By BOB LABRIOLA
The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers host the San Diego Chargers at 8:20 p.m. on Sunday at Heinz Field:
STEELERS OLBs JAMES HARRISON AND LaMARR WOODLEY VS. CHARGERS OTs MARCUS McNEILL AND JEROMEY CLARY: It wasn't that Philip Rivers was sacked a lot last season, just 25 times in 16 games, but the Steelers did have some success pressuring him in the teams' two meetings in 2008. In the two games, Woodley had 11 tackles and two sacks – both in the playoff game – and Harrison had eight tackles and one sack in each of the two games. The advantage of having bookend pass-rushers is that it limits what the offense can use in terms of protection schemes, and it also restricts the depth of the routes the receivers can run because the quarterback has to get rid of the ball quickly. The Chargers are going to want to throw the football down the field – their receivers are not the kind to subsist on a string of 4-yard horizontal passes – and Rivers comes into Sunday's game ranked No. 2 in the league in passing yards but first in yards per completion. Woodley has yet to register a sack, but he does have five pressures and has batted down two passes, while Harrison