The Pittsburgh Steelers are currently in control of their own postseason destiny, but in order to keep it that way over the final four weeks of the season, they need to win and keep winning, starting this Sunday against the San Diego Chargers.
Thus far, the Chargers have been defeated by every AFC North team aside from the Steelers, and a loss to Pittsburgh this week will mark three straight losses against the division. The Chargers are 4-8 on the season and head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith are reportedly going to be fired at year's end—which means that either the Chargers are going to come into Pittsburgh with something to prove or with their goose already well-cooked.
Either way, the Steelers must prepare for a fight. This will be the first game back for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after missing the past three weeks with rib and shoulder injuries, and during his absence, the Steelers went 1-2.
With the Indianapolis Colts seemingly not giving up their hold on the other AFC Wild Card playoff spot and the Cincinnati Bengals just one game behind the Steelers in their quest to reach the postseason, it's important that the Steelers are ready to perform at a high level no matter the apparent quality of their opponent.
Here's how the Steelers can get the better of the Chargers this week and continue on their path to the postseason.
Baiting Philip Rivers
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is one of three quarterbacks who have thrown 15 interceptions; only two quarterbacks have thrown more. He's also been sacked 36 times—more than any quarterback save one—and he leads the league in fumbles, with 11. With the Chargers not running the ball well, the offense has been forced to flow from the arm of Rivers; while this strategy has worked in the past, it's not going as planned this season.
The Steelers won't even have to force Rivers to throw—he'll just do it, because there are few other ways the team will be able to put up yards. However, it's how they approach Rivers that will ultimately determine how successful he is, and if they can bait him into feeling confident, they can make him pay for his mistakes.
The way to do this is two-fold. One is by being selective with their pressure. The Chargers have the worst pass-protecting offensive line in the league, and getting to Rivers shouldn't be all that difficult on Sunday, especially with safety Troy Polamalu on the field for the second straight week. This doesn't mean, however, that they need to pressure him on every dropback.
The second way is to allow Rivers to assume that cornerback Cortez Allen is a downgrade from usual starter Ike Taylor, in the way that Joe Flacco did in last week's defeat of the Ravens. The Ravens saw Taylor go out and tried to treat Allen as a weakness, throwing his direction 12 times over the course of the game, the most tested of any member of the Steelers' coverage unit.
Though Allen gave up 89 yards and a touchdown, only six of the passes thrown in his direction were caught. He's not a liability; however if Rivers thinks he is, so be it—it's not going to produce the ideal results. In fact, it will probably end in picks.
The challenging thing about the Chargers' passing game is that the receivers present mismatch problems with the corners tasked with covering them. Rivers' top two targets (who aren't Antonio Gates) are Danario Alexander and Malcom Floyd, and they are both 6'5". Corners generally aren't that tall—Allen, for example, is 6'1" while Keenan Lewis is 6'0"—which means there is a lot of vertical space that Allen and Lewis won't be able to defend.
Last week, Alexander put up 102 receiving yards on the Cincinnati Bengals, and Floyd 61 yards, and that had much to do with the size advantage for the two receivers. Though Pittsburgh's corners aren't as relatively small as their Bengals counterparts, it will still be difficult to cover them.
However, there are two things to note here about these two receivers: despite all those yards, the Chargers still put up zero offensive touchdowns last week, and their height can actually work in the Pittsburgh defense's advantage.
For Rivers to attempt to get the football where only Floyd and Alexander can catch it, he'll need to throw it a bit high. Combine that with his tendency to throw long, arcing passes and this means Lewis and Allen will be able to jump the receivers' routes and get their hands on the pass, deflecting or intercepting it. Rivers throws the kind of passes that are built to be intercepted, and his focus on trying to get the ball to his two tall receivers may result in otherwise poor throws.
And then, once Rivers feels like he can get passes out, it's then time for the Steelers defense to take advantage of his porous and injury-ravaged offensive line and take him down. Stopping Rivers is the key to winning, and luckily Rivers himself—and that offensive line—makes this a pretty easy task.
Slice and Dice
Ben Roethlisberger returns this week after missing the last three games with rib and shoulder injuries, and though he's not entirely 100 percent, he doesn't have to be in order to do his part in defeating the Chargers this Sunday.
Though part of what got Roethlisberger his starting job back this week was his ability to make all the throws—short, intermediate, long—in practices without pain or problem, chances are he won't be going deep all that often anyway. He wasn't before the injury—he attempted only 31 passes of 20 or more yards, with seven completions—and he doesn't need to this week, even if the injury had never occurred.
Presently, the Chargers defense ranks 21st against the pass, giving up an average of 240.6 passing yards per game. They're markedly stronger when it comes to the run game, allowing only 94.6 rush yards per game, and as a result, teams simply aren't running against them. Clearly, passing the ball is where the Steelers should be most successful in putting up yards on Sunday.
With Roethlisberger back under center, Todd Haley's short-passing, conservative, high-percentage offense will be back in full swing. Before leaving with injury in Week 10, Roethlisberger was having the best season of his career under Haley's less-risky system, with a completion percentage of 66.1, just 18 sacks, and 17 touchdowns to four interceptions.
As such, Roethlisberger should have little trouble slicing his way through the Chargers defense, stringing together completions and eating the clock while he does it.
San Diego's defense isn't all that good against the pass, and they should only struggle this week when faced with Roethlisberger and his group of receiving targets. Every one of them are dangerous and not all of them can be covered completely on any given play, and while attention gets focused on Antonio Brown or Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders or Heath Miller is going to find himself open.
It's happened repeatedly, with success, against better defenses than the Chargers', so even if Roethlisberger is still experiencing some pain or shows a little bit of rust after missing three games, things should still follow the plan.
In fact, it's seemingly designed for situations like these, and should help Roethlisberger's first game back be fairly routine rather than a plan adapted for whatever lingering discomfort Roethlisberger may experience.