Despite a second weekend in a row when the NFL has lost one of it’s members, after the Dallas Cowboys‘ Jerry Brown lost his life because of a car accident involving teammate Josh Brent, the NFL will once again continue this Sunday. Obviously football is not important compared to the loss of a person, but from a sheer football perspective, the playoff push in both conferences will take precedence for fans once more once the games kickoff.
While the Cowboys contend for their own NFC playoff spot entering a tough situation for many reasons against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Pittsburgh Steelers welcome the San Diego Chargers to Heinz Field in a crucial AFC battle. The Chargers(4-8) need a minor miracle if they are to make the playoffs, but the Steelers(7-5) currently sit in the sixth seed and final playoff spot. Continuing to compile victories will be crucial however as the Bengals(7-5) are hot on their tails with a game against each other remaining on their schedule. Neither team can afford to look ahead of this weekend however.
For the Steelers that means repeating what the Bengals did last week and beating the Chargers. However, at home, the AFC wildcard leaders will be expecting to have it much easier than the Bengals did. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will return to the starting lineup after Charlie Batch‘s backup heroics last week. Even though he has missed three weeks, Roethlisberger will be desperate to carry the offense in this game because of the Chargers’ poor secondary. The Chargers have been a good run stuffing unit all season, in spite of their poor performance against BenJarvus Green-Ellis last week. Instead of handing it off to Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman 25+ times, the Steelers will prefer to see Roethlisberger making use of the now healthy Antonio Brown, Heath Miller and Emmanuel Sanders to move the chains, while also looking to hit Mike Wallace deep down the field.
The Chargers have a dearth of quality cornerbacks, so they will instead rely on their pass rush to get to Roethlisberger. Having endured such a painful injury, it would be no surprise if Roethlisberger was a bit nervous in the pocket against pressure this week. Typically that is not the way he has played over his career, but considering he could have died from that hit against the Kansas City Chiefs a few weeks ago, it would be no surprise if he were to flinch just this week. Once again Kelvin Beachum will be put under the microscope as he fills in for Mike Adams at right tackle. Beachum, like Adams, is a rookie who was kept on the roster this year as a developmental prospect for the future. He stood up very well last week to Paul Kruger, but faces a completely different type of player in Jarrett Johnson this week as well as a sprinkling of rookie pass rushing specialist Melvin Ingram.
Defensively, the Steelers have been dominant in recent weeks. The Steelers haven’t given up more than 20 points since a Week 6 loss to the Tennessee Titans. Furthermore, during that time they have played without safety Troy Polamalu, obviously a pivotal piece to their defense. Polamalu proved to be healthy against the Baltimore Ravens last week, but during that game the defense lost another key piece in Ike Taylor. The veteran cornerback had been playing outstanding football this season in what should be an all-pro year. However, he will join LaMarr Woodley on the sidelines with a hairline fracture. In Taylor’s place will be the very talented, but inexperienced Cortez Allen. Allen is a rangy cornerback with outstanding coverage ability, but was exposed last week against Anquan Boldin on two deep throws that led to a touchdown. The Chargers’ two starting receivers, Danario Alexander and Malcolm Floyd, are game-changing receivers in good form.
Allen will be able to make plays, but he is likely to have his moments also as every young player tends to at this level. Instead of relying on Allen to contain the Chargers’ passing attack however, the Steelers will instead look to get pressure on Philip Rivers. Rivers has been sacked 14 times over the last three weeks and has been consistently under pressure. He also has five fumbles during that time, so James Harrison, who forced a fumble with a sack last week, and Jason Worilds will be expecting to finish every single play in the backfield this week.