The Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets have each struggled with the ball recently, combining for 13 consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown.
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While Pittsburgh has still found ways to win, the same can’t be said for New York.
The Steelers look for their fifth straight victory Sunday against the slumping Jets, who are searching for their first win in Pittsburgh in franchise history – a victory that would be especially meaningful for wide receiver Santonio Holmes in his return to Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh (10-3) has allowed 9.0 points per game during its winning streak, scoring two defensive touchdowns in last Sunday’s 23-7 win against Cincinnati. That has helped make up for an offense that has totaled one TD in its last 11 quarters since scoring in the first during a 19-16 overtime win Nov. 28 at Buffalo.
Troy Polamalu is a huge reason the first-place Steelers have a one-game lead over Baltimore in the AFC North. The star safety, whose late sack and forced fumble set up Pittsburgh’s winning touchdown in a 13-10 victory over the Ravens on Dec. 5, has four interceptions in his last four games, including two – one returned for a touchdown – against the Bengals.
"No one is playing as good as Troy Polamalu in football right now, in my opinion," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "When we need a play, he provides it."
Pittsburgh hopes the offense can also chip in from time to time. The unit may receive a boost with tight end Heath Miller set to return after missing the Bengals game with a concussion. Still, Ben Roethlisberger has thrown only one touchdown pass in his last three games, and running back Rashard Mendenhall has cracked the 100-yard mark once in his last 10.
Receiver Mike Wallace, who had three consecutive 100-yard games and four touchdowns from Nov. 8-21, has only 187 receiving yards and no touchdowns over his last three.
"We just have to finish drives. That’s our biggest problem," Wallace said. "We don’t really ever have a problem moving the ball. It’s just finishing drives."
If Roethlisberger and Wallace plan to connect, they will have to contend with the Jets’ Darrelle Revis, whose reputation as a shut-down cornerback doesn’t seem to scare Wallace.
"I don’t care about nobody. He’s just another guy. He’s a real good player, but, hey, I’m a real good player myself," Wallace said. "I don’t fear nobody and I don’t back down from nobody."
Wallace replaced Holmes in the Steelers’ starting lineup after Pittsburgh traded Holmes to the Jets for a fifth-round pick April 12.
While Holmes was the MVP of the 2009 Super Bowl for the Steelers, his off-the-field problems included a four-game suspension at the start of this season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. At the time, he said he was "very shocked" to be traded, and said he’s been looking forward to Sunday’s return.
"It’s been on my mind for quite some time, I just never let it play a factor until now," Holmes said. "I spent four years there. It’s definitely time to show these guys, ‘Why let me go?’"
Although Holmes leads the Jets with 68.9 receiving yards per game, New York’s offense hasn’t provided much help lately.
The Jets (9-4) were held out of the end zone for the second straight game during Sunday’s 10-6 home loss to Miami, dropping their second straight for the first time this season.
Coach Rex Ryan said during the third quarter he considered benching Mark Sanchez, who has four interceptions and no touchdowns in his last two games. He threw his 12th interception of the season and finished 17 of 44 for 216 yards against the Dolphins.
Despite Sanchez’s struggles, Ryan intends to stick with his second-year quarterback.
"Mark is our quarterback, he’s my quarterback," Ryan said Monday. "He’ll always be our starting quarterback. Even if I did yank him for whatever reason, he’s our quarterback. We’re going to go as far as he takes us."
The Jets hope Sanchez can help lead them to their first-ever victory in Pittsburgh. The franchise is 0-7 all-time in the Steel City, including a 20-17 divisional playoff loss Jan. 15, 2005.
With Sanchez off target last Sunday, the running game fell flat as well. LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene combined for a season-low 66 rushing yards, averaging just 2.4 per carry.
Things don’t figure to get any easier against the Steelers’ top-ranked run defense, which is allowing 60.1 yards per game – the only team giving up fewer than 87. During its winning streak, Pittsburgh has held opponents to 53.0 yards per game on the ground.
New York’s offense took another hit when right tackle Damien Woody had arthroscopic knee surgery Wednesday. He may miss the remainder of the regular season.
The Jets, who lost 45-3 to New England on Dec. 6, have slipped two games behind the Patriots in the AFC East, but they still hold a two-game lead over three teams in the wild-card chase.
New York’s strength and conditioning coach, Sal Alosi, won’t be on the sidelines for this one. Alosi was suspended indefinitely after deliberately tripping a Dolphins player along the sideline during a punt last weekend.