NFL Preview - San Diego (2-1) at Pittsburgh (1-2)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers will be hoping to avoid a repeat of recent history when the two top-tier AFC teams renew acquaintances in a primetime clash this Sunday from Heinz Field.
The reigning world champion Steelers have lost back-to-back games since opening defense of their Super Bowl title with an overtime victory over Tennessee in Week 1. That undesired start has begun to evoke unwanted memories of 2006, a year in which Pittsburgh dropped six of its first eight contests and missed out on the playoffs after also capturing a Vince Lombardi Trophy the previous season.
San Diego will be attempting to exorcise the ghosts of Heinz Field, the site of the team's 35-24 defeat to the Steelers in last January's AFC Divisional Playoffs. The Chargers were also dealt a stinging 11-10 setback in Pittsburgh during Week 11 of last season, with the winning points coming on a field goal by the Steelers' Jeff Reed in the game's final seconds.
Such results have been commonplace for San Diego, which has never won in 13 regular-season visits to the Steel City.
The Chargers will be coming in on a high note, however, after delivering a 23-13 home win over the reeling Miami Dolphins this past Sunday. Quarterback Philip Rivers once again led the way with a 303-yard effort, bringing the fiery field general's league-leading total to 991 passing yards through the opening three weeks.
Rivers is expected to get some needed help to an offense that's been heavily slanted towards the pass in the early stages, as former NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlinson appears ready to return from an ankle sprain that's kept the star running back out of the Chargers' last two matchups.
Pittsburgh has had to deal with an injury to one of its own franchise icons, with All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu slated to miss his third straight game due to a sprained knee ligament suffered in the club's season-opening triumph over the Titans.
With Polamalu on the sidelines, the Steelers' usually airtight defense surrendered a late 16-play, 74-yard touchdown to Cincinnati that enabled the Bengals to rally for a 23-20 win over their AFC North rivals last weekend.
Pittsburgh, which has not lost three straight times since October 22-November 5, 2006, will be carrying a seven-game winning streak (including the playoffs) at Heinz Field into tonight's showdown. In head coach Mike Tomlin's two-plus years at the helm, the Steelers have amassed a 14-3 regular-season record in home games.
Pittsburgh has a 20-6 edge in its all-time regular season series with San Diego, including that 11-10 home victory when the teams met in Week 11 of last season. The Chargers won the previous meeting, snapping a five-game losing streak in the series with a 23-13 home win in 2006. As mentioned, San Diego is 0-13 in regular season games in Pittsburgh all-time.
The Chargers are 2-1 in three postseason meetings with the Steelers, including last year's aforementioned 35-24 loss at Heinz Field. Previous to that contest, the Bolts were 31-28 road winners in a 1982 AFC First-Round Playoff and stunned the Steelers, 17-13, on the road in the 1994 AFC Championship.
Chargers head coach Norv Turner is 0-4 in his career against the Steelers, including 0-2 since taking over in San Diego. Tomlin is 2-0 against both Turner and the Chargers as a head coach.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
With Tomlinson (55 rushing yards, 1 TD) on the shelf and the offensive line minus two starters in center Nick Hardwick (ankle surgery) and rookie guard Louis Vasquez (sprained knee), San Diego has had to rely almost exclusively on the right arm of Rivers (991 passing yards, 3 TD, 3 INT) and the talents of physical wide receiver Vincent Jackson (16 receptions, 317 yards, 2 TD) and five-time Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates (15 receptions, 225 yards) over the past two games. As a result, the team ranks second in the NFL in passing offense (315.7 ypg) but is averaging a paltry 66.3 yards per game on the ground (31st overall). Tomlinson's anticipated return should help achieve some semblance of balance, although the ninth-year pro will still likely split carries with sparkplug Darren Sproles (90 rushing yards, 14 receptions, 2 total TD), who's struggled mightily between the tackles but is extremely dangerous in the open field as a receiver. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Jackson can be a matchup nightmare for enemy cornerbacks and has racked up 261 receiving yards over the Chargers' last two tests, while another bulked-up receiver -- third-year man Legedu Naanee (10 receptions) -- is getting more involved in the game plan as well.
