By Christina Rivers
The greatest challenge San Diego has faced this season is the inability to finish games. If professional football games lasted 45 minutes instead of the requisite 60, the Chargers would be closer to the top of the AFC. San Diego has thrown away four games after leading through the first half and often into the third quarter. Their halftime record for 2012 is 9-3 while their third quarter record is 8-4. This has become quite a difference-maker in their overall season. The Chargers enter the game against the Steelers with a four-game losing streak and a history of struggles in road games this season.
The Chargers weren’t surprised by the announcement yesterday that Ben Roethlisberger would be starting against them. They had been planning on facing him all week. Their defensive goals are to keep Roethlisberger from making big plays against them. “We know we have to do a great job of getting pressure and wrapping up,” said head coach Norv Turner. “We know the ball is going to be thrown up the field. We have to be prepared to defend the big play.” That may be a tall task for San Diego. Through Week 13 of the 2012 NFL regular season, the Chargers defense ranks 21st in pass defense, allowing 240.6 yards per game. The Chargers also realize that Pittsburgh has a relatively balanced offense, which will make it difficult to completely shut down the Steelers. The defense ranks sixth against the rush (94.5 y.p.g.), ninth in total defense (335.1 y.p.g.) and 12th in points allowed (21.4 points per game).
Defensive coordinator John Pagano said of Roethlisberger, “Good lord, he’s so crafty. He’s such a proven quarterback in this league. The biggest challenge is really trying to get him down. He’s so elusive for a guy his size.” Turner said that the defense was focusing on “aiming points and leverage” against Roethlisberger. “You have to get more than one person there. That’s the key, just like if you’re going after a real good back or anyone who has a special skill.”
One player the Steelers will need to pay attention to is linebacker Shaun Phillips. Phillips leads the defensive squad of the Chargers with seven sacks. With a bit of uncertainty on the Steelers’ offensive line, he could be San Diego’s most valuable asset at getting to Roethlisberger and stopping the run.
Receiver Malcolm Floyd is a reliable option for the Chargers, but lately Rivers hasn’t been as accurate targeting him. Receiver Danario Alexander has good ball skills and enters the game against Pittsburgh off of a 102-yard performance against the Cincinnati Bengals last week.
San Diego is a single loss from elimination from any playoff contention. This season, the Chargers haven’t beaten any NFL team with a winning record. They have played every team in the AFC North outside of Pittsburgh. Their record this year is 0-3 against the North; two were home games.
The Chargers’ offense has struggled as quarterback Philip Rivers has struggled and vice versa. During their last four games, Rivers has only been able to complete six touchdown passes while throwing five picks and fumbling as many times. Some of his issues fall squarely on an offensive line that has been battered and broken by opponents. In Rivers’ last three contests, he has seen the turf 14 times with defenders all over him. Without stable protection, Rivers has had to go to the rushing game, but that dimension of their offense has dwindled to only a 63.3 yards per game average. News that tackles Jeromey Clary and Mike Harris may miss the game and that guard Tyronne Green may be in the same spot hampers Rivers even more. “We’re fighting like crazy to score,” said Rivers. “We’re in a rut and all we can do is keep playing.” Rivers has made some bad decisions, many of which were created when opposing defenses were able to collapse on him, forcing him to get the ball away in dangerous situations.
Rivers will be facing a Steelers defense that has Troy Polamalu back on the field, James Harrison and Jason Worilds at the end of the line and an intense front seven. The Steelers are 1st in the league in total defense (259.8 yards per game), 1st against the pass (166.7 y.p.g.), 5th against the run (93.1 y.p.g.) and are sitting at sixth in points allowed with an average of 19.2 per game.
The last times these two teams met was in 2009. Roethlisberger threw for 333 yards and two touchdowns at home for a 38-28 win. Dating back to 1971, the Chargers and Steelers have met 30 times and Pittsburgh leads the series, 22-8. Pittsburgh has won the last three contests against San Diego.
This will be a hard game for the Chargers to take away and the Steelers don’t have a habit of being overconfident against any opponent. With recent rumors that San Diego head coach Turner and general manager A.J. Smith would be fired, it led organization president Dean Spanos to issue an official press release on the Chargers’ website. “There is only one person in this organization who will make those decisions and that’s me, and I haven’t shared my thoughts with anyone.” With so much uncertainty swirling around the San Diego organization, it isn’t too hard to see why the team is having such a problem with continuity and leadership.
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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.