January 9, 2009
By Donald Starver
This Sunday, the San Diego Chargers will make their second trip of the season to Heinz Field to face the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the first game, the Steelers defeated the Chargers 11-10 in one of the strangest games in recent memory.
Several things made that game strange, first of which was the score. It was the first time in NFL history that a game had ever ended with a score of 11-10. The second oddity was the discrepancy between the on-field statistics and the final score. The Steelers dominated the time of possession with 36:31 versus only 23:29 for San Diego. They dominated total yardage 410-218. They had 24 first downs versus only 16 for the Chargers. Big Ben passed for 308 yards and had a 96.4 passer rating, while Philip Rivers was held to only 164 yards passing, and a 44.4 passer rating. Willie Parker rushed for 115 yards, while LaDainian Tomlinson was held to only 57 yards. Hines Ward had 124 receiving yards, while the Chargers leading wide receiver had only 29 receiving yards. Yet, despite Pittsburgh’s clear dominance, the Chargers were leading with 30 seconds left in the game. It took a field goal by Steelers’ kicker Jeff Reed with 15 seconds remaining in the game to salvage a Steelers’ victory. Huh? (Cue Twilight Zone music).
One of the key reasons for the discrepancy between the statistical results and the final score was the officiating. Despite playing at Heinz Field, the Steelers didn’t get any home cooking from the referees. In fact, the refs called 13 penalties on the Steelers for 115 yards. Contrarily, the Chargers were penalized only 2 times for 5 yards. Yeah, that will ruin an otherwise dominant performance.
Coming into this game, neither team has reason to feel overconfident. The Chargers must remember how they got absolutely manhandled by the Steelers. The Chargers’ defense couldn’t stop the Steelers from running the ball or throwing the ball. The Chargers’ offense was equally impotent. Philip Rivers was sacked twice and threw two interceptions on his way to a whopping 164 yards passing. LaDainian Tomlinson was held to only 57 yards rushing on 18 carries. Ouch! That’s got to be fresh in their minds.
Despite dominating statistically, the Steelers can’t feel particularly positive about that game either. The Chargers’ defense kept the Steelers’ offense out of the endzone for the entire game. The Steelers’ offensive futility could be summarized by one play. The Steelers had a fourth and goal from inside the Chargers’ 1 yard line. Rather than kick the field goal, the Steelers chose to go for it. The Chargers stopped Mewelde Moore cold and took over on downs. Though they weren’t able to contain the Steelers’ offense, the Chargers “D” got stops when they absolutely needed them.
Additionally, the Steelers have to remember all of the mental mistakes that they made during that game. The referees weren’t bribed by the Chargers. The Steelers made mental errors that cost them 115 yards in penalties. It’s hard to win in the NFL with that many penalties, regardless of how dominantly a team may be playing.
The Steelers left that game with a win, but it didn’t feel particularly good. It probably felt the same as kissing your sister. It was a win, but it was certainly nothing to be proud of.
So now, the two teams will meet again. Both will want to make amends for their earlier performance. The Chargers know that history is not in their favor. They have played the Steelers in Pittsburgh 13 times in their teams’ regular season history. They have left Pittsburgh with a loss all 13 times. Strangely though, the Chargers have faced the Steelers in Pittsburgh twice in the playoffs, and they’ve won both games. Go figure.
The weather will not be on San Diego’s side. The forecast calls for temperatures in the 20′s, with a chance of snow. Not ideal conditions for a team from southern California.
To make matters worse, the Chargers are likely to be without LaDainian Tomlinson. Tomlinson is reported to have a groin tear. While he has not officially be scratched from the game, it is highly unlikely that he will play. Additionally, tight end Antonio Gates is also battling injuries. He was questionable for the Chargers’ game last week against the Colts, but ended up playing. The same is likely to hold true this week. Gates will play, but he won’t be at his best. That’s good news for the Steelers, but terrible news for the Chargers.
