The Pittsburgh Steelers get their veteran quarterback back on Sunday at home against the San Diego Chargers and will look to build off of their win last week over the Baltimore Ravens. That win was a big one as it kept the division still within reach for now. The Chargers haven\'t won in Pittsburgh during the regular season during their existence, but history is just that. The Chargers are a team that the Steelers should beat handily, but so too were the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans, and the Cleveland Browns. While this is not a must-win game, it is one that they must have. Below are 7 things to watch for specifically in this game along with my prediction at the end of it. In case you missed it, here is the Wednesday podcast preview of the game that features a great interview with Chargers beat writer Michael Gehlken from the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Decimate The Decimated - The Chargers offensive line was decimated last week in their loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and they very well could be without three of their starters Sunday against the Steelers. Even if left tackle Mike Harris, who is questionable with an ankle injury, plays, he will not be anywhere close to 100%. The Steelers will be without left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley for a second consecutive game but his replacement Jason Worilds is currently playing his best football of his young career. Right outside linebacker James Harrison has recorded a sack in three straight games headed into Sunday, so both of the Steelers outside linebackers are expected to have a big day, and should be able to get consistent pressure on quarterback Philips Rivers, who has been sacked 36 times so far this season.
Baby Roethlisberger - Ben Roethlisberger has a new baby in his life now, but on Sunday it will be him that needs to babied in his first game back since suffering a shoulder and rib injury back in Week 10 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Roethlisberger will be sporting some beefed up shoulder pads and a beefed up fitted shirt underneath his uniform against the Chargers to help him absorb any contact that he might endure. That being said, the Steelers offensive line has to make sure they keep the Chargers pass rush off of their franchise quarterback at all cost. The Chargers defense has registered 23 sacks through their first 12 games and outside linebacker Shaun Phillips leads the way with 7 of them. Phillips will line up on either side, so expect rookie right tackle Kelvin Beachum, who will be making his second career start, to be tested often by the Chargers linebacker. Beachum needs to show that his performance last week against the Baltimore Ravens was no fluke. Roethlisberger needs to protect himself in this game as well, and that might mean taking a sack the way Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning does, which would require him to just give himself up instead of trying to extend a play the way he normally would. He must come out of this game healthy.
Grease The Squeaky Wallace Early - Wide receiver Mike Wallace revealed this past week that he loses focus when not involved in the offense early on in games. While his remarks were a bit childish in nature, the Steelers will need him to step up big over the course of the remaining four games. Scripting some easy throws to Wallace early on in this game will not only help Roethlisberger ease back into the speed of the game, but also ensure that Wallace gets the grease he so desires. The problem, or alleged problem, is now front and center, so the team needs to address it now. In the last 5 games the Steelers have played, Wallace has been targeted a total of 6 times in the first quarter and in 2 of those 5 games he wasn\'t targeted at all in the first quarter.
Tackle The Tall Task - The Chargers have a couple of big physical wide receivers in Malcolm Floyd and Danario Alexander, both of whom are listed at 6 foot, 5 inches. Alexander has really come on as of late as he has 23 catches for 406 yards in his last 4 games which is good for a 17.7 yards per catch number over that span. He has caught 64% of the passes thrown his way during those 4 games in addition, so cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and second-year man Cortez Allen, who will be making his first career start on Sunday in place of the injured Ike Taylor, figure to have their hands full should the Steelers defensive front not be able to keep consistent pressure on Rivers. Also, with Taylor out, second-year cornerback Curtis Brown will get snaps outside when the Steelers roll out their sub-package, so he can expect to be tested a few times deep in this game. It\'s time for the young cornerback trio to put their big boy pants on against an underrated group of wide receivers.
Young Gunners For Hire - With both Allen and Brown now having larger roles on defense they most likely be taken off of the Steelers special teams units, or limited at least, in an effort to preserve them. That should hold true for at least Allen. The duo are solid special teams contributors, but the gunner duties in this game might now fall on the shoulders of cornerbacks DeMarcus Van Dyke and Josh Victorian. Victorian was promoted from the practice squad on Saturday so it makes sense that he will dress along with Van Dyke, who has been inactive for 5 out of the last 6 games for being an egregious violator as far as penalties on special teams early on in the season. The Chargers come into this game ranked 31st in the league in punt return average with a dismal 6.1 yard per return average and the Steelers need to ensure they keep their ineptitude right where it is in this game.
Too Liuget To Run At? - Chargers right defensive end Corey Liuget is having a tremendous season as he leads their defensive linemen with 37 total tackles. In 37 run plays ran at left guard or left tackle against the Chargers defense they have allowed a 1.94 and 2.43 yards per carry average respectively. Of course Liuget is not the only reason why teams don\'t have much success running those directions, but he is very good at holding the point of attack in an effort to let his linebackers behind him fill the running lanes. Liuget will line up from the a-gap on out depending on the defense so, Maurkice Pouncey, Willie Colon, and Max Starks will all get work against him. The Steelers love to double team block, but will also be forced to single up at times on Sunday against the Chargers 3-4 base. This will likely be the first game back for Colon, who has watched from the sidelines the last two weeks because of a severely banged up knee. His battle against Liuget should be a good one to watch and the Steelers must control the young defensive lineman if they expect the running game to be there.
Red Gates - All-everything Chargers tight end Antonio Gates has 5 catches in the red zone this season and 4 of them were good for touchdowns. What is interesting about that stat line is that all 5 of those catches have come when the Chargers offense is outside of the 10 yard-line. Obviously, Gates is not only dangerous in the red zone as 27 of his 38 catches this season have come between the 20\'s. The Steelers will likely play a lot of zone underneath in this game and they can\'t allow the big veteran tight end to run away from them in space or work the seam for an explosive play. Gates might be old, but he is far from being done.
Expect The Unexpected - The Chargers come to town with a lame duck coaching staff and are losers of 4 straight and 7 of their last 8. They are not going to the playoffs this year and are currently in the spoiler role now. With a beat up offensive line and an above average defense capable of keeping them in games, one or two big plays, however they can get them, could decide this game should the Steelers offense struggle to find their footing with Roethlisberger just getting back to action. This means trick plays on offense, fake punts, and surprise onsides kicks are all in play on Sunday, so the Steelers coaching staff needs to keep reminding the team about this.
Prediction - Roethlisberger is the biggest question mark in this game after missing the last three due to his injuries. Although the Chargers offense is beat up, their defense has played well the last few weeks outside of allowing the Ravens to convert a 4th and forever on them, which ultimately led to an overtime loss. Rivers will turn the ball over if pressured heavily, but he is still capable of the big play if given time. The Steelers defense has been strong thios season despite the absence of bodies and I suspect that they will be the difference in this game. It won\'t be a blowout, but the Steelers should come out of this one with a win.
Final Score - Steelers 23 Chargers 16