Time for the weekly enlightenment breakdown. In reality, this is one of those games where San Diego Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers fans alike should throw the stats out the window. These teams played two evenly-matched games last year that Pittsburgh won because they had that extra oomph. Their offensive line and running game gave them the advantage, and Roethlisberger made enough of those "Nobody can sack this guy!" plays to kill any Chargers comebacks.
With that in mind.....I like stats. The most important one to start with is weather. Sunday night's forecast is looking like it'll be around 45-50 degrees with clear skies. Exactly what the Bolts and their fans were hoping for. Now, lets take a look at the teams and see who will have the advantages for this game.
When the Steelers Have the Ball
If you were to ask me to rate the Chargers' defense thus far on a scale from Poor to Great, I'd probably say it was average. I'd be right. Out of 32 NFL teams, the boys in blue rank 14th in yards allowed and 19th in points allowed per game. In a rare twist from years past, it's actually the pass defense (8th) and now the run defense (26th) that is keeping the team competitive without the football. While this seems to play right into the Steelers' philosophy, Willie Parker will be slowed by a turf toe injury that could certainly benefit the Bolts this week.
Last season, with a healthy Jamal Williams at DT, Willie Parker ran for 261 on 52 carries (5.0 YPC) in two games against the Chargers. This season, without JW in the center of the line it could've been worse. However, after watching LT in 2008 we're all very familiar with the effects of turf toe on a running back. I'm not saying it'll be a piece of cake, but the chances of the Chargers forcing Pittsburgh to throw the ball to win the game are greatly increased by that injured toe.
Through the first three weeks of the season, Pittsburgh has the league's 12th best offense. Their rushing game, with Willie Parker, ranks 27th (it was ranked 23rd in 2008) and their passing game has had to try to carry the load (8th). Although Ben Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl victories under his belt, this is not a team that wants to get into an shootout through the air with anybody. Especially not against the Chargers. However, with teams stopping the run and being able to score on their defense late, the Steelers have fallen to 1-2. Their only victory came against the 0-3 Tennessee Titans, who are so anemic offensively that they only scored 10 points even after Roethlisberger threw 2 interceptions.
The game plan is simple. Stop the run, force Ben to pass. Whether he's throwing into a zone or throwing against man-defense with a decent pass-rush doesn't matter at this point. What matters is step one. Start at step one: Stop the Run. With an rushing offense ranked 27th and missing their best RB, that should seem easy. However, Pittsburgh's running game wasn't much better last year when Willie Parker turned into Walter Payton against the Bolts. It's important that they keep their focus, and it's important for Ogemdi Nwagbuo to not get pushed backwards.
Advantage: Chargers. I came close to saying tie, but I just can't see Parker being effective on Sunday night. Although Pittsburgh ranks 8th in terms of offensive yardage, they rank 25th in terms of offensive points scored per game. Nobody on the team not named Ben Roethlisberger has a rushing TD yet. Santonio Holmes has disappeared since his big game against the Tennessee Titans on opening night. This is a sputtering offense that seems to be heading backwards while the Chargers defense looks to me to be improving. Most importantly, the Chargers' weakness (rush defense) is also the Steelers' weakness (they can't run). Roethlisberger will be forced to throw against Quentin Jammer, Antonio Cromartie, Antoine Cason and Eric Weddle, which presents lots of opportunities for turnovers and puts the Chargers biggest strength in charge of determining the game's outcome. I can live with that.
When the Chargers Have the Ball
Pittsburgh's 2009 team is not too different from their 2008 team. The roster and coaching staff is generally left in tact. The difference is that the defense, without Troy Polamalu or much of a pass rush (14th in sacks), has not been able to carry them to victory. Currently they rank 8th in total defensive yards given up (25th in points allowed per game), 15th against the pass and 6th at stopping the run. Weakness (inability to stop the pass), meet strength (Philip Rivers).
The Chargers' offense is ranked 8th overall after the first 3 weeks of the season, ranked 2nd in throwing the ball and 31st in running it. Yes, Bolts fans, the Chargers running game is only slightly better than the 32nd ranked Arizona Cardinals. However, those Cardinals are the NFC Champions and did come one amazing Santonio Holmes TD catch away from winning the Super Bowl in 2008. So that's promising I suppose.
Advantage: Chargers. First, the bad news. This is still drawing parallels to the 2008 Steelers team that went 2-0 against the Chargers in Pittsburgh. Those Steelers ranked 17th against the pass and 20th in points allowed per game. The good news is that they will be missing the big playmaker that always seemed to end the comeback drive (Polamalu). Since Troy has gone down, the Steelers have lost to Jay Cutler and Carson Palmer. You know Philip Rivers wants to be on that list of QBs to have recently knocked off the Super Bowl Champions.
I don't think William Gay and Deshea Townsend (both 5'10") are going to be able to cover Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee. I don't think the Steelers have one guy who can cover Antonio Gates and another guy to cover LaDainian Tomlinson and/or Darren Sproles. If the offensive line can keep the Pittsburgh pass-rush in check, this should be another great day for Rivers.
Here's where things are going to get gloomy again. The Pittsburgh Steelers went 8-2 at home in 2008. Their stadium sells out years in advance and their fanbase is one of the most dedicated in football. They have a supreme home field advantage. Although their 2009 record is 1-2, they're still undefeated (1-0) at home. Even more shocking is that the Chargers have played against the Steelers in Pittsburgh 16 times in the last 40 years or so, and have never won a regular season game there. The Bolts are 0-13 when playing in the Steel City during the season, 2-14 all time (HT: Derwood13). Not only will the Chargers have to overcome the Steelers' team (which looks entirely possible), they have to overcome the crowd (not as easy).
For me, this game rests on the shoulders of Marcus McNeill. Although I criticized him last week, I was told his flu was quite severe and that he lost a lot of weight during the week leading up to the game. If he's healthy again, and can handle James Harrison, I feel like the Chargers cannot lose. If Harrison is causing all sorts of problems for Rivers, it's going to be hard to move the ball downfield and Norv will have to rely on the big passing plays again (always a risky gameplan).