We're getting closer my friends. T-Minus ~36 hours until your Pittsburgh Steelers take to the field once more in their quest for 'one for the other thumb' in 2008. Standing in their way initially will be the San Diego Chargers, winners of their past 5 games, most recently against the Colts last Sunday in the Wild Card round.
The Steelers are currently 6 point favorites, and a lot of the money in Vegas is coming down on their side. For good reason in my opinion, even though the Chargers sport a complete roster of capable defensive, offensive and special teams players. The biggest difference should be the health disparity between the two teams.
San Diego's top two offensive weapons - Antonio Gates and LaDanian Tomlinson - are in bad, bad shape. LT is down and out with a groin injury and will not play barring an unexpected miracle. Gates has a high ankle sprain. He's listed as questionable. My guess is he'll play, but if you saw the game last Sunday between the Chargers and Colts, you surely noticed Gates' limited mobility. That doesn't mean he can't catch a ball or two. But when you're playing the league's #1 ranked defense, not to mention the game's best defensive coordinator, it's hard to imagine him having much of an impact in this game.
Spew intangibles and momentum and whatever at me - when you're the Chargers, and you already are somewhat suspect on the perimeter, you just can't convince me that missing your two most dangerous offensive threats in the middle of the football field doesn't matter. If the Chargers were at full strength offensively, I'd be extremely concerend. But as is, it's going to take a game from Rivers like the one we saw out of Kerry Collins, as well as an uncharacteristic breakdown from our defense. And maybe even a few Big Ben TOs to boot, but from a strictly Xs and Os standpoint between their offense and our defense - there's just very little to like about San Diego in this game.
Allow me to elaborate...
Raise your hand if you're excited that Troy Polamalu will be able to focus a lot more heavily on Darren Sproles in the running and screen game, rather than having to keep too close an eye on Gates over the middle of the football field. At his reduced speed, James Farrior and/or a DB should be able to keep him in check. Chris Chambers and a potentially hungover Vincent Jackson making big plays against Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden? With Ryan Clark playing safety and Polamalu roaming to where Rivers eyes lead him? You can put your hands down now.
Sure we're being optimistic so maybe we should take a step back and hear out an argument in defense of San Diego's chances this Sunday. The argument is compliments of Seth Wickersham at ESPN, who gives 5 Reasons Why SD Will Win , which was front and center on the World Wide Leader's home page.
1. LaDanian Tomlinson won't play
2. The Steelers will face Darren Sproles every play
3. The second meeting between a defense and a quarterback favors the QB.
4. Unlike Rivers, who has been on fire recently, Big Ben has played just well enough to win.
5. The football gods are repaying the snakebitten Chargers.
Ok, where to start. How about with #1. In my opinion, this is the best point made in the article. If LT isn't anywhere near full strength, he's only going to hurt his team's chances to be productive offensively against one of the better defenses the league has ever seen. We'll see if LT even suits up. If he does, I suppose it's possible he could help along the goal line, where he has an uncanny ability to find small creases and subsequently the end zone. But generally speaking, Wickersham is right, the Chargers are probably better off not trying to work LT into the game. It's not at all that different than the conversations we've had this year and in 2006 regarding Ben Roethlisberger and his health. No sense in harming the team's chances by playing hurt when there's capable backups available, no matter how marquee a player you are - and no one is a bigger star than LT.
As for #2 - I guess my initial response would be 'um, and?' It's not that Darren Sproles isn't an electrifying player capable of being a difference maker Sunday, but his mere presence alone isn't going to make the Steelers defense tremble in their proverbial boots. The Steelers have allowed just one RB to reach the 100 yard plateau in years. I don't have the exact figures in front of me, but Thomas Jones of the Jets was the last to do so last year, and his feat broke a previously long standing streak of games where our defense did not let an indivudual eclipse the 100 yards marker.
Hell, LT himself didn't do much against the Steelers defense in 2006 and 2005, which was just about the pinnacle of his prowess. In 2006, LT had 13 carries for just 36 yards; in 2005, he had 18 carries for 62 yards.
So what was the explanation as to why we should be afraid of Sproles?
After gaining 328 total yards against the Colts, the 5-foot-6, 181-pound flash is the league's newest, hottest weapon. Everyone knew he was a good return guy, but his skills out of the backfield sneaked up on everyone. He didn't reach double digits in carries until the season finale. Against Pittsburgh on Nov. 16, he had one carry.
The Steelers are probably salivating, eager to put a lick on Sproles to see how he responds. But they've got to find him first. Sproles was almost invisible against the Colts, ducking and dodging behind the line, squirting through holes, making it hard for the defense to get a square shot on him. Granted, Pittsburgh's defense is better than Indy's. But the Chargers don't need Sproles to put up huge numbers. They just need Pittsburgh to respect the threat of him. That will open passing lanes for Rivers, who's confident going into this game
Hmm. I think point #1 makes sense - but then to follow that up by saying Sproles just needs to be decent - that makes less sense to me. Sproles needs to be far more than decent running the football if they're going to win. He'll need to turn a long field into a short one with a big burst out of the backfield or in the passing game.
We'll see about #3 and #4. Both QBs have had their moments this year and throughout their entire careers. I think it would be foolhearty to say Rivers is bar none the better QB of the two. Nevertheless, he's a great competitor and perfectly capable of bouncing back from early mistakes to make the Steelers pay if given the opportunity to do so late in the game. He did so against KC late in the regular season and he did it last week, despite struggling for most of the game. That's why I can't emphasize enough the importance of keeping the Chargers down on the mat if we have the chance.
I'll just skip #5 because I take it as a tongue in cheeck comment. But semi seriously - was it that tough to find 5 legitimate reasons that we needed to go down the 'magic' path? Again, I don't take it too seriously, but if I were to provide some voodo of my own, I'd say the opposite. The Steelers are due for some advantageous breaks in the officiating department. No this is not the NBA where there are boatloads of make up calls over the course of a 7 game series. But still, San Diego got all the breaks with the calls last week - even though they were not at all flagrant, it's just unlikely they'll come out on the same end of the stick this time around. So take that karma.
If I were to list five reasons why the Chargers might win this game, I'm not sure I'd use any of the aforementioned reasons, besides perhaps #1. Their potential advantage lies in their:
1. Ability to stop the run - 11th in rush defense
2. Lack of injury issues on defense
3. Superior special teams weapons - they may not have played better than our ST units this year, but Mike Scifres and Sproles have more potential to make a big impact on the game than do guys like Mitch Berger, Gary Russel, et. al.
4. Jamal Williams can command double teams, making Ron Rivera's job much easier as he tries to force Ben Roethlisberger into turnovers.
5. Ron Rivera vs. Bruce Arians favors the Chargers. I have 100% faith that Coach Tomlin has orchestrated a fantastic last two weeks of practice in preparation for this game; just like he has done all year. But if this game is decided by play calling late, and Ben is not allowed to improvise out of the no huddle with the game on the line, it could spell trouble.
I can't wait. Go Steelers!