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By, Nick DeWitt,
When the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) take on the San Diego Chargers (4-8) on Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field, it will be a match of two teams going in opposite directions.
The Steelers are surging after an unexpected two-game slide and will be getting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back from shoulder and rib injuries.
Meanwhile, the Chargers have mounting injuries and are likely setting up Norv Turner for his first losing season as coach of the Chargers and for an appointment with the coaching carousel.
Here’s a look at 10 keys for the Steelers to earn their eighth victory.
As much as the Pittsburgh Steelers have resembled an episode of ER this season, the San Diego Chargers have surpassed them.
The Steelers are getting guys back. Beyond losing Ike Taylor last week in Baltimore, they should have almost all of their starters healthy. The Chargers are piecing together an offensive line and have a lot of players banged up all over the place.
The offensive line is the big area to exploit this week for Pittsburgh’s defense. Philip Rivers has already had a hard time getting passes completed. Add in a fierce set of blitzes and he might completely fall apart.
Given that the Chargers will not have a lot of experience or talent there on Sunday, Dick LeBeau must find a way to win that battle. If the Steelers get dominated at the line of scrimmage, it would be a setback and an embarrassment.
Cover for Ike Taylor
The biggest injury hole remaining for the Pittsburgh Steelers is the starting cornerback position held by Ike Taylor. Taylor has played over 130 consecutive games, so this is going to be unfamiliar territory for the Steelers.
Fortunately, last week Cortez Allen looked decent against the Baltimore Ravens. He did make some mistakes with penalties and coverages, but overall he looked good for a player seeing their first significant action.
Allen will have to play well for sure, but the play of Keenan Lewis, now at top corner, is equally important. Lewis will draw the top receivers until Taylor is back. He’s equal to that task and has, at times, been better than Taylor this season.
With both of these young corners playing well on the outside, the majority of the spotlight will then fall on Curtis Brown, who will step into the nickel role. Brown will draw a tough assignment in this game, but he has been preparing and has improved considerably in the action he’s seen this season.
Let Ben Be Ben
With Ben Roethlisberger set to return to action this week, the Pittsburgh Steelers will finally have their most important and valuable player back on the field.
Now the key is to let him be himself.
Roethlisberger is at his best when he’s able to improvise and create on his own. The Steelers won’t want him taking too many hard hits on Sunday, but they need to balance that with the need to let him play his game. Otherwise, the offense will slant conservative.
The San Diego Chargers are a team that is crying out to be beaten by a wide open offense. They do not have a shutdown defense and their offense cannot play from behind or with a lead.
If Roethlisberger is permitted to be himself and play his game, the Steelers will almost assuredly win on Sunday.
Make Rivers Run
Playing behind an offensive line that is missing three starters is bad enough. If the Pittsburgh Steelers can generate any pass rush at all, it will crumble this unit.
That isn’t enough, however.
The Steelers must hit San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers over and over again. Even if they don’t always bring him down for a sack, they must get in his face as often as possible.
Rivers hasn’t been very good this or last season. He also has been bad under pressure. This would be a good time for some of Dick LeBeau’s more exotic schemes and heaviest pressure sets.
The best method for getting to Rivers will be either bringing rushers from the blind side or by rushing them right up the middle. Either way is going to generate the desired results. If Rivers gets off his game, the Chargers are finished.
Work It to Plaxico
One of the bigger mysteries lately has been why Pittsburgh chose to bring back wide receiver Plaxico Burress. At the time, it seemed like a great signing. Burress would fill in for Jerricho Cotchery and slot in well on red zone snaps.
It hasn’t happened.
Burress has been absent most of the time. Part of that is undoubtedly the lack of a truly capable quarterback throwing the football, but some of it is schematic.
Todd Haley hasn’t really used him. He certainly hasn’t used his size to the team’s advantage.
Ben Roethlisberger is very familiar with Burress from his rookie season. The two developed a great on-field rapport. That needs to be brought back this week.
The San Diego Chargers don’t have the defensive backfield to stop a tall receiver with good hands. If Burress is on the field, Roethlisberger will find a way to get the ball into his hands.
