By Christopher DiMarino
The Pittsburgh Steelers can be inspirational at times. When it seemed like hope was fleeting and the light at the end of the tunnel was dimming, the Steelers played a game to be remembered. They overcame odds, executed, adapted and the best part was that there was still plenty of room for improvement. But a win is a win and Charlie Batch achieved the vindication that he deserves. He’s been a backup for so many years and his position on the team was questioned, especially with the entrance of a new offensive system. When a huge opportunity dropped in his lap, there was a lot of obligation and expectations that came along with it. His job was not easy, in fact, he fell far before he could turn things around. But the resounding attribute that I hope all Steelers can mimic from Batch’s game against the Ravens was resilience. He had the mentality that this could be his last game, and the Steelers need to play every game like that.
Ben Roethlisberger is officially back against the San Diego Chargers this weekend so Batch will return to his role of waiting in the wings. Many Steelers fans owe Batch an apology for the distress that they associated with him. I am very guilty and in desperation I didn’t even think the Steelers stood a chance in Baltimore against the Ravens. But being humbled can be the best feeling at times and as I watched in amazement at the transition from the week prior, a smile crept over my face and my faith was restored. What so many fair-weather fans forget in today’s jet set world is believing in a team as an entity rather than the sum of its parts.
While Batch’s game deserves praise, the sum of said parts amasses a greater total with Roethlisberger at the helm. So that swagger that accompanies Steelers fans should be back in full swing against the downtrodden Chargers. This is a team that can put together a perfect season every year with its talent level, yet struggles to make the playoffs. It is tempting to get overconfident against the Chargers, but this offense can score in one play and this defense can get the job done. Inconsistency has been the pit in the Chargers composition. They only seem to be able to run on all cylinders for a few drives a game and can never mount a comeback late. But, with several players out, and many still playing with injuries, anything can happen.
You can reference my competition analysis to learn a little more about the competition below:
I wonder how aggressive the Steelers will be with Roethlisberger back under center. The Steelers will run the ball, I can guarantee you that. Running the ball is now ingrained in the Steelers offensive DNA as Roethlisberger is still recovering and the Steelers still want Jonathan Dwyer to establish himself. The only downside to this is that stopping the run is one of the few bright spots for this Chargers team. So there is the concern that the Steelers will need to pass the ball. Typically, the Steelers would be able to pass with ease against a team like the Chargers, and the 3rd down heroics would prolong drives even if the run game stumbled. But with Antonio Brown still a little slowed, Emmanuel Sanders banged up and Roethlisberger being advised to avoid hits, I wonder if that will throw this unit into a funk.
The Steelers receiving corps is better with Brown back, even if he isn’t 100%. Jerricho Cotchery is working his way back in but Sanders is a little banged up. While Sanders might not seem overly important at third on the depth chart, his importance parallels Brown’s. His slot route running compliments what Heath Miller does underneath and Sanders has been a huge 3rd down contributor. Another facet of his game that few have discussed is his ability to step up and make clutch catches at important moments. I can forgive his fumble against the Ravens as there was a clear emphasis on ball positioning and mistakes were almost unavoidable.
The 21st ranked Chargers pass defense will have its hands full with the 14th ranked Steelers aerial assault. Their 11 interceptions and 23 sacks are right around average and most of their defensive stats fall near the middle of the pack. Shaun Phillips leads the team with 7 sacks, but he hasn’t been a consistent terror to opposing quarterbacks. The lack of an elite pass rusher is limiting the effectiveness of this defense because the they can’t seem to get consistent pressure. The interceptions are spread out with safety Eric Weddle leading the team with 3 and starting corners Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason also adding a pair each.
This is a defense that doesn’t have any pronounced skills, but they also lack glaring weaknesses. Scoring and amassing yards are done honestly, and a well balanced attack is the key to keeping them on their heels. I think the passing game will have success, but this defense might get aggressive with its corners to reduce the effectiveness of the wide receiver screen game and force Roethlisberger to hold the ball longer and throw further downfield.
Dwyer had a forgettable game against the Ravens outside of one run. His 16 yard touchdown run was the lone bright spot in that game, and Batch’s block stole the show. Dwyer played hard, but he still struggles to hit the hole with authority. This stems from his inability to locate the creases and openings which can be attributed to his youth and inexperience. While Isaac Redman seems like a poor compliment to Dwyer because they are similar backs, Redman’s explosion at the line and short area agility help him in short yardage situations. While I admire Dwyer, I still think Redman has the better long term potential, but Dwyer will get at least 2/3rds of the reps unless A) he turns the ball over or B) Redman really shines.
The Chargers are effective against the run mainly because they strive for mediocrity. This team can’t aggressively put pressure on the quarterback every play, so they have worked at the fundamentals of winning the battles in the trenches. This leads to excellent gap coverage in the run game and is a huge key to their ability to shut down opposing backs. Linebacker Donald Butler leads the team with 72 tackles, and the safeties have also chipped in over 130 between the two. Takeo Spikes, like London Fletcher, continues to function effectively as an inside linebacker even though father time has been leaving messages on his voicemail. While Spikes is 35, he has been a star linebackers in year for decades and continues to play hard against the run.