San Diego's struggling running game may have a hard time getting untracked against a Pittsburgh defense that hasn't let an opposing back gain 100 yards in 21 straight regular-season games and limited the Bolts to a mere 15 rushing yards in last January's playoff bout. The Steelers are tremendously strong at the point of attack, with lane-clogging nose tackle Casey Hampton (10 tackles, 1 sack) having been to four Pro Bowls and longtime end Aaron Smith (4 tackles, 1 sack) considered one of the league's best at his spot. The unit is equally as adept at pressuring the quarterback, with 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison (16 tackles, 1 sacks) and fellow outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (3 tackles, 2 PD) combining for a whopping 27 1/2 sacks last season. A secondary that will have serviceable veteran Tyrone Carter (7 tackles, 1 sack) in place of Polamalu once again hasn't come up with many big plays, as Pittsburgh is allowing a so-so 212.7 passing yards per game (15th overall) through the first three weeks and Polamalu has the club's only interception despite having been out since the opener.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh is in much the same boat as the Chargers on offense, as a below- average ground attack has placed an additional burden upon the broad shoulders of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (860 passing yards, 3 TD, 4 INT) and the excellent receiving tandem of Hines Ward (18 receptions, 242 yards) and Santonio Holmes (15 receptions, 232 yards, 1 TD). The Steelers were better able to mix the run and the pass against Cincinnati, with primary ball carrier Willie Parker (159 rushing yards, 4 receptions, 1 TD) producing season-bests of 93 yards on 25 attempts. However, a turf toe injury has left him highly questionable to suit up for this game, meaning third-down specialist Mewelde Moore (27 rushing yards, 8 receptions) and 2008 first-round choice Rashard Mendenhall (45 rushing yards) figure to see the bulk of the load on Sunday. Roethlisberger doesn't lack for options when he drops back to throw, as rookie Mike Wallace (12 receptions) hauled in seven passes for 102 yards last week as the No. 3 receiver and tight end Heath Miller (16 receptions) is a highly- reliable safety valve. The Steelers are seventh overall in passing offense (265.0 ypg) but only 26th running the ball (81.0 ypg).
The Chargers have been hit with some key injuries on the defensive side as well, with three-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Jamal Williams out for the season with a torn triceps and premier pass rusher Shawne Merriman (6 tackles) a game-time decision due to a groin strain that forced an early exit from last week's game. Williams' loss has had a profound effect on the run defense, as San Diego is yielding an average of 142.3 rushing yards per game (26th overall) thus far. The team has fared pretty well against the pass despite getting sporadic pressure up front, having held enemy quarterbacks to a 56 percent completion rate and garnering four interceptions. Free safety Eric Weddle (23 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PD), also an active member in run support, took a pick back 31 yards for a touchdown against the Dolphins, while inside linebacker and offseason acquisition Kevin Burnett (21 tackles, 1 sack) finished with 13 tackles and a sack to lead a solid defensive effort.
Rivers and Roethlisberger are No. 1 fantasy quarterbacks without question, especially considering their respective teams' struggles to mount a consistent running game, and should be in lineups without hesitation this week. Tomlinson's expected return may excite some owners, but Sproles remains the best source of points among the San Diego backs until the perennial All-Pro can prove he's at or close to full health. There are three must-use wide receivers in this matchup in the Chargers' Jackson and Pittsburgh's terrific duo of Holmes and Ward, while both Gates and Miller make fine choices at the tight end spot. Parker's injury provides an obvious boost to both Mendenhall and Moore, who's the better bet of the two to get more touches because of his experience edge and talents as a receiver. Although the Pittsburgh defense hasn't been the killer unit of last year, keep in mind that the group always seems to play well under the Heinz Field lights.
Both these two defending division winners have similar strengths and weaknesses, with each possessing skilled and gritty quarterbacks whose ability to get the ball downfield has helped compensate for running games that have been virtually non-existent. The overall talent level is relatively even here, but the Steelers have the edge on defense and are clearly the more desperate team. Add in the fact that Pittsburgh is playing at home and is the healthier of the two squads, and balance swings further in the favor of the reigning world champs. With last year's two losses still fresh in their minds, the Chargers will give the Steelers their best shot, but Pittsburgh simply needs this one too much.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 20, Chargers 16
10/01 16:59:22 ET