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Three-Down Back: A trio of things to watch for against the Pittsburgh Steelers

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Take a look at what I’ll be keeping an eye on when the Chargers travel east

Pittsburgh Steelers v Denver Broncos Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Sunday night is going to pit two of the top teams in the NFL against each other in primetime with the Chargers traveling to the east coast to take on the Steelers at frigid Heinz Field.

Both team’s possess explosive offenses with a plethora of play-makers scattered throughout each roster.

This game, however, is special for a few other reasons.

Sunday night’s matchup also includes two sets of brothers: The Watt brothers and the Pouncey brothers.

Mike Pouncey is the Chargers’ newest pivot while Maurkice has been the Steelers’ starting center since he was drafted. Derek Watt was drafted in the sixth-round by the Chargers in 2016 while T.J was selected in the first round of the 2017 draft. This will be the first time that the Watt brothers have played against each other as professionals.

You also can’t forget that Sunday’s quarterback matchup is another battle between two of the top quarterbacks drafted back in that vaunted 2004 draft class with Philip Rivers facing off against Ben Roethlisberger.

The last time these two teams met was also during primetime but the Steelers were being led by Michael Vick instead of Big Ben. That game was a heart-breaker in the truest sense for Chargers fans.

After Josh Lambo hit a career-long 54-yard field goal to give the Chargers the lead, Vick, along with Le’Veon Bell, marched right down the field before Bell took in the walk-off touchdown to elevate the Steelers over the Bolts.

For the most part, that game is still seared into my memory and this week’s game has obviously brought up some unwanted nostalgia. But everyone knows that the best way to forget bad memories is to replace them with better ones. This Sunday, I hope to do just that.

1.) Will the Steelers get back to James Connor and the ground game?

Through the first nine games of the season, it seemed like the Steelers were willing to run Connor into the ground in order to prove a point to spite Le’Veon Bell. From weeks one through 10, Connor received 18.8 carries a game with a high of 31 during their week one matchup against the Cleveland Browns.

Following their week nine bye week, there was a significant drop-off in his totes per game as he has only averaged 11.6 carries in his last three games. In those games Connor has only scored a single touchdown while averaging just 44.3 rushing yards per game.

Although the Chargers’ run defense has improved quite a bit since last season, they were exploited in the red zone against the Broncos who scored three times on the ground. That literally doubled the amount of rushing touchdowns allowed by the Bolts on the season. Even after that down performance, the Chargers are still tied with the Minnesota Vikings for the fourth-least amount of rushing scores allowed with six.

The Chargers unfortunately rank a bit lower in rushing yards allowed per game as they let up 107.5 yards per game which is good for 13th-best in the NFL.

The team might be in for another game of keep-away if the Steelers decide to keep themselves ahead of the chains while converting third-and-short after third-and-short, which are situations where Connor’s skill-set can really flourish.

2.) How will the secondary handle one of the best WR duos in the league in Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster?

It’s been well-documented this season that the secondary has had their fair share of struggles following a stellar 2017 season.

After collecting 11 interceptions over the last two seasons, Casey Hayward has yet to record a single pick through the team’s first 11 games of this year. Trevor Williams, the usual starter across from Hayward, has been dealing with a nagging injury over the past couple weeks but was in Coach Lynn’s doghouse prior to that when he was benched for second-year cornerback Michael Davis.

Williams had a an interception earlier in the year but the majority of their interceptions stem from some of their youngest players on the team like Desmond King, who leads the team with three picks, and Derwin James, who snagged his second interception last week against the Arizona Cardinals.

Brown and Smith-Schuster are both among the top-20 in a plethora of receiving categories, which include catches of over 25 yards, yards after catch, and receiving yards per game.

Luckily for the Chargers, they are tied for sixth in the league with three other teams in passing touchdowns allowed with 16. They are also eighth in the league in terms of passing yards allowed per game with 227.

The difference here will be how Big Ben performs while in the red zone. He currently leads the NFL with four interceptions thrown in the red zone while having the third-worst passer rating from inside the 20-yard line (72.4).

3.) Will the offense look much different without Melvin Gordon?

The biggest theme of this week’s game has been the ensuing absence of Melvin Gordon for at least a few weeks after he suffered a MCL sprain against the Cardinals.

Many have pondered how the offense is going to look and how much is actually going to change without the team’s workhorse back. If I had to put money on it, I do not believe Coach Lynn will have to change much at all with Ekeler as his starting back. If there is anything to take away from the Titans game in London, it’s that Ekeler wasn’t able to flourish in a prominent role and like much of us expected.

Ekeler is more than capable of doing everything that Gordon can. He is among the top-5 in yards after contact and can be a hassle on the ground and through the air. Some may argue that Ekeler’s efficiency stems from his complimentary role to Gordon. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the coaching staff give rookies Justin Jackson and Detrez Newsome a good amount of carries while still utilizing Ekeler around the formation.

In the end, I feel pretty good about Jackson stepping into a much larger role after lengthy career of running the ball in the Big Ten. After all, he was a four-year starter at Northwestern where he became one of nine players in conference history to run for 1,000+ yards in each of his our seasons on campus.

I like his experience and I don’t believe the stage will be too big for the rookie.