8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: San Diego -4
What was intended as a primetime duel between a pair of Quarterbacks selected early in the 2004 NFL Draft, will now be billed as a matchup of two teams just looking to keep up with the competition in the AFC, as the San Diego Chargers host the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight at Qualcomm Stadium. Unfortunately, the Steelers (2-2, 2nd in AFC North) will be without Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tonight, as the Pro Bowl passer will miss yet another game rehabbing from an MCL Sprain and bone bruise suffered in a 12-6 victory at St. Louis back on September 27th. With the expected timetable for recovery pegged for a minimum six weeks, Mike Tomlin has found his team embroiled in crisis; the reigning top-ranked offense in the league just welcomed back the services of one Le’Veon Bell to the fold, no sooner than his teammate’s malady occurred, leaving one of the most dynamic units in the league to be piloted by Michael Vick. At the ripe age of 35, Vick still has something left in the tank, his performance against the Ravens in Week Four cemented that, but it remains to be seen if he has enough left to keep the Steelers above water until Roethlisberger is healthy enough to return to action. At the moment folks, the verdict is still out; against a struggling Baltimore side decimated by injuries, Vick was an efficient 19-of-26 (73.1%) for 124 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for another 33 yards on nine carries in the 23-20 overtime defeat. Demonstrating their confidence in the thirteen-year veteran, Tomlin and Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley called the lefty’s number twice on crucial fourth downs, which was really an expression of their lack of confidence in kicker Josh Scobee, who missed half of his four Field Goal Attempts. Needless to say, Pittsburgh promptly cut ties with the kicker after the contest, replacing him with former Texans’ Kicker Chris Boswell. So with that said, if tonight’s tilt comes down to a Field Goal, the faithful in Steel City may just start a riot.
Anyways, back to the real question at hand: can Michael Vick play the role of caretaker until Big Ben returns? Given the circumstances with a short week to prepare, he played well against Baltimore, and with another ten days for Haley and Co. to adjust the gameplan to his talents there is plenty of reason for optimism. Now, we don’t necessarily expect him to do what Josh McCown did for the Bears two years ago, but if he can make the proper reads and simply distribute the ball to any of a bevy of talented weapons, then ladies and gentlemen, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be alright. Last time we checked, Antonio Brown is still shredding opposing Secondaries to the tune of 34 receptions for 478 yards (14.1 y/c) and a pair of scores, and Le’Veon Bell is still occupying the backfield. The latter has made the expected impact since returning from a two-game suspension, rushing for 191 yards on 41 carries and two touchdowns, while also reeling in fourteen catches for 91 yards. Against Baltimore, Bell was the driving force of the offense, racking up 150 total yards and a score in the loss. Along with a rejuvenated DeAngelo Williams (211 yards, 3 touchdowns), Bell and Vick have the potential of comprising quite the rushing attack in Pittsburgh, definitely capable of improving upon the 111.8 yards per game they’ve managed thus far, which would definitely ease the load on their beleaguered defense, which is dealing with a number of injuries of their own. After a pair of down years on defense, Mike Tomlin instituted a torrent of change in the offseason, as revered Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau parted ways, with a number of veteran players such as Defensive Backs Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu following suit. A youth movement was the mandate, as the coaching staff prepared to throw their young unit into the proverbial deep end of the pool. Little did they know that these young’ns would play a much grander role in the team’s fortunes this season; with the offense on panic alert without Roethlisberger, the defense has played reasonably well, allowing 18.8 points per game (7th Overall) on 346.1 yards (13th Overall), with a particular staunchness against the pass, yielding just 6.0 net yards per pass attempt, the eighth-fewest figure in the league. The pass-rush has played a major role in their success, for the Steelers have returned to their Quarterback-dropping ways, registering fourteen sacks thus far, with nine different defenders notching a sack. With that said, Tomlin would no doubt prefer to see that pressure parlay into takeaways, which is still something that this group has struggled to produce; a year after mustering twenty-one turnovers, Pittsburgh has forced just four thus far. With youngsters such as Linebacker Ryan Shazier (shoulder) and Cornerback Cortez Allen (concussion) both listed as Questionable for tonight’s contest, and the former as author of a pair of those turnovers, the Steelers could be in for another long night in the second chapter of Life Without Big Ben.
