Pregame Zone Blitz: Chargers at Steelers

The friendly confines of Heinz Field probably never looked as good as they do right now for the battered Steelers. Dropping two consecutive games, something that hasn't happened in over two seasons, is a sobering reminder of the cruelty of the NFL season. Missed field goals, dropped touchdown passes, that extra yard on a 4th-and-2 all add up to a disastrous 1-2 start. The good news? The new season starts Sunday vs. San Diego.

Here's what our opponents are saying.

Opponent Web Sites/Forums

Kevin Acree of the San Diego Union-Tribune (one of the best in the game) says Roethlisberger "gets things done" against the Chargers.

Acree also thinks Chargers QB Phillip Rivers will set up out of shotgun.

OLB Shawne Merriman practiced this week, but is listed as questionable with a groin injury.

One of my favorite forum names, Glorify the Past, is predicting a variety of scores, mostly all of them pick a victory for the visiting team.

The Union-Tribune is optimistic about LaDainian Tomlinson's chances to impact Sunday's game.

What raising a champion taught Loreane Tomlinson, mother of LaDainian Tomlinson, about life, faith and listening to your dreams. If you buy the book, please let me know what championship she's referring to. Seems to me LT is usually hurt during the playoffs.

Last Game

"Two games." - Ben Roethlisberger, to Jim Wexell, summarizing his unshaken confidence in his offense after  two blown 4th quarter leads in the last two games.

It's difficult to characterize the poor start Pittsburgh has gotten off to as a "Super Bowl Hangover," which is the readily accepted phrase. If that were true, they could just drink some Gatorade, visit a Chinese buffet and sleep it off, like most people do. It goes deeper than that.

‘Shake said it the best in the post-game forum, "Teams are beating us like we beat them last season. Look back at the Dallas game from last season where we were beat for 3+ quarters found and found a way to win with a pick 6."

Were we not exactly like Cowboys fans last year, right after Deshea Townsend ripped their still-beating heart out of their collective chest? What about Ravens fans after Roethlisberger twice saved victory from the jaws of Baltimore defeat?

We won those games last year. It was our trademark of the 2008 season. We had no problem closing those teams out, and the team knew it. The Bengals had the ball 23 of the game's final 30 plays. They converted two fourth downs. They caught passes that hit them in the chest in the end zone, and ran the correct routes on blitz reads.

Cincinnati did not play the better game through four quarters, but they won the little battles, and exploited the dropped passes, wrong routes and they stretched out for those first downs.

When the rubber met the road, they wanted it more. Hangover? No. Gut-check time, absolutely. It's the little things that matter.

Conversely, we showed blitz too early too often, but QB Carson Palmer did not throw well into pressure when he didn't see the blitz coming pre-snap. CB Jonathan Joseph will be a marked man for the rest of the season (beaten at least four times, by my count). Poor personnel decisions can and will be corrected moving forward. We have more to work with here than we think in our post-back-to-back-loss gloom.

Opponent Spotlight: WR Vincent Jackson

"I've always seen myself I look at Reggie Wayne, Derek Mason, Marvin Harrison, Randy Moss, I've got to put myself up there. If you don't see yourself being in that position, I don't think you can achieve it." - Vincent Jackson

The secret's out. The rest of the league has found Vincent Jackson.

He's been the NFL's best-kept secret for two years now. Jackson has managed to stay off most people's radars, despite being built like T.O., having hands like Harrison and the big play ability of Moss.

Maybe it's something with Division I-AA Northern Colorado. Jackson's alma mater is the same as another underrated player involved in this game; Steelers DE Aaron Smith.

The Steelers probably know him well enough that he scares them. It didn't take long for him to make his impact against Pittsburgh in the 2008 Playoffs. Shortly into it, QB Phillip Rivers found Jackson from 41 yards out, giving the Chargers one of two leads they had all game - the only two times the Steelers trailed all playoffs.

Jackson hasn't slowed down a step since then, either. He's second in the NFL with 317 receiving yards, and second in touchdown catches (2). He's also the NFL's active career leader in yards per catch, at 17.5. Incidentally, Santonio Holmes is third with 16.5.

Jackson is certainly boosted by Rivers, whose lights-out year of 2008 went largely unnoticed, if not unappreciated. His 105.1 rating was the 13th-best passing season in NFL history, and he's already racked up 991 passing yards.

