The Pittsburgh Steelers head to MetLife Stadium trying to keep their postseason hopes alive.
First thing’s first: the Steelers’ clash on Sunday against the 5-9 Jets is key for keeping the team in a postseason spot.
As is, the Steelers hold the sixth spot in the AFC over the Tennessee Titans, who are also 8-6. The Steelers are in pole position to keep that spot with a win over the Jets, as they currently hold a 5-3 conference record compared to Tennessee’s 4-3 tally. The Steelers’ final two games are intra-conference, against the Jets this Sunday and against the Ravens in week 17. The Titans face the Saints this week, leaving next week’s trip to Houston as their only remaining AFC game.
If the Steelers beat the Jets, they are guaranteed a better conference record than the Titans. Couple this with a Titans loss to New Orleans this week and the Steelers are guaranteed a better or equal record than Tennessee, with Pittsburgh owning the tiebreaker.
With the stakes laid out, here are three key matchups for this Sunday’s game.
Devlin Hodges vs. Himself
Devlin Hodges did not have a good night in prime time against Buffalo last week. Four interceptions and four sacks in a 17-10 loss do not look good on paper, and the line looks even worse when you consider that if the Steelers’ offense had made something out of Buffalo’s two turnovers, they could have won the game with the way the defense was keeping points off the board.
Despite Hodges’ nightmare week 15, Coach Tomlin has stuck with the third-stringer turned QB1:
It will be important for Hodges not to psyche himself out after what happened last weekend. It’s hard to say exactly what goes on in the mind of a professional athlete, but they’re known to say they put bad outings in the rearview mirror as soon as they’re over and move on. Let’s hope Hodges doesn’t have any flashbacks this Sunday.
The defense vs. Le’ Veon Bell
Maybe this one would be better titled “The Fans vs. Le’Veon Bell”:
It’s finally time for the Steelers to reunite with former running back Le’Veon Bell, who held out all of last season for a larger contract and eventually signed with the Jets in free agency this past spring. Honestly, Bell was worth the money, but the Steelers weren’t in a place to pay him that money, not with all the offensive talent they had stocking their unit. Nevertheless, Bell’s departure caused consternation among Steelers fans, though he’s likely been demoted to Public Enemy No. 2 after the Antonio Brown craziness. It’ll be up to the Steelers’ stout defense to stop Bell this Sunday, and NJ.com seems optimistic about their chances:
From the outside looking in, it sure seems like Bell has either lost a step or isn’t being utilized properly in New York. After all, his numbers have dropped off precipitously since his time in Pittsburgh. In his final two years with the Steelers, Bell averaged 94.8 rushing yards per game, plus 47.1 yards through the air. But this year, with the Jets, he’s plummeted to just 52 and 31.1 yards per game in those two facets.
Offensive returners vs. rust
Some good news has finally come for the offensive unit, which has been beset by injuries and devoid of star power lately, even with receiver Diontae Johnson getting his chance to shine:
Now the only worry is how McDonald and Smith-Schuster will play in their first game back. They’ve come back to practice, and they’ve assuredly been rehabbing their injuries in their time away from game action, but regaining their sea legs could be a bit of a concern early on.
Fortunately, these guys are professionals and it shouldn’t take more than a drive or two, but don’t be surprised or alarmed if McDonald and Smith-Schuster start off a little cold against the Jets.