All is not lost though for the San Diego Chargers. They still have Philip Rivers at quarterback. Rivers ended the season as the NFL’s highest rated quarterback. Rivers threw for twice as many touchdown passes as Ben Roethlisberger while also throwing fewer interceptions. The kid’s pretty good.
Despite being without LaDainian Tomlinson, the Chargers can call upon capable backup Darren Sproles. Sproles had 328 all-purpose yards in last week’s win over the Colts. Sproles is short (5’6″) and quick, and presents a totally different challenge than LaDainian Tomlinson. Don’t be fooled by his small stature. Sproles plays much bigger than he actually is. Additionally, he’s got a low center of gravity, and he can change directions much faster than his bigger defenders.
The Chargers enter the game as one of the hottest teams in the NFL. They’ve won 5 straight games, and are averaging 34.4 points during that stretch.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Chargers are a team on the rise. They ended the season as the 25th ranked defense in the NFL. Not overly impressive. However, since Ron Rivera took over as defensive coordinator in the middle of the season, the Chargers’ defense has become much more aggressive. Remember, this defense denied the Steelers a single touchdown last time they met.
Just as the Chargers would like to avenge their last game against the Steelers, the Steelers also want to make amends. Last time they faced the Chargers, they got inside the Chargers’ 20 yard line 3 times, and failed to score a touchdown each time. They know that they have to score touchdowns in order to win this time.
“We moved the ball, but we sputtered in the red zone”, said Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. “We can’t afford to do that. We can’t turn the ball over. The big thing is we can drive up and down the field, but we have to be able to put the ball in when we get down there”.
That game was not the only game in which the Steelers’ offense has sputtered. In seven games against teams that made the playoffs this year, the Steelers managed only 8 touchdowns. That is not good enough for a team with hopes of winning a Super Bowl.
“There’s no hocus-pocus or secret formula for getting the ball in the end zone,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “We’ve got to execute better. We’ve got to put our guys in a better position to capitalize on field position”.
The Steelers’ offensive woes come from three sources. Firstly, the offensive line has been suspect all year long. Many felt that the Steelers’ offensive line needed a complete overhaul after last season when they allowed Big Ben to be sacked 290 times (okay, maybe not THAT many times, but it was still too many). Many Steelers fans were disappointed when the offensive line wasn’t addressed more aggressively during the draft and free agency.
The second problem has been Willie Parker. Fast Willie has battled a series of injuries this season, and hasn’t resembled the back who led the NFL in rushing last year before breaking his leg.
The third, and definitely most important problem has been Big Ben. Roethlisberger’s performance this year can best be described as “inconsistent”. Roethlisberger threw for 17 TDs and 15 INTs, and ended up with a passer rating of 80.1. That’s just not good enough for a $100 million dollar franchise quarterback. Moreover, Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times. That’s second worst in the NFL. Some of that was attributable to the aforementioned offensive line, but some of it was also attributable to Ben. Ben has a tendency to hold on to the ball too long in an effort to make the big play. Sometimes it works, and sometimes……….
Roethlisberger is coming off a concussion suffered in the Steelers’ season finale against the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers medical staff has cleared Ben to play on Sunday, but I’m sure all of Steeler Nation will be watching Ben for any sign of lingering effects from the concussion.
So the Steelers will send their 22nd ranked offense against the Chargers’ 25th ranked defense. That’s a pretty even battle. Pathetic, but even. Fortunately, the Steelers have an ace in the hole.
Whenever the Steelers offense has struggled, their #1 ranked defense has been able to pull out a win. While the Steelers offense may be evenly matched against the Chargers’ defense, the Chargers’ offense should be no match for the Steelers’ defense. This is especially true with Tomlinson out, and Gates at less than 100%.
NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and the rest of the Steelers defense should be able to contain the Chargers offense, and give Mike Tomlin his first playoff victory as a head coach.
Next up, the Baltimore Ravens (yes, I am predicting a Ravens victory over the Titans).
For more information on the Steelers-Chargers playoff game, please read our Steelers-Chargers Playoff Key Match-ups, which can be found here.
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