Raise your hand if you're ready for a good, old fashioned Monday Night Football track meet next week because, if you've watched either team play at all this season, you know defense is not their strong suit. The Chargers defensive issues have been well documented, but you may not realize just how dad the Steelers have been. Bottom line, as Herman Edwards recently said on a local talk show, the Pittsburgh defense looks more like a shower curtain than a Steel Curtain these days.
This is, after all, a group that has given up 350+ yards in all but one game, has been getting shredded on the ground, and has given up 75 points through the first quarter of the season. This is not to suggest they don't have some talented young players, but most of them are still learning their crafts. While they're incredibly aggressive, they also have a tendency to get undisciplined, which can lead to long drives for the opposing offense.
After watching tape on their defense, it looks to me like the Chargers game plan should follow the blueprint below:
The first phase of the game plan should be to make Stephon Tuitt work. This may sound strange considering Tuitt is arguably the best player in the Pittsburgh front seven, but bear with me.
The 6'6", 303-pound defensive end leads the team in sacks (3.5), is tied for second on the team in tackles (22), and has been bullying his way past opposing tackles all season long. That's why I would expect to see offensive line coach Joe D'Allesandris give Tuitt as many looks as possible. I'm sure Joe Barksdale will get his shot to block him one-on-one, as will DJ Fluker, but there should be no shortage of double teams involving some combination of Barksdale, Fluker and David Johnson.
While giving Tuitt different looks is important, they also will have to attack him as the game progresses. Make him fight through those blocks to make plays, force him to defend the run, and challenge him with screens to the backs and tight ends. They have to make him think, hesitate, and defend as many different plays as possible. Make him earn it.
Assuming the Chargers are able to block Tuitt and the protection holds up, the next phase of the game plan should be to stretch the field early with Keenan Allen.
Everyone expects the Chargers to throw jump balls to Malcom Floyd, but as we've seen the last two weeks, opposing defenses haven't adjusted to the latest wrinkle in the San Diego passing game - the deep ball to Keenan Allen. McCoy and Reich need to go back to that well as often as possible until teams prove they can stop it.
If the protection holds up like it did last week, there should be plenty of plays to be made in the intermediate to deep portion of the field (15-25 yards). This should create space for the short passing game, but more importantly it discourages the blitzes the Steelers like to run and, hopefully, prevent Mike Tomlin from loading the box to stop the run.
The next phase of the game plan should be attacking the middle of the defense with Melvin Gordon.
Believe it or not, the Steelers are relying on former Charger Cam Thomas at nose tackle, which isn't doing their middle linebacker tandem of Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons any favors. Stop me if you've heard this before, but opposing offense linemen are getting to the second level and Shazier (6'1", 230) and Timmons (6'1", 234), who are relatively small for 3-4 inside backers, are either getting swallowed alive or just flat out whiffing on tackles.
As much as I grow tired of watching the Bolts run the ball up the middle, this is the first game all season in which they may have success doing just that. By no means am I saying they should run 30 shot gun draw plays to Danny Woodhead, but let's just say something has gone horribly wrong if they don't establish a somewhat effective power running game in the middle of the defense. Trap plays, cut back runs, off guard plays - they should all be productive against the interior of the Pittsburgh line.
Finally, I would expect Mike McCoy and Frank Reich to isolate the Pittsburgh outside linebackers in coverage.
This defense has struggled covering (and tackling) tight ends, as evidenced by the 10 catches, 156 yards and three scores they gave up to Rob Gronkowski and Vernon Davis.. While Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones look like pass rushers in the making, both are relatively young and face a steep learning curve as coverage linebackers. They've struggled to grasp responsibilities, missed tackles and flat out blown coverages, which doesn't bode well for them as they prepare for Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green.
Someone should be fired first thing Tuesday morning if the McCoy and Reich aren't able to put Green and Gates in a position to make plays. Expect the Chargers to challenge Dupree and Jones with crossing routes early and, eventually, look to gash them up the seams with double moves. Both tight ends should play a big role on third down and in the red zone.
Like I said, this won't be a low scoring affair. Both teams are playing well on offense and looked vulnerable on defense. That said, I'll take Philip Rivers as my trigger man in a shoot out every day of the week and twice on Sunday. As long as the Chargers execute the game plan above, they should put themselves in a position to move the ball and outscore the Michael Vick-led Steelers. This should be a fun one.