Running game, defense should be difference for Steelers
By Pat Kirwan | NFL.com
The San Diego Chargers travel to Pittsburgh to bang heads with the Steelers in the final game of divisional-playoff weekend.
Pittsburgh needed the bye last week to get QB Ben Roethlisberger healthy after he suffered a concussion in a meaningless regular-season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals. Sometimes you have to wonder about Roethlisberger's judgment when it comes to throwing the ball away and reducing the number of unnecessary hits that he takes. Hopefully, he had some sense knocked into him because the Chargers have sacked him 12 times in their three previous meetings.
Meanwhile, the Chargers are playing extremely well, averaging 34 points per game during a five-game winning streak. QB Philip Rivers didn't make the Pro Bowl, despite leading the NFL with a 105.5 passer rating and throwing for 34 touchdowns this season. He has a chip on his shoulder coming in to Pittsburgh, but he also comes in without RB LaDainian Tomlinson.
The weather conditions in Pittsburgh this time of year mean the running game better be ready to take over. Pittsburgh has drifted away from the power run game it was famous for in the Bill Cowher era, ranking No. 23 in the league in running the ball. Willie Parker is finally healthy, so expect a 20-plus-carry day for him. Since Mike Tomlin took over as the Steelers' coach two years ago, he has a 14-3 record when Parker gets at least 20 carries.
Chargers coach Norv Turner enters this game with 5-foot-6 Darren Sproles in the backfield and Tomlinson most likely on the sideline injured. In the last two years, when Tomlinson has fewer than 20 carries (and it's safe to assume that will be the case in this game,) the Chargers are 7-9.
Chargers punter Mike Scifres was the MVP of last week's wild-card victory over the Indianapolis Colts, but it's a whole different story at Heinz Field when it comes to creating a long field with punts placed inside the 20-yard line. Don't expect San Diego's punting game to have the same effect this weekend.
The last time they played
On Nov. 16, the Chargers lost to the Steelers 11-10 in difficult conditions (snow showers and a wind chill of 26 degrees). The weather won't be any better for this playoff game. Steelers fans and players call it perfect football conditions. Chargers fans likely would contend that it can't be considered perfect.
In the first game, Steelers TE Heath Miller and CBs Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden were on the sideline in street clothes. All three are ready for this contest. The Chargers were missing DB Steve Gregory, who will play this time and has developed a bigger role in recent weeks.
In the previous matchup, Tomlinson touched the ball 21 times for 102 yards and one touchdown. Of course, he didn't get that entire yardage on the ground because the Steelers' defense hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season.
Parker had 115 rushing yards, and Hines Ward caught 11 passes for 124 yards. Neither player scored a touchdown -- in fact, no Steeler did. Pittsburgh shot itself in the foot with 13 penalties, an inept red-zone offense and four Roethlisberger sacks.
When the Chargers have the ball
San Diego is 2-13 all-time in Pittsburgh, but Rivers couldn't care less about history. He's cocky and will come to Heinz Field expecting to win, with or without Tomlinson. Pittsburgh has the No. 1 defense in the NFL, and when you look at James Harrison (NFL defensive MVP), James Farrior and Aaron Smith, you see three players with 147 tackles for two yards or less. The Chargers' running attack isn't going anywhere in this game. Expect Rivers to throw around 30 times, especially late in the game.
The Steelers' pass rush is second in the NFL, and Woodley and Harrison have 27.5 sacks between them. Pittsburgh's film study will show a smart quarterback who has been sacked six times in two games against this defense, but also a guy who has thrown the most touchdown passes against the blitz this season (six). Rivers needs TE Antonio Gates to play and for the screen game to Sproles to be effective because he will not escape the Steelers' zone blitz with his feet.
How Chargers and Steelers measure up
San Diego must be patient with its passing attack and dink and dunk its way down the field. Pittsburgh is No. 1 in the league in defending big plays down the field and also is one of the best in creating third-and-long situations. On average, the Steelers' defense is looking at third and more than seven yards. San Diego will not have many answers for that issue, especially with the crazy Pittsburgh home crowd screaming and waving Terrible Towels.
When the Steelers have the ball
Roethlisberger has thrown one touchdown pass against the Chargers in three games, which doesn't cut it. Perhaps it's time to consider a return to traditional, old-school Steelers ball. Expect to see Parker get the ball on first downs close to 60 percent of the time. Parker has averaged 99 yards per game at home since 2005. Roethlisberger is 29-10 at home, mostly because of the running game.
This season, the Steelers scored just seven touchdowns against the eight playoff teams they faced, and there will be pressure to start throwing the ball all over the place. They must resist this temptation. Ron Rivera took over as the Chargers' defensive coordinator during the season and immediately used a more aggressive approach to the defense -- more press corners, more blitzes and more aggression. The Steelers' wide receivers are good, as evidenced by Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes combining for 43 clutch receptions (any catch that went for a first down or touchdown), but Chargers CBs Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie are big and strong and can re-route receivers in this improved scheme. Having Miller back on the field for the rematch is key. The Chargers' safeties are a weak spot, and Miller will help the Steelers move the chains and can help the team's red-zone problems.
Roethlisberger coming off a concussion can be a problem. The last time he returned to the field from the same sort of issue, he was sacked five times and threw four interceptions. Rivera will waste little time going after Roethlisberger, who plays behind a questionable line. Roethlisberger also has thrown four interceptions in the 96 blitz looks he has seen this season. The Steelers would be wise to simply run the ball.
The bottom line
The Chargers proved anything is possible since going from a 4-8 record to an AFC West championship. They then stopped the high-flying Colts in the first round of the playoffs. Now they face a Steelers team that has its eye on the Super Bowl and isn't about to lose this game at home. Expect Pittsburgh to win by a touchdown and have the fans thinking the old Steelers style of pounding the ball and dominating on defense is back.