As for their opponent tonight, the Chargers (2-2, 2nd in AFC West) have been an inconsistent group yet again, as injuries have mounted up on their offensive line and their defense, which while allegedly loaded with talent, has underperformed to this point. Then again, isn’t this usually the rub with San Diego, who are perpetually one of the most talented teams in the league, yet annually underachieve? Now we know that may sound a bit harsh, but it’s simply the facts; since 2010 this franchise is a slightly above-average 46-40, with just one postseason appearance to be found (2013). There is no doubt that Head Coach Mike McCoy has had a positive effect on Quarterback Philip Rivers, who was a turnover machine before his arrival, along with stockpiling talent on defense, but the results simply haven’t been there. Simply put, in a division where the Broncos have won three consecutive AFC West Titles (with another one in sight), the Chargers continue to settle playing .500 ball. All four of their outings this season have been terribly uneven performances. In the Opener at home against the currently-winless Lions, McCoy’s charges fell in a 21-3 hole before rallying back to a 33-28 victory, despite committing three turnovers and struggling to run the ball (95 yards on 30 carries). A week later, they became another casualty in Cincinnati’s unbeaten run, committing another triplicate of turnovers in a 24-19 defeat, followed by a 31-14 pasting at Minnesota, where the young Vikings pummeled them on the ground to the tune of 163 yards and three scores. Even last week’s return to the win column against Cleveland was a narrow one; San Diego felt compelled to make Josh McCown look like Joe Montana, permitting 356 yards on 32-of-41 passing, with a pair of touchdowns. The Chargers defense allowed the beleaguered Browns offense to compile five drives of at least 64 yards, needing a 57-yard drive of their own just outside of the Two Minute Warning to seal a 30-27 victory with a Josh Lambo Field Goal. The bottom line is that with the exception of the loss at Cincinnati, Rivers and Co. should have been heavy favorites in the other three games, and a team coined by many of the “experts” as a dark horse contender should not be struggling with the Browns of all teams at home.
Upon watching San Diego compete, on thing remains abundantly clear; for all the talk of their excess of talent, this team would be absolutely lost without Rivers. After penning the eleven-year veteran to a hefty contract extension in the offseason, Rivers has almost singlehandedly kept the Chargers afloat, completing 70.9% of his passes for an average of 312.3 yards per game on 7.67 net yards per attempt, eight touchdowns and four interceptions. He’s already authored one Fourth Quarter Comeback and a pair of Game-Winning Drives, all the while standing fearless behind a decimated Offensive Line that has relinquished a dozen sacks already. With Guard Johnnie Troutman on Injured Reserve (arm), and Tackles King Dunlap (concussion) and Orlando Franklin (ankle) both nursing injuries, Rivers has taken almost as much punishment as he’s managed to dish out. However, let’s be brutally honest for a moment; this is not a recipe for success and McCoy knows it. At this pace, Rivers will have been sacked 48 times by season’s end, which is far from ideal for a 35-year old Quarterback. Granted, their are a wealth of weapons for him to utilize in the passing game, and few at the position spread the wealth better than he, but the likes of Keenan Allen, Malcolm Floyd, Antonio Gates, Stevie Johnson, and Danny Woodhead are only legitimate threats if Rivers remains upright. And that is where Rookie Tailback Melvin Gordon comes into the picture, people; the 15th Overall Pick in the Draft is expected to bring some long-needed balance to this offense, and the early returns have been a mixed bag, averaging 57.0 yards per game on 4.1 yards per carry. If the Offensive Line can get healthy (a big IF), then Gordon must become a more integral part of the offense, for the Chargers must improve upon their relatively pedestrian rushing numbers; San Diego has averaged 26.0 rushing attempts (18th Overall) for 101.8 yards (20th Overall) on 3.9 yards per carry (24th Overall) with just two rushing touchdowns (20th Overall). With that said, the defense has struggled in the trenches too, for opponents have found far too much room to run against the defensive front. Simply put, Defensive Coordinator John Pagano has seen his unit have all kinds of trouble slowing down the run; 126.8 yards per game (28th Overall) on 4.9 yards per carry (30th Overall) are not healthy figures when talking about solid defenses, which again so many purport this group to be. They haven’t fared much better against the pass to boot; yielding the ninth-fewest yards through the air (225.0) is a bit misleading, for opponents have managed to net 7.1 net yards per attempt, sixth-most in the league, mostly because they’d rather run it down their throat than pick them apart via the pass. After all, running the ball with success will keep Rivers off the field, which is likely the gameplan for Pittsburgh tonight.