The Chargers offense hasn’t played well this season. While the perennial worry in California is that the defense won’t support the Chargers offense, it hasn’t been the case for a few years. Philip Rivers leads the 18th ranked passing offense but losing Vincent Jackson has been an issue for him and he still hasn’t found a consistent target. Rivers now splits passes between the lengthy Malcolm Floyd, the monster over the middle Antonio Gates and the short yardage relief master Ronnie Brown. At the tender age of 30, I think Brown has been the biggest surprise on this offense. He was once thrown out with Philadelphia’s dirty laundry, but has strived in a pass protecting role thanks to Ryan Matthews abysmal blocking ability.
Danario Alexander has added the deep threat that the Chargers lost when Vincent Brown got injured in preseason, but former Saints receiver Robert Meachem has been a disappointment. He only played two downs against the Cincinnati Bengals and has made only 2 catches for 18 yards since the Chargers bye week at the beginning of November. This year is already a wash for this unit and I think they will start to look to the future, and Meachem will have to do a better job if he wants to be a part of it. Eddie Royal was the other free agent addition at wide receiver, but he continued the low profile play he brought to the San Francisco 49ers.
The problem with this offense is Rivers. I think he’s great at throwing the ball, but it is now evident that he is not a great quarterback. He lacks the intangibles that come along with being a star. Andrew Luck has had success similar to Robert Griffin III even though he doesn’t have the arm or leg strength that the rookie has. What Luck lacks in exterior prowess, he more than makes up for with leadership, decision making and close game heroics. Rivers never seems interested in the score of the game, and he is guilty of starting hot and finishing cold. He has the tools, but he needs a new coach that can help him climb to the next level because this team is on his back.
The 15 picks Rivers has thrown is bad, but the 36 times he’s been sacked is worse. Rivers can gain yards, but he struggles to put drives together. While the Steelers defense might not be a high octane turnover machine, it can pressure the quarterback and will take turnovers if you give them. What the Steelers 1st ranked passing defense excels at is limiting the yards you get. Taking that away from the Chargers would be deadly. Rivers lives and dies on the big plays, so it will be interesting to see how many the Steelers allow. The absence of Ike Taylor is regrettable, and Cortez Allen will need to step up and fill his shoes. Allen tends to draw flags on deep passes and that is this team’s bread and butter. The spot light will be on Keenan Lewis against the 6’5 Floyd and on Lawrence Timmons against Gates.
The Steelers boast the 5th ranked run defense and the Chargers have a dynamic weapon in Matthews. Jackie Battle is a good complimentary power runner and Brown has the shiftiness necessary for a 3rd down back. Those backs together have only propelled the Chargers to the 26th best rushing attack. The offensive line play of the Chargers has been below average, which has lead to a lot of the sacks, but Matthews has not shown the aptitude of the high round pick he is. A guy like him can survive as an early down runner only if he is great at running the ball, but he hasn’t demonstrated enough tenacity. He can rip off a big play, but then will disappear for half the game. He will need to work on his complimentary skills or else he won’t last much longer in the NFL with his injury proneness.
The Steelers have continued their able play against the run and they are particularly good against weaker offensive lines. If the defensive line can get some push, than the Steelers seem to destroy any chance of a running game. However, this is an AFC West team. Just like the Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders before them, they can run the ball. The Steelers have already surrendered 355 yards to the 3 prior AFC West combatants, so the weaker Chargers running attack still warrants some attention. The Steelers need to be able to file stopping the run as a prerequisite like they have in the past. While they have fared well against the run, I still worry that they might not be able to get the job done. A strong showing here will help prolong their confidence as the run towards the playoffs enters full swing.
This game will be a work in progress for the Steelers. They are currently in a race against the Bengals for one of the two wild card spots. With key players returning from injury and a matchup against a spiraling team that was just defeated by the Bengals at hand, this game will set the tone for the playoff run. The Steelers would love to come out and dominate, but are the chips on their side? Will Roethlisberger pick up where he left off? Will Dwyer find his legs and excel? Will this defense choke the offense and prevent it from doing what it does best? Or, will Roethlisberger struggle to find his flow, will Dwyer continue his low average per rush and will the defense slip without Taylor?
I think the odds are in the Steelers favor, but odds are cruel mirages. Just ask the Ravens. The Steelers might not need to fire on all cylinders to win, but if the defense can keep a hold on the Chargers the chance of success gets lofty. Keep in mind, the Chargers have lost to all other 3 AFC North teams while averaging just over 10 points per game. On the other hand, the Chargers only allowed an average of just over 14 points a game, so this could be a low scoring affair. If that is the case, than I feel comfortable in Roethlisberger\'s late game abilities versus the uninspired play that I’ve seen late in games from Rivers this year.