Commentary

O-line won't need kick start in Pittsburgh

Rex Ryan's midseason wake-up call sparked Jets' offensive line to strong stretch run

Updated: January 18, 2011, 10:12 PM ET
By Ian Begley | Special to ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- This wasn't Rex Ryan chiding Tom Brady for watching a Broadway play instead of a football game.

And it wasn't Ryan spouting off about a "personal" matchup with Bill Belichick.

This was Ryan, behind closed doors and away from the cameras and microphones, delivering a personal message to his players: If you don't step up, you can forget about the Super Bowl.

Ryan addressed the team the night before its season-altering 22-17 win over the Steelers, calling the Jets out in the wake of back-to-back losses to New England and Miami.

"Step up if you want to be a champion," Ryan told his players, according to veteran guard Brandon Moore. "If you want to go to the Super Bowl and win a Super Bowl, take it up a level. Play a little harder."

Ryan was especially critical of his offensive line -- his pride and joy -- for allowing six sacks and generating few holes for the Jets' running game in a 10-6 home loss to the Dolphins.

"He called us out," left guard Matt Slauson said. "He said, 'Listen, you guys are my pride and joy and last week was not good enough.'"

The linemen listened.

The next afternoon, they helped the Jets gain 106 yards on the ground against the Steelers' league-leading run defense. The total was roughly 43 more yards than Pittsburgh allowed per game in 2010. The Jets' offensive line also limited the Steelers to just one sack.

The performance was even more impressive given the fact that Wayne Hunter started at tackle for Damien Woody, marking the first time in 48 games that the team needed to plug a backup into the offensive line to start a game.

"I think [Ryan's speech] helped us because we all know that Rex kind of leans on the O-line," Slauson said. "He said 'Guys, we have to get better.' And we were like, 'OK. Definitely.'"

[+] EnlargeJets Offensive Line
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesThe offensive line must play well against a Pittsburgh defense that has allowed only 126 yards per game in the playoffs thus far.

The Jets averaged 168 yards per game on the ground in the final three regular-season games, all without Woody, who was sidelined with a right MCL injury. That number was inflated by the 276 yards Gang Green ate up against Buffalo. But another telling stat is this: The line allowed just two sacks in the final three weeks of the regular season, helping Mark Sanchez successfully protect a right shoulder injury. In the playoffs, it has helped open holes for the Jets against Indianapolis (169 rushing yards, 33:07 time of possession) with Woody. And it helped the Jets run for 120 yards against New England and allowed no sacks in Gang Green's 28-21 upset for the ages.

Earlier this week, some members of the Jets' front five downplayed the impact of Ryan's speech, claiming the unit has played well all season. And, for the most part, it has.

The Jets finished the regular season fourth in rushing at 148.4 yards per game and allowed one or no sacks in seven games this season.

"We've had time to define what we're doing and get used to what we're doing," center Nick Mangold said.

Because the line had played well outside of the Miami game, some players could have blown off Ryan's words as bluster from the always-boisterous coach. But they didn't.

"Guys took it as, 'You know what, I get it. I need to step it up,'" Moore said. "[They] took it as a challenge, met it and continue to do it so I think that showed a lot of character."

The Jets' offensive line returns to the scene of Ryan's callout this weekend for the AFC Championship Game. It will face a Pittsburgh team on Sunday that's allowing just 126 yards per game in the playoffs, including an AFC-low 35 on the ground. Just as they did in Week 15, the Jets will start Hunter at tackle in place of Woody. But they probably won't need any motivational words from Ryan on Saturday to get ready for the Steelers.

They all know what's at stake: They sit 60 minutes away from the franchise's first Super Bowl appearance since 1969.

"It's three more weeks," Mangold said. "If you can't give everything you have for three more weeks, then there's no point of even walking in this locker room."

Ian Begley is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.

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