The Chargers, much like their opponents on Sunday, are slowly transitioning from a power running team to a team that will average 38 pass attempts a game (the 6th highest total in the NFL). Pittsburgh is currently averaging 36.3, good for 7th highest in the league. San Diego averaged 29 pass attempts per game in 2008. It used to be that Rivers spread the ball all over the field, and completed passes to as many guys as coach Norv Turner put on the field. TE Antonio Gates led the team last season with 60 receptions. Jackson was second with 59 and RB LaDainian Tomlinson had 52.

Jackson averaged 3.7 catches per game in 2008. He's averaging 5.3 so far this season.

Stopping the big-play production of Jackson will be a critical component of a Steelers victory. And with Pittsburgh having given up six plays of 20 yards or more through the air, it's a good bet the Chargers will look to get Jackson open deep.

Steelers Spotlight: OLB LaMarr Woodley

"We're not playing winning football right now, and the reality of it is we've got to get after the quarterback. We have to find ways to make significant plays at significant moments." - Mike Tomlin

Woodley stands at the edge of league dominance. When one gets to the edge of anything, one can either walk away, or jump. There's no third option. He's currently staring at that edge, and we're waiting to see whether he'll jump to another level of production, or if he'll walk away.

This isn't to say Woodley is playing poorly. He's just not showing that he's factoring in much. He swatted away a Carson Palmer pass in last week's loss, but through three games, he hasn't registered a sack, and the highly-touted Steelers defense has a pedestrian five sacks overall.

It's time for Woodley to step up.

Granted, offenses have not been looking to attack deep very often. Pittsburgh is only surrendering an average of six yards per pass completion, indicating passers are only taking three or five step drops and quickly releasing the football. San Diego, however, is transforming into a vertical passing team, led by the strong-armed Rivers. Woodley, and the rest of the Steelers' pass rush, is going to have a chance to get him to the ground.

Rivers may remember this hit in the playoffs last year.

 

One issue the defense seemed to have last week was with disguise. They often mis-timed their blitz, showing far too much of it pre-snap. That allowed Palmer to change plays, which he did successfully. That's an issue of rhythm and cohesion.

Expect Woodley and the Steelers to have a stronger pass rush, as coach Tomlin likely took the front seven to task this week.

I See You

"Really, how can anyone have faith in Sweed?" - Ron Cook, Post-Gazette

I see you, Limas Sweed. Yeah, you (eat me, Ron Cook). I see you because of the route you ran, not the pass you dropped. What most people don't look at on your second ginormous drop as a Steeler is how beautifully you burned Bengals CB Jonathan Joseph, and how you ran your route so crisply, it was right behind the safety as well. A receiver can be taught how to catch, it's a lot tougher to teach them the kind of balance, timing and speed you displayed in the execution of that route.

And hey, not to sound like a jerk, Limas, but you came a lot closer to making that catch than you did on your drop in the AFC Championship game.

I see you, Limas. We're behind you. We want so badly to add "SWEEEEEED" to our list of cheers upon one of your big receptions. We haven't given up on you, so please, don't you give up on you, either. All it takes is one catch, your confidence will be restored. Then, you can get back to kicking the hell out of chumps like Joseph on a regular basis.

Key Stats

  • Opposing quarterbacks are completing 62.7 percent of their passes against the Steelers - 9th highest total in the league.
  • The Steelers are allowing 6 yards per completion - fifth-lowest total in the league.
  • Of Pittsburgh's last six losses, they held leads in the fourth quarter in four of them.
  • Of the 9 kick returns Steelers WR Stefan Logan has taken, two of them have gone for less than 20 yards.

Quick Hitters

Welcome Back Carey: Good to see you, Carey Davis. Glad you weren't too busy to try and help us out. With rookie FB Frank Summers whiffing on several blocking assignments with just a spattering of plays in two games, his "mysterious" back injury will keep him out all year. Davis was sort of a "jack of all trades, master of none" kind of guy in his previous stint here, so maybe he can provide some versatility in a hot-and-cold running game.

What? Really?: Maybe I'm being oversensitive, but does it sicken anyone else to read comments from Rodney Harrison discussing himself, Terrell Owens and Randy Moss, and bringing Hines Ward into the discussion? None of the three of them will ever be a champion the caliber of Hines Ward. I'll give Moss a half-pass in this discussion, because he's not the bum people make him out to be, but don't make comparison where comparisons do not exist; Rodney, you're no Hines Ward. T.O., you're no Hines Ward.

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