Plan to Pass
Working Plaxico Burress into an expanded role this week is only part of the offensive plan for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They also need to throw the ball a lot.
This would be the perfect time to temporarily revert to a more open offense that relies on the pass and intermediate and deep routes. While nobody wants to see a return to the Bruce Arians system, dipping into that realm for a game won’t hurt anyone.
The San Diego Chargers aren’t bad against the run. They have comparable defensive numbers there to Pittsburgh. Against the pass, however, they’re terrible.
Against a team with a strong-armed, accurate passer and a stable of diverse and talented receivers, they should stand no chance.
In fact, the only thing that stands between a big passing day and Pittsburgh’s offense is the way Todd Haley calls the game.
Ball control is appreciated. But just this once, Haley needs to go for it all.
Plan to Stop the Pass Too
Just as the Pittsburgh Steelers must throw the ball, San Diego’s best chance to steal a victory is to throw the ball effectively.
The San Diego Chargers don’t have a particularly effective rushing attack. They’ve had similar problems to what the Steelers have gone through. The Steelers have stiffened their run defense and were mostly able to hem in Ray Rice last week.
Philip Rivers’ arm is the opportunity the Chargers have to go with Sunday.
The Steelers must prepare accordingly. Without Ike Taylor, they’ll have to get a little creative to cover for some probable lapses by their young corners. Troy Polamalu might be best used in coverage to assist with the dynamic corps of receivers San Diego possesses.
If the Steelers close down the passing lanes, the Chargers will be powerless.
Score Big Early
One of the most effective ways to mess with a struggling team is to get them down early. This forces them off their game plan and zaps their confidence.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have the ability to do that this weekend. It will come down to Todd Haley’s play-calling and Ben Roethlisberger’s effectiveness with his receivers.
The Steelers should open with a quick-strike offense that will give them the ability to take an early lead. The defense has been equal to the task lately and would then be able to give the Steelers the ball back for a second drive without allowing points.
If that happens, then Todd Haley can go to a more-prolonged drive that eats up some time and ends in more points. After that, it’s off to the races.
If the Steelers get up big early, San Diego won’t be able to utilize whatever rushing attack they can muster. Once the Steelers know Rivers will be throwing, they can move to ruin him with the interceptions he’s been prone to throwing lately.
Keep Dwyer Running
While the San Diego defense has been decent at stopping the run, the Pittsburgh Steelers still must run the ball with some effectiveness to make sure their offense doesn’t bog down.
Ben Roethlisberger will need some time to shake off the rust. That’s to be expected after sitting for three games. Having an effective rushing attack will take the load off of him and give Pittsburgh an edge.
Sticking with Jonathan Dwyer last week worked pretty well. The Steelers were efficient and were able to generate enough ground yardage to keep the Baltimore Ravens away from Charlie Batch.
That needs to happen again. Dwyer is the team’s best runner. His pushy style and punishing strength force defenses to gang up on him. When the Steelers use that to sell a play action pass, they can usually get away with it.
With the effective Ben Roethlisberger back, Dwyer could be deadly. Teams will have to respect both aspects of the offense. That kind of thing will give the Steelers plenty of openings.
Stick to the History
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the San Diego Chargers stink when it comes to beating the Pittsburgh Steelers. They are 6-21 overall against Pittsburgh and they’ve never won in the city of steel.
The Steelers need to stick to that script on Sunday.
This year, it shouldn’t be as big of a challenge. The Chargers team that is coming into town is struggling. The head coach is all but fired. The offense sputters. The defense gives out late. San Diego just can’t put together a full game anymore.
The Steelers should be on the rise. They beat their bitter rivals from Baltimore with their third-string quarterback last week. They’re getting their MVP quarterback back now. They’re generally healthy all over the field. They’re gunning for the playoffs and know they need to win every game to have a shot at the division.
This is the time not only to keep to the history against this opponent, but also the history of the franchise. Back in 2005, the Steelers were 7-5 and ripped off four straight wins and then four more in the playoffs to get that magical “one for the thumb.”
They can, and must, do it all again now.