Week Four Preview: San Diego at Pittsburgh

The Steelers have to feel like they’ve let two games they were in control of winning get taken away. The Chicago Bears game just seemed unfortunate, like a misunderstanding or something. When it mattered, the defense wasn’t able to stop the Bears. Even with taking 6 points off the board with two missed field goals, you got to stop the other team from advancing the football in your own territory late.

With Cincinnati, a lack of an efficient pass rush let Carson Palmer and his slew of weapons, including his fullback, move the ball late in the game, converting 2 fourth downs and sealing the win. Even still, take away the miscommunication in the 3rd quarter that led to the interception return by Jonathan Joseph, the momentum swing, the Steelers were still up 13-3 at that point, playing good defense… ah football is a strange game of opportunities.

The San Diego Chargers come into town in an environment the Steelers are used to winning in: primetime football in their home stadium. Last year, the Steelers beat San Diego twice at Heinz Field, once in a very close game in the snow (11-10) and the game in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs, where Pittsburgh dominated the first half and had huge plays on special teams (Santonio Holmes, the first of his three outstanding performances last winter).

There will never be a lack of drama in this matchup. Going back further, this game as a been a near-annual event for primetime football, and usually in the first half of the season:
2008: (Divisional Round) Steelers 35, Chargers 24
2008: (Late Game, week 11) Steelers 11, Chargers 10
2006: (Sunday Primetime, Week 5) Chargers 23, Steelers 13 (hangover year, Rivers plays his tail off)
2005: (Monday Night, Week 5) Steelers 24, Chargers 22 (Super Bowl XL year, Ben’s leg folds the wrong way)

Needless to say, this is usually a close game and I would consider it a rivalry tilted (in recent memory) in the Steelers’ favor.

Last week, the Chargers defeated Miami at home, utilizing big pass plays down the middle of the field, and Philip Rivers staying strong in the pocket. He was 18-33 with 303 yards and no interceptions. The week before that he threw for over 400 against Baltimore, throwing 2 touchdowns BUT… also 2 interceptions. Last week, he connected on big pass plays to Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd, both of whom had to make some tough catches to convert. Rivers has a real gunslinger style, but he’s also accurate. He’s a dangerous player back there and is consistently underrated in his ability to lead his team late make huge plays when it matters. He’s often clumped in with Big Ben after the “Who Is More Christ-like, Manning or Brady?” argument. Like Big Ben, Rivers plays better as competition increases. It is crucial for the Steelers to get in his face consistently and early if they want to control this game.

Carson Palmer’s stats against Pittsburgh last week don’t really jump out (20-37, 183 yds, 1 TD) but keep in mind he didn’t really have 1 yd passing until the 2nd half. The Bengals began to have success over the Steelers defense, with Palmer using any weapon he had at his disposal, and really showing a spine as a team, which really surprised the hell out of me. Chad Ochocinco and Andre Caldwell had big games. And one can’t forget the huge 4th down conversion by Brian Leonard. It wasn’t a lights-out passing game, but Palmer and co. stared down the Steelers defense, believed, and won the game. Also, their running game was able to earn 76 yards on Pittsburgh. Cedric Benson’s resurgence, that huge touchdown run, sealed the win. It was hard to watch.

So, comparatively I’d wager the Steelers will be able to stop the Chargers running game. Last week against a fast Dolphins defense, Darren Sproles and Michael Bennett combined for 59 yards. Just like against the Ravens, Rivers made some huge throws down field time and again, but once the field got short, both Baltimore and Miami were able to hold San Diego to field goals most of the time (Nate Kaeding has 7 field goals in the last 2 games). Their sole rushing touchdown in those games was from Rivers, a 1 yd run against the Dolphins. So to reiterate… if Pittsburgh can get in Rivers face, that should be it as far as I’m concerned.

As far as the San Diego defense against the Steelers, if we look at last week’s games: San Diego wasn’t strong against Miami’s rushing game, allowing 149 yards and a handful of big gains. However, their passing defense was highly effective, holding Chad Pennington to 54 yards (before he got injured, of course) and Chad Henne to only 92 and that backbreaking interception return by Eric Weddle. If one goes back to the Baltimore game (which is a more interesting matchup to pay attention to if you’re a Steeler fan), Joe Flacco threw for 190 and had two scores. So perhaps the Steelers can have some of the same moderate success they had with Willie Parker against the Bengals, setting up the pass game, and what will be a theme in this column… Heath Miller is your friend. Give him the ball.

For the first time this season, the Steelers face a must-win. If they can win this matchup, clean up Detroit and Cleveland in the next two games, their 4-3. Baltimore is 3-0 and they play New England, Cincinnati, and Minnesota in that span. Assuming (hoping) the Ravens lose at least 2 of those games, the Steelers are back in business. But boy it feels just rotten hoping on other’s failure to get you back in the driver’s seat.

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