Steelers vs. Chargers: Week 14 preview in must-win game for Pittsburgh's playoff chances

Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE

The Steelers host the dangerous San Diego Chargers Sunday at Heinz Field - a place the Chargers rarely ever win.

There are no letdown games in the NFL. Any team can beat any other on any given Sunday, Monday or Thursday.

The Steelers should approach this game with that mentality. After all, the main reason they're 7-5 and battling a red-hot Cincinnati Bengals team for the final AFC wild card spot is because they failed to defeat underdogs Oakland (3-10), Tennessee (4-8) and Cleveland (4-8).

The 4-8 San Diego Chargers enter their Week 14 game against the Steelers losers of seven of eight games. The margin of defeat in those seven losses is less than a touchdown.

Week 13 is over, and if the Steelers are going to keep their lead in the race for the playoffs, they need to defeat the Chargers - a team nearly flat-lined for their own post-season aspirations with a coach and general manager fighting for their respective jobs.

When the Chargers have the ball

Protection has been a significant problem for San Diego over the past few games. Injuries have ravaged its offensive line, leading to 14 sacks allowed on quarterback Phillip Rivers.

No one's accused Rivers of being less-than-adequate talent-wise, and given proper protection, he's able to throw with the best in the game. He just hasn't had time to do so. That has led to a career-high 10 fumbles and the Chargers have become one of the more turnover-prone teams in the NFL (24 giveaways through 12 games).

They aren't able to run the ball with any consistency, which has doomed them to a one-dimensional status. Pittsburgh's defense swarms all over teams able to only succeed in one phase of an offensive game plan, and with shaky protection of Rivers, expect the Chargers to keep the ball on the ground as much as they can, and keep the down and distance manageable.

It's not easy to score on the Steelers' defense (just 14.4 offensive points a game scored against them over the last seven contests), but the Chargers' main game plan will be to chip away at them, and hope to keep the game low-scoring and competitive.

Pittsburgh's defense will need to keep pace with the rest of the Chargers' opponents and force turnovers. With outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley out of this game, Jason Worilds will start again, and look to build on his team-leading five sacks. James Harrison has four sacks, and three in the last three games. They will need to pressure Rivers early and often, and force Rivers into mistakes - something defenses have been able to do plenty often this year.

When the Steelers have the ball

It appears as if the Steelers will have all four of their usual wide receivers healthy for the first time since Week 9. Antonio Brown missed three games with a high ankle sprain, and Jerricho Cotchery missed the last two with broken ribs.

That will help bolster the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who will see playing time for the first time since suffering an SC joint sprain in the third quarter of Pittsburgh's Week 10 game against Kansas City.

How effective Roethlisberger will be remains to be seen, but giving him a full compliment of skill position players - something this team hasn't seen in five weeks - can only help.

Still, the Steelers will need to establish the run to protect Roethlisberger and exert their will on the flailing Chargers. Their run defense has been strong this season, allowing just 94.5 yards per game.

Expect Steelers offensive coordinator to see early in the game if Roethlisberger is able to make aggressive throws in the medium level of the field. Roethlisberger has to take care of the ball, even if he is rusty. Giving the Chargers extra possessions will be costly, and it's also the recipe for losses in winnable games against the Raiders, Titans, Browns and Ravens this season.

Jonathan Dwyer will again be the Steelers' primary runner, coming off a relatively uninspiring 49-yard performance on 16 carries against Baltimore. He did score his first career touchdown in that game, a 16-yard scamper after he bounced outside in the third quarter of the Steelers' 23-20 win.

The Steelers aim for balance as a secondary plan to ball control. They've won the time of possession battle in nearly every game they've played this season, and have gotten in their own way with turnovers more than they've been flat-out stopped by opposing defenses. Expect a relatively conservative approach from Haley as the Steelers work Roethlisberger back into form, and do it with yet a new offensive line combination (right tackle Kelvin Beachum will make his second straight start and first with Roethlisberger under center). The return of left guard Willie Colon from a knee injury that's sidelined him over the last two weeks will be a boost to their running game.

Home field advantage can only help the Steelers. San Diego hasn't beaten the Steelers in Pittsburgh in their last 14 regular season games (Pittsburgh Steelers tickets).


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