Although the Steelers' encounter with San Diego on Monday Night Football is not necessarily a must-win situation, it surely feels like it. At 2-2, the Steelers not only desperately need to keep pace with Cincinnati in their division, but they need to establish confidence that they can get a win under their belts with Mike Vick at the helm.
Consider the following proposed matchups as key in this prime-time showdown.
Key Matchup #1
QB Michael Vick vs QB Philip Rivers
In fairness to Michael Vick and Todd Haley, they only had a couple of practices to alter the entire offense to fit the backup quarterback's skill set before the Baltimore debacle. Now that Vick has had a week-and-a-half leading the first string, the hope is that the bugs are worked out and the quarterback finds himself on the same page as his receivers.
Vick has a strong arm to open up the vertical passing game and talented, game-breaking receivers that know how to stretch the field. Vick, who is 24/32 with 162 yards and a TD, doesn't have to go to the short-game always, but can with Le'Veon Bell's pass-catching excellence. Even though he still has enough speed to make plays with his legs, with a great stable of running backs he doesn't need to.
Rivers leads the third-ranked offense (411 yards-per-game) and the second-ranked passing attack (309 ypg) in the National Football League. The 12-year vet leads the league with 1,248 passing yards, but has gone hot and cold over the years quite easily. With eight touchdowns and half-as-many interceptions, #17 is having an up-year. Not only is his line hobbled with injuries, Rivers' receivers are beat-up, with only Keenan Allen and Dontrelle Inman healthy. However, Antonio Gates is back at the tight end spot and Danny Woodhead is dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield.
This is a matchup of very diverse throwing styles, but whoever gets the most protection and makes the most of the weapons surrounding them, with the least amount of miscues, will get the upper hand.
Key Matchup #2
WRs Antonio Brown, Darius Heyward-Bey, Markus Wheaton and Sammie Coates vs Maybe CBs Brandon Flowers, Jason Verrett and Patrick Robinson
It's a major disappointment to hear that after missing Martavis Bryant for four weeks due to a suspension, that he won't be available for at least another week because of a tweaked knee sustained in practice on Monday. Bryant's presence helps free up the dynamic Brown and the rest of the receiving corps. But the presence of #10 won't be felt once again.
Brown, among the league leaders as the NFL's top pass catcher, saw his much ballyhooed streak of 5/50 halted last week against Baltimore. Brown did not seem in sync with Michael Vick and dropped (albeit a tough catch, but one he usually makes) a touchdown in the end zone that would have proved to be a monumental difference in the final outcome of the contest. Antonio seemed to have misjudged the ball coming from a left-handed quarterback. He needs to make that adjustment to be successful while Ben Roethlisberger heals. Brown, with 34 catches for 478 and two touchdowns, is known for taking over many-a-game and needs to again this week.
Heyward-Bey is second on the team with 15 receptions for 185 yards and two touchdowns. He flourished with Ben at quarterback and needs to once again be that deep threat that can stretch the field until Martavis comes back.
The time is now for Wheaton (8 catches/156 yards) to finally have his breakout game, and Coates was finally unveiled last week and needs to add to his singular catch and justify his third-round selection.
Charged to contain this crew is a pass defense that ranks 10th in the league with 225 ypg allowed. However, the injury bug has bitten big time in San Diego and the starting status of the talented cornerbacks is uncertain.
The best of the bunch is Brandon Flowers, but he suffered a concussion and has been held out of practice. His possible absence leaves a significant void at shutdown corner for the Bolts.
Verrett, the talented second-year man, sustained a foot injury last week but practiced Friday and is expected to play.
Robinson, who has an interception on the year, is healthy.
Brown revealed that the receivers are still trying to get on the same page with Vick. If they can establish a vertical passing-attack, they may be able to gain that necessary step against a banged-up group.
Key Matchup #3
ILB Lawrence Timmons and ILB Sean Spence vs TE Antonio Gates and TE Ladarius Green
With a deep void left once again by the absence of Ryan Shazier on the inside, Spence and Vince Williams will ably step in for him. But after dealing with Jared Cook and Maxx Williams, the foes this week are more formidable.
Spence, who is more accomplished in passing situations, will team with Timmons to stop Gates in his return from a four-game suspension.
The wily veteran, Gates, has torched the Steelers a plenty over the years with 27 receptions for 345 yards and four scores in six career-games. The 35 year-old from Kent State proved last year that he still can play and still has a great rapport with Rivers, by grabbing 69 balls for 821 yards and 12 touchdowns. With his next TD being his 100th, Gates will be targeted early often on MNF to reach that milestone.
Serviceable in Gate's stead was Ladarius Green with 14 snags and two trips to the end zone. Green (6'6" and 237 lbs) is a big target with good hands.
Timmons and Spence are going to need some help from their secondary to shut these big, reliable threats down. If they can eliminate the short-game to the tight ends, they can control the game.
Key Matchup #4
LT Kelvin Beachum and RT Marcus Gilbert vs ROLB Jeremy Attaochu and LOLB Melvin Ingram
The Steelers O-line, with 12 sacks surrendered, will have their hands full with the talented duo of San Diego pass-rushers. Ingram (17 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 1 forced fumble) and Attaochu (8 tackles and 2 sacks) are fast and can get to the quarterback.
If the Steeler tandem of tackles (Gilbert and Beachum) can give Vick time to find open men, they won't have to worry about Vick trying to improvise and possibly losing the ball.
Key Matchup #5
ST Shamarko Thomas Jr. vs KR Jacoby Jones
Because of his tenure with the Ravens in Baltimore, Jacoby Jones is a known antagonist to the Steelers and Steeler Nation. With a TD and a 26 ypr average against Pittsburgh, the rivalry between Jones and the Steelers is most famous for the Thanksgiving incident involving interference from Mike Tomlin, preventing a touchdown.
Shamarko Thomas makes most of his impact on special teams and will be the guy that needs to lead the charge in corralling Jones.
Jones' name did, however, show up on the team's injury report because of a bum ankle. He practiced on Friday, but is still only a 50/50 shot to play.
Jones (24.00 ypg on kick returns) is still a spark plug that can alter the game. If he can go, Thomas and company need to swarm to him or he can blow the game wide open with a big return.
Other Equally Important Matchups
NT Steve McLendon vs C Chris Watt
OLB James Harrison and OLB Jarvis Jones vs LT Chris Hairston
CB William Gay, CB Ross Cockrell and CB Antwon Blake vs WR Keenan Allen and WR Dontrelle Inman
LDE Stephon Tuitt vs RG DJ Fluker
RB Le'Veon Bell vs ILB Manti T'eo and ILB Donald Butler
The Steelers Offense vs FS Eric Weddle
RDE Corey Liuget vs LG Ramon Foster
Steelers Run Defense vs RB Melvin Gordon and RB Danny Woodhead
K Chris Boswell vs Inexperience