(CBSNY) —The Pittsburgh Steelers should not overlook the New York Jets. (The Steelers are three-point favorites.) Sam Darnold is only completing 61.7% of his passes for 240.2 yards per game, which doesn’t put him among the NFL’s better passers. But he is moving the Jets offense. Running back Le’Veon Bell will be facing his old team and will certainly be motivated. And the Jets run defense is one of the league’s best, allowing just 3.3 yards per carry and 88.8 yards per game.
The Steelers, at 8-6, hold the last wild-card spot over the Tennessee Titans, also 8-6. If the Steelers win out, they’re in the playoffs. If they lose this week to the New York Jets or next week to the Baltimore Ravens, then the situation could get a lot more complicated for them.
Of course, the Jets are the more winnable of the Steelers’ next two games. For proof, look no further than the Ravens’ convincing 42-21 win over the Jets just last week. Or just watch some Lamar Jackson highlights. The Ravens may prove to be the bigger challenge even if they clinch the top seed this week and sit Jackson and other starters next week. None of this is meant as a slight to Darnold, who has turned his season around to some degree. The Ravens, even while resting players, are simply a stronger team.
The Steelers will have rookie quarterback Devlin ‘Duck’ Hodges under center again this week. Hodges replaced Mason Rudolph, who replaced the injured Ben Roethlisberger earlier in the season. Hodges is coming off the worst showing of his young career, a 23-38, 202-yard, four-interception outing against the Buffalo Bills. Coach Mike Tomlin is sticking with the rookie anyway. Rudolph wouldn’t necessarily be a better option given his previous struggles this season, including a four-interception outing against the Cleveland Browns.
SportsLine senior NFL analyst Larry Hartstein sees turnovers as a major concern in this matchup. “I think you have to look at turnovers also, and both of these quarterbacks, Duck Hodges two horrific interceptions in the fourth quarter last week. On the other side, Sam Darnold 12 picks in 11 games. Seven fumbles, only lost two of them but still 14 turnovers in 11 games and now facing a Steelers team that has forced 35 turnovers second-most in the NFL.”
Defense may play an outsized roll in deciding this matchup. Both units rank in the NFL’s top 10, with Steelers better against the pass and the Jets better against the run. That Jets pass defense may be about to improve, however.
“I have to look at Jamal Adams the Pro Bowl safety for the Jets,” points out Hartstein. “He practiced on a limited basis and he said there is a high chance he returns this week from his foot injury. He wasn’t out there when the Ravens bludgeoned the Jets last Thursday 42-21. He is a difference-maker. Six and a half sacks, the all-time record for a defensive back is eight sacks so he’s only two sacks away. That was set by Adrian Wilson back in 2005. He has a pick-six, he has two forced fumbles, in the back end. If he is there and healthy, that spells trouble for Duck Hodges.”
James Conner may be in for a lot more than eight carries, now that he seems to be officially healthy and back. Likewise, Bell, as the Jets’ most reliable weapon, should see 20-plus touches again. Will that be enough against defenses that should have a field day?
The Jets play the Steelers Sunday @ 1 p.m. ET on CBS.