For the third time in four games, the Pittsburgh Steelers will take the field on primetime TV. This time we're on the road to San Diego to take on a Chargers team that suffered a heartbreaking loss against the Ravens this past Sunday. Let's take a look at some of the key positional matchups.
Quarterback: There should be an obvious edge to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers but Big Ben has yet to play a good game of football from start to finish. Does that mean he's due? I think so.
Phillip Rivers comes into this game having won two of his first three starts as a fulltime signal caller in the NFL. Two of these wins however, came against the lowly Raiders and Titans. San Diego fans are already up in arms about Marty Schottenheimer's unwillingness to take the shackles off of the young QB. Any offense that features LT is going to be a primarily run oriented unit, but in order to maximize LT's productivity, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and Marty are going to have to take some chances down the field. Rivers has the arm to do it. Do the coaches have the guts? Edge: Pittsburgh
Running Backs: Fast Willie Parker vs. LaDanian Tomlinson. Pretty good matchup. LT has an even 300 yards for the season in just three games. Complimenting him is Michael Turner who has 221 yards and 1 TD in just 30 carries. Combined, the two makeup arguable the most potent 1-2 combination in all of football.
Last year however, the Steelers did a pretty good job keeping LT in check. Tomlinson rushed for only 62 yards on 18 carries. He did catch 7 balls for 68 yards, but if we can once again limit him from making a game-breaking play, we should have a great chance at winning this one.
The Steelers running game is coming off a sufficiently impressive performance in week 3 against the Bengals. Much of the credit, however, belongs to the OL, which opened up comfortable running lanes for Willie all game long. It's going to be much tougher sledding running against a Chargers defense that was ranked #1 against the run last year, but don't expect Whisenhunt to abandon the running game completely. When we're on our game, it's hard to stop us, no matter how good the defensive unit. Edge: San Diego
Wide Receivers: This is going to be an intriguing match-up. The Steelers come into week 5 having gotten spotty play from their receiving corps all year. In the opening game, Hines Ward played well, catching a TD and several other critical passes on third down. Since then, he hasn't fared so well, having been noticeable hampered by his nagging hamstring injury. Cedrick Wilson has yet to breakthrough and pick up the slack either. I like Wilson, but he may not turn into an upper-echelon #2 WR in the NFL. As for the rest of the crew, well, let's just say we could desperately use some significant contributions from Nate Washington and/or Santonio Holmes. Holmes had a wretched game in week 2 against the Jaguars, and Washington followed suit in week 3, dropping several passes, including a potential TD late in the 4th quarter. Rookie Willie Reid has been activated for this week, but I'm assuming it's mostly for punt returning duties. With Ward still not 100%, it's imperative that somebody else have a big day to relieve some of the pressure from the running game, Big Ben, and Hines. We do have a guy named Heath Miller. Paging Roeth and Whisenhunt? Do you remember Heath? He's good, let's get him the ball.
The Chargers WRs are simply not that great. The ageless one, Keenan McCardell, also is being slowed by a lingering hamstring injury, and the veteran simply can not afford to lose whatever speed he still has left. He is admittedly a great route runner, so he's able to compensate for his inability to create separation with sheer speed. However, great route running is only as effective as the QB who's throwing him the ball. Rivers has to deliver the ball on time and confidently, before his WRs make their cuts. He's been ok thus far, but he's still nowhere near as comfortable as Drew Brees was last year when we faced off.
Opposite McCardell is Eric Parker, who in my mind, should not be a #2 WR on a playoff caliber team. He's undersized and hard to find over the middle. Because Schottenheimer is so reluctant to stretch the field vertically, his contributions as a deep ball threat are more limited than they should be. The Chargers biggest threat, of course, is Antonio Gates. Having only caught 10 passes thus far in 2006, there's a concern in SD that opposing defenses are learning how to cover the former basketball legend from Kent State. I don't think this is the case necessarily. Again, I think it's simply that Rivers has not yet had enough time working with the talented TE to maximize his unique talents over the middle of the field. Edge: Pittsburgh (slight) .
More positional breakdowns to come.