FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Nick Mangold stood at his locker, his long blond hair unruly, his scruffy beard giving him the blue-collar appeal of a lumberjack or longshoreman. As he reached his hand to smooth it, his knuckles were still crusted with fresh blood from Wednesday's practice.
The New York Jets' Pro Bowl center is the calm eye of the storm in the noisy trenches. He snaps the ball and has an uncanny ability to spring up and keep nose tackles from plowing toward second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez, or widen a lane for running back Shonn Greene.
"There's great respect with many of the great nose tackles that I get the joy of facing," Mangold said. "I wouldn't see it any other way."
Mangold honed his skills this summer against one of the best, Jets nose tackle Kris Jenkins. Their wrestling matches were well-documented by HBO's "Hard Knocks," but Jenkins was injured in the first game of the season, a loss to Baltimore. Mangold is better for sparring with Jenkins, and better prepared for a rematch with Hampton with the winner reaching the Super Bowl.
"He's a great player, got enormous strength," Mangold said of Hampton. "It's going to be a tough task."
The Steelers have the best interior run defense, but the Jets were second in the league in getting first downs by running the ball up the middle.
"This game was about winning your matchup one-on-one," said Jets offensive lineman Wayne Hunter, who is taking over at right tackle for Damien Woody, who went on injured reserve with an Achilles tendon injury suffered during the Indianapolis Colts game.
"Nick's hands and leverage is his strongest point," Hunter said. "He's always gets his hands in the right places. A lot of times who ever gets their hands in the chest first wins, in the trenches. For a big guy like him, he's got real speed. And you've got all three you've got a Pro Bowl."
"Once he gets them there, the guy's done," said left guard Matt Slauson.
One observer on the Jets' sidelines took a look at the New England Patriots' Vince Wilfork in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game, and said it looked like the Pats nose tackle wanted to be anywhere but heading back out for another round against Mangold. After the loss, the veteran lineman ducked out without talking to the media.
"I get a lot of time against [Mangold] in training camp and hands down the best center in the NFL," said Jets defensive end Mike DeVito. "He's incredibly smart and he knows how to use your leverage against you."
Mangold will be key this week against Pittsburgh, bare messed-up knuckles and all.