It's Week 5 and the Steelers find themselves playing in what I think may be one of their more important games this season, and certainly the biggest game to date. Sure, every week in the NFL is important, and each win counts the same, whether it's a road victory at Baltimore or a home trouncing of the Texans. That said, for various reasons, this Sunday's game against the Chargers has extra importance for a variety of reasons.
Take a look at last year's schedule. After 12 games, we were 7-5, and needed to win out just to make the playoffs as a Wild Card. In those four games, we played the Bears at home, at Minnesota, at Cleveland, and home vs. Detroit. Besides that first game against the Bears, that's a pretty soft schedule. In fact, it was the easiest four game stretch of our entire season.
Now take a look at this year's schedule. Other than our game at Oakland, and our two verses the perennial doormat Browns, I don't see any 'gimme' games. Instead of playing the weak NFC North like last year, we get the tough NFC South, with road games at Atlanta and at Carolina.
But leaving the scheduling issues aside, this game is important for other reasons.
1)How will Big Ben fare after the BYE week? This is the biggest question of them all. The Chargers had the #1 ranked rush defense in the NFL last year, and are #2 this year , allowing only 66 yards per game. If you consider that the Chargers will be extra vamped up playing at home on Sunday Night Football, my guess would be that it will be tough sledding for Willie Parker and the running game. That means Roethlisberger will have to improve his play if we are to have any chance at winning.
2)Are we healthy? Hopefully the week off has helped Troy Polamalu, Big Ben, and Hines Ward inch closer to being 100% healthy. I know technically nothing was wrong with Roeth against the Bengals, but he was still only a few short weeks removed from an emergency appendectomy. I am hoping that each passing day brings him closer to his old self, rather than the hesitant, indecisive Ben we've seen in his first two starts this year.
As for Troy, I mentioned yesterday in my notes that he claims to be feeling great and ready to go. He better be, because he's going to have to make a few plays in the open field on both Antonio Gates and LaDanian Tomlinson. We simply can not afford to have Polamalu not flying around the field making plays at full speed and full strength.
What about Hines? Good question. We haven't seen or heard much from him since his impressive week 1 performance against the Miami Dolphins when he caught a number of critical passes on third down. Against the Jags and the Bengals, he was basically non-existant, catching only two balls in both games. You have to give some of the credit to the defenses of Jacksonville and Cincinnati, but I think Hines was having trouble creating separation in the secondary. This in turn, caused Ben to hesitate with the football and to take longer than usual to go through his progressions.
3)Can we force Phillip Rivers to beat us? One of the reasons I think we match up well against the Chargers is because I think we are better coached than they are. I had been a big fan of San Diego during the Drew Brees era, and was constantly annoyed by how Marty Schottenheimer and OC Cam Cameron managed the game. To their credit, they did open things up at times to utilize the unique talents of LT and Antonio Gates, but too often they would sit on leads hoping that the defense could hang on to the slim leads that their offense would provide during the first half.
I expect even more of the same this year with first year starter Phillip Rivers leading the offense. If we can keep LT between 75-100 yards, they will have no choice but to take to the air like the Bengals did in the 2nd half. Fortunately for us, the Chargers don't have nearly the arsenal of receivers Cincinnati does. Keenan McCardell is good, but he's old and can no longer create separation like Housh or Chad Johnson. Eric Parker is even worse. Simply put, I don't think San Diego has the weapons to beat us in the vertical passing game if we have taken away their ability to run the ball with continued success.
Let me know what your concerns are heading into this Sunday's matchup with San Diego. More coverage to come.