Steelers secondary prepares for Jets QB Sanchez and his crew of crunch-time receivers


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Jets second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez does not have three Super Bowl rings like Tom Brady, but he does have the help of players who are proven performers in the postseason.

Brady and the Patriots have passed efficiently -- some might say easily -- against the Steelers for the past decade, so it might be natural to think the Steelers will have a less difficult assignment with the Jets in Sunday's AFC championship game at Heinz Field.

But New York has receivers who have stepped up with big efforts in playoff games.

The Steelers don't need a lesson on Santonio Holmes' playoff resume. He scored a touchdown in each of the Steelers' three playoff games after the 2008 season, including the game-winning touchdown catch in Super Bowl XLIII.

In six career playoff games, Holmes has scored five touchdowns, including a diving 7-yard touchdown grab that put the Jets up by 10 early in the fourth quarter against the Patriots last week.

The Steelers also know the receiver opposite Holmes quite well. Braylon Edwards, a former Cleveland Browns wideout who competed against the Steelers twice a season for the first four years of his career, has been almost as clutch as Holmes in playoff competition.

Edwards has six receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown in two playoff games this postseason. Edwards caught a 15-yard pass from Sanchez and fought his way into the end zone late in the second quarter against the Patriots last week.

In his first postseason last year, Edwards had six receptions for 156 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown catch in the AFC championship game against the Colts.

"They don't have what you would call a high-profile offense where they're throwing the ball over the field, but they have a lot of weapons," Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden said. "They have a lot of guys who can make big plays."

Holmes and Edwards are not the only receivers the Steelers have to worry about. Jerricho Cotchery led the Jets in receiving yards against the Patriots with 96. His 58-yard reception set up Holmes' touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Tight end Dustin Keller has not been a big factor in the first two playoff games, but he led the team in receptions with 55 during the regular season and was third on the team in touchdowns with five.

"They're rolling," said William Gay, the Steelers' third cornerback. "The quarterback is doing great. The offensive line is protecting him. The receviers are catching the ball. You have an offense ready to come at you and attack."

The Jets ranked 22nd in passing offense during the regular season, but the Steelers claim that ranking does not matter now because Sanchez elevated his game to a much higher level late in the regular season and playoffs.

Sanchez is 34 of 56 for 383 yards with three touchdowns and only one interception in two playoff games. Sanchez started playing better when the Jets beat the Steelers, 22-17, at Heinz Field on Dec. 19.

In that game, Sanchez was 19 for 29 for 170 yards and did not throw an interception for the first time in eight weeks. After throwing 12 interceptions in the first 14 weeks of the season, Sanchez has been intercepted only twice in the past five games (three regular season and two playoff contests).

"Just over these last four or five weeks, Mark is definitely getting better," Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. "He's going through all of his read progressions. Usually a guy of his stature, a couple of years in, they kind of don't know where to go. This guy is well-coached. He knows where to go. He knows where his reads are. He knows where his checkdowns are. He's been prepared and you can tell, week-in and week-out, these last four or five weeks."

Holmes did not hurt the Steelers in the first game at Heinz Field. Taylor held him to six receptions for 40 yards. It was Edwards who did most of the damage. He had his best game of the season with eight catches for 100 yards.

Edwards had some success against the Steelers when he was with the Browns, too. In a 2006 game at Cleveland Browns Stadium, Edwards had seven receptions for 137 yards, the fourth-most yards in a single game during his six-year career.

McFadden drew the assignment against Edwards for most of the first game at Heinz Field last month and understands his game well.

"He's very rangy and he uses his body well," McFadden said. "They used him a lot over the middle the last game, where receivers usually take a pounding. He did a good job with that the last game and was able to make some plays."


Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.


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