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AFC title game grades: Jets-Steelers

Grading out the performances from the Steelers' 24-19 victory over the Jets in the AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field ...

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger's name is within range of being up there with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning when it comes to the NFL's most elite quarterbacks. He may not put up gaudy numbers or flash stylish form, but this effort illustrated the entire palate of greatness Roethlisberger possesses -- save for a hairy moment when he bobbled a snap and took a safety. Don't look at the numbers. Look at what Roethlisberger did. He improvised, extended plays and showed the will of a champion. Early, Roethlisberger managed a run-oriented attack. Later, he picked apart maybe the best secondary in football. Grade: A

Running Backs: Whether it was by design or just instincts, early on Mendenhall continually bounced runs outside with great success. Matched one-on-one with a linebacker or defensive back, it was no match. Mendenhall dominated inside as well, after the Jets' defense was gassed by staying on the field so much. He also busted a pair of big plays off screens. He finished almost every run falling forward for extra yardage. Isaac Redman stepped in and had moments, as well. The Steelers could have used more production in the second half. Grade: A-

Receivers: If you judge only the catches and yards-after-catch, the Steelers wideouts were not exactly overwhelming. But time after time, as Pittsburgh attacked the edges of the Jets' defense, the receivers -- namely Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller -- sealed lanes for Mendenhall. Even on Roethlisberger's improvised two-yard touchdown run, receivers picked up key blocks. As for receptions, it was more quality than quantity, but more than enough. Grade: B-

Offensive Line: A tremendous effort start-to-finish, even more impressive when you consider Pittsburgh lost talented center Maurkice Pouncey to a leg injury on the first possession. It was sheer domination of the Jets' front seven, specifically at the point of attack against ends Shaun Ellis, Trevor Pryce and Mike DeVito. Guards Chris Kemoeatu and Ramon Foster did a fine job getting to the second level, as well. Backup center Doug Legursky's bad snap that gave up a Steelers safety could have been huge. Grade: A-

Defensive Line: The entire defensive front should be considered unsung heroes for the AFC champs. Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood and Casey Hampton consistently kept leverage and stuffed running lanes against the Jets, leaving the tackling to linebackers and safeties. Limiting the Jets to 1-yard rushing at the half is all you need to know, but the front three also knocked down several Mark Sanchez passes. Grade: A

Linebackers: Lawrence Timmons made the most noise, but the Steelers were consistent and sure tacklers. Timmons brought consistent pressure from the edges and LaMarr Woodley stifled the Jets' ground attack. There were some third-quarter breakdowns, particularly in pass coverage. Grade: B

Defensive Backs: Troy Polamalu clearly was not himself, while Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor committed three silly defensive holding penalties. Once the Steelers took a 24-0 lead, the secondary gave up much more yardage in softer coverage. Still, the back-breaking play was turned in by Ike Taylor, when he crushed Sanchez on a blitz, forcing a fumble that William Gay scooped up and returned for a touchdown. Grade: B-

Special Teams: It was a mostly nondescript night for all Steelers special teams, but nondescript is what most special teams coaches love. Antonio Brown got the Steelers good field position on kick returns. Shaun Suisham was good on an easy field goal. Suisham did kick the ball out-of-bounds, giving the Jets the ball at the 40, setting up their first points. Grade: C

Coaching: Mike Tomlin had his team prepared and focused. Both coordinators came out of the box with a variety of looks that confused and set back the Jets. Offensively, the Steelers mixed up runs and play-actions, with good protection forcing Jets DBs to stay in coverage longer. On one scoring drive, the Steelers gained every yard via the ground. On the next scoring drive, 58 of the 66 yards came through the air. Defensively, the Steelers stuffed everything through the first half, but stayed in soft cover-two defense too long in the second half, allowing the Jets back into the game. Grade: B+

Quarterback: Once Sanchez got into a rhythm in the second half, he clearly reached another level as a gamer. It was Roethlisberger-like, the way Sanchez extended plays, improvised, made plays and showed tremendous leadership and toughness. The problem was, Sanchez couldn't stay on the field throughout the first half. The strip-fumble in the first half was a crucial blow. Grade: B

Running Backs: It was a mostly miserable effort. Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson could do nothing in the first half. They had their moments in the second half when the Jets attempted the monumental comeback, but Tomlinson getting stopped on 4th-and-goal was brutal, even if the sequence wound up with the Jets earning a safety. Grade: D

Receivers: The tale of two halves was best illustrated here: In the first half, Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards were invisible men, not catching a single ball and getting blanketed by Steelers coverage. In the second half, Holmes made a huge adjustment to get the Jets going with a 45-yard TD reception. Edwards came up with big catches as well, and both had big blocks on screens. Dustin Keller was consistent throughout. Grade: C

Offensive Line: The Jets' front five could do nothing with the angles and leverage the Steelers' defensive front took in the first-half. It proved to be the difference, even after the Jets offensive line established itself better in the second half. Grade: C-

Defensive Line: There was decent pressure up the middle throughout, but this one was decided in the first half by getting manhandled in the ground game. Neither could the Jets' front get to Roethlisberger. The image that defined the night was Roethlisberger's scramble and 14-yard completion on third-down late to seal the game and New York's fate. Grade: D

Linebackers: Too many missed tackles early, too many missed opportunities and tough breakdowns in pass coverage. David Harris was decent, but when three of your top five leading tacklers are defensive backs, that means the linebackers are getting worked. Grade: C-

Defensive Backs: All in all, it was a fine effort. It was just asking too much to expect a game-changing effort in the Jets secondary, when the front-seven was gashed in the running game, and the Jets also allowed Roethlisberger to extend plays. A costly penalty by Eric Smith and breakdown in coverage by Drew Coleman were the biggest blunders. Grade: B-

Special Teams: It was a horrible effort. Steve Weatherford was inconsistent punting, leaving the Steelers a short field after a 28-yard punt in the decisive second quarter. Brad Smith also bungled a kickoff return and never could break free, and the Jets also had a roughing the punter penalty. Grade: C-

Coaching: Rex Ryan smartly challenged Heath Miller's catch inside the 5-yard line early on. Still, the brash one was humbled badly in the first half when no one on the Jets sideline had an answer to the Steelers early onslaught. Ryan and his staff do get huge points for halftime adjustments and exploiting the soft Steelers coverage in the defensive backfield that nearly brought the Jets all the way back. Grade: C

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