slow start by his standards. In his first three games after returning from an Achilles injury that cost him his 2021 season, Lawson has not been the consistently impactful pass rusher that he was when we last saw him in 2020.
Lawson leads the Jets defense with 9 pressures, but that only ranks 28th in the NFL among edge rushers, and his pressures have tended to be relatively modest in value. He’s not getting the dominant victories that he racked up in 2020. That year, Lawson ranked sixth among edge rushers with 64 pressures, and many of those pressures were instantaneous wins that destroyed plays.
The Jets need vintage Carl Lawson if they are going to revive a disappointing pass rush that ranks 26th in the NFL with only 1.7 sacks per game.
Lawson’s opponent this week will be Steelers left tackle Dan Moore. The second-year man was a fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M in 2021.
Moore is a tougher matchup than many Jets fans realize. He is off to a great start in pass protection. Moore has only allowed 2 pressures this season. His allowed pressure rate of 1.7% is the best in the NFL among qualified left tackles.
New York is paying Lawson the big bucks to live in opposing backfields on a weekly basis regardless of who is blocking him. Moore is a formidable opponent for Lawson, but if Lawson is at his best, he should be equally challenging for Moore. At his peak, Lawson caused problems for just about every tackle he faced.
As we saw on his film against the Bengals last week, Lawson seems to have the same explosiveness he did prior to the injury. He’s just in the process of shaking off the rust from a technical standpoint. Right now, his finesse moves simply aren’t working consistently enough.
My opinion is that Lawson is overthinking things right now. There are times when he could win a battle with a quick and simple bull rush, but he is drawing things out for too long while attempting to throw multi-faceted rush moves.
Perhaps this week, Lawson simplifies things and tries to rely more on his physical gifts while he continues to rediscover his rhythm in the technical department.
The Jets cannot afford to make a bad quarterback look good by allowing him to stand around in a cushy pocket all day. If they want to expose Mitchell Trubisky, they must put him under duress. Accomplishing that feat all starts with the battle between New York’s talented edge rusher and Pittsburgh’s up-and-coming blindside protector.
Jets run defense vs. Steelers run game
Ideally, Pittsburgh wants to rely on its Najee Harris-led running game to take pressure off of Trubisky. But the Steelers’ run game has not been successful thus far. Harris ranks fifth-worst among 42 qualified running backs with only 3.2 yards per carry.
It actually seems that Harris deserves more blame than the offensive line. Pittsburgh ranks well in a few run-blocking metrics. The Steelers are 14th in Pro Football Focus’s run-blocking grade (62.1) and 13th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards per carry (4.48).
Meanwhile, Harris’s individual metrics are not good. Out of 42 qualified running backs, Harris ranks 36th in missed tackles forced per carry (0.15) and 34th in yards after contact per carry (2.5).
Supporting this theory is the fact that Pittsburgh is having significantly more success when handing the ball to other players. On rush attempts by non-quarterbacks outside of Harris, the Steelers are averaging 6.0 yards per carry.
The Jets’ run defense has been a surprising strength so far. New York is ranked sixth-best in the NFL with 3.7 yards allowed per rush attempt.
This is a mismatch in the Jets’ favor. There is a golden opportunity for New York to shut down Harris and put the game completely on Trubisky’s shoulders, which is the opposite of what Pittsburgh wants.
The key to taking advantage of this mismatch will be tackling. As evidenced by the numbers above, the Steelers appear to be decent at creating holes, but Harris is not getting much out of them. The Jets need to ensure that Harris’s elusiveness continues to be a weakness.
If the Jets allow Harris to have his breakout game in the self-creation department, Pittsburgh’s run game is likely going to be very successful. All signs point to Harris’s lack of self-creation being the main reason for his own inefficiency.
New York’s tackling has been fine at most positions. However, the tackling at safety has been downright abysmal. Jordan Whitehead (6 missed tackles) and Lamarcus Joyner (4 missed tackles) have combined for the third-most missed tackles of any safety duo with 10. They are responsible for 36% of the Jets’ missed tackles this year (10 of 28).
This matchup comes down to the one-on-one battles in space between Harris and the Jets’ safeties. It’s a weakness-versus-weakness duel in which something has to give.
If Harris continues to struggle with creating bonus yardage even against these whiff-prone safeties, he will probably have another quiet game. But if Harris can take advantage of Whitehead and Joyner to finally accrue some huge chunks of after-contact yardage, the Jets defense might allow Harris to have his breakout game.
Jets pass-blocking vs. Steelers pass rush
The Jets are incredibly lucky that Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt is not playing in this game. It’s nearly impossible to envision the Jets offense having a successful day with Watt rushing against the likes of Conor McDermott.
But with Watt on the sidelines due to a torn pec, the Jets might have a chance to survive despite their injuries at the tackle position.
Pittsburgh is a completely different football team without Watt. Since Watt was drafted in 2017, the Steelers are 0-6 without him. That includes their losses to New England and Cleveland over the past two weeks.
The effectiveness of Pittsburgh’s pass rush is sliced in half when Watt sits out. With a healthy Watt, the Steelers produce 3.5 sacks per game. Without Watt, the Steelers only produce 1.7 sacks per game.
New York’s offensive line needs to take full advantage of Watt’s absence and create a comfortable environment for Zach Wilson in his return.
Obviously, the big key to all of this is McDermott at left tackle. With five sacks allowed in two-and-a-half games since 2021, we know he’s a liability. It’s up to Jets OC Mike LaFleur to find ways to mitigate McDermott’s impact.
Tight end help, running back help, chips from the wide receivers, rollouts to the opposite side, quick throws – whatever he decides to do, LaFleur cannot allow McDermott to be left alone in too many one-on-one battles.
That is because, if the Jets do leave McDermott alone, he’ll be going against Alex Highsmith, who is no slouch on the right edge. Highsmith leads the Steelers with 11 pressures, tying him for 11th among edge rushers. He also has 4.5 sacks this year (although 3.0 came in Week 1 with Watt healthy).
Outside of Highsmith, the only other major threat in Pittsburgh’s defensive front is Cameron Heyward. The veteran defensive tackle is still dominating, as he ranks seventh among DTs with 10 pressures.
Since Heyward lines up primarily on the right side of the defensive line, his most common opponent will be Jets left guard Laken Tomlinson. The big-money free agent signing is off to a rough start this year. If his struggles continue this week, Heyward will take full advantage.
The good news for New York is that Highsmith and Heyward have not been the same since Watt’s exit. After combining for 11 pressures in Week 1, Highsmith and Heyward have combined for only 10 pressures over the past two games (5.0 per game).
Beyond Highsmith and Heyward, the Steelers’ pass rush is weak. Highsmith and Heyward have six more pressures as a duo (21) than every other non-Watt defensive lineman on the team combined (15).
McDermott and Tomlinson could have their hands full with Highsmith and Heyward (although their decline since Watt’s exit suggests they might be slightly more manageable than it seems). But the right side of the Jets’ offensive line – RG Alijah Vera-Tucker and RT Max Mitchell – will face a favorable matchup against a collection of quiet players.
Vera-Tucker and Mitchell need to have fantastic games to make up for the struggles New York might have to work around on the left side. If that right side can take care of business, the Jets can allocate their help to the left side while trusting Vera-Tucker and Mitchell to survive on their own.