This Sunday at 4:15 PM, the Steelers (6-3) will host the San Diego Chargers (4-5). The Steelers are tied with the Baltimore Ravens for 1st place in the AFC North, while the Chargers are one game behind the Denver Broncos in the AFC West. The Steelers have won five of the last six games against the Chargers, and lead the all-time series 19-6.
The Chargers have never won a regular season game in Pittsburgh. That’s right, NEVER. However, they have won the last two playoff games in Pittsburgh. The Steelers would like to keep their regular season home winning streak going against the Chargers by beating them on Sunday.
Both the Steelers and the Chargers have been among the NFL’s elite teams over the past 4 years, with a combined record of 90-38 since 2004. However, both team’s fans probably think their team has underperformed this season.
With a roster full of talented players, the Chargers came into the season as one of the favorites to win the AFC along with the New England Patriots. However, just as the Patriots saw their hopes dashed when Tom Brady was lost for the season, the Chargers suffered a similar letdown when linebacker Shawne Merriman decided to have season-ending knee surgery.
Of course, the Steelers are also familiar with playing without key players. This season, the Steelers’ roster has been like a M.A.S.H. unit. They have had to play games without key players such as Marvell Smith, Kendall Simmons, Casey Hampton, Willie Parker, Santonio Holmes, Aaron Smith, Bryant McFadden, DeShea Townsend, Rashard Mendenhall, and others.
Besides missing Merriman, the primary thing that has hurt the Chargers is the play of LaDainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson, a perennial All-Pro and the NFL rushing leader the past two seasons, is having a very poor season relative to his usual standards. For the first time in a long time, Tomlinson finds himself outside of the NFL’s top 10 in rushing. Unlike the Steelers’ Willie Parker, Tomlinson’s below average rushing numbers are not due to injury. Tomlinson has started every game this season, but has surpassed 100 yards rushing only twice. His current 69.9 yard per game average is the lowest of his career. Perhaps Tomlinson is feeling the results of the departure of fullback Lorenzo Neal during the offseason. Neal was one of the best blocking fullbacks in the league.
Tomlinson’s statistics will probably not be helped by facing the Steelers’ defense. The Steelers have the NFL’s top defense, and they are second in the NFL against the run. They are only allowing 69.2 rushing yards per game. LaDainian Tomlinson is likely to join Clinton Portis, Brandon Jacobs, Brian Westbrook, Jamaal Lewis, Fred Taylor, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Joseph Addai, on the list of running backs who have met with futility trying to run against the Steelers this season.
The Steelers also have a pro bowl running back who is having a below average season. However, Willie Parker’s sub-par rushing numbers are due to injury. Parker has missed 4 of the Steelers’ past 5 games. Fortunately for the Steelers, Mewelde Moore has represented himself well while replacing Parker. Parker is expected to play this week versus the Chargers.
The other big storyline of this game is the quarterback matchup. Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Chargers’ quarterback Philip Rivers were both drafted in the 1st round of the 2004 NFL draft, along with Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Roethlisberger was second to only New England’s Tom Brady in passer rating last season. This year, Big Ben’s 76.1 passer rating is ranked 25th in the NFL. Even worse, he’s tied for 2nd in the NFL in interceptions, a dubious honor. Roethlisberger has thrown 8 interceptions in the past 3 games, and has been sacked 10 times. He’s thrown only one touchdown pass during that span. Some Steelers fans have even called for Big Ben to be benched in favor of Byron Leftwich until his injured shoulder is better.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is having no such problems. Rivers enters the game leading the NFL with 21 touchdown passes. He’s also the AFC’s top rated passer. However, he may have difficulty maintaining that lofty passer rating against the league’s top passing defense. Rivers is averaging 261.6 yards passing per game this season. The Steelers’ defense is giving up only 171.1 passing yards per game. Something has to give.
Contrarily, Big Ben and the Steelers’ passing game will have to face the NFL’s worst passing defense. The Chargers give up 264.9 yards passing per game. Their poor passing defense was one of the reason that Chargers’ Defensive Coordinator Ted Cottrell was fired 2 weeks ago and replaced by Ron Rivera. Rivera, the former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator, was one of the candidates for the Steelers’ head coaching job that ultimately went to Mike Tomlin. Because Rivera has only coached one game as the Chargers’ defensive coordinator, it is unclear what defensive schemes the Steelers will see this week.
I am predicting that the Steelers will keep their regular season home winning streak going against the Chargers this weekend. My forecast is for a 24-13 Steelers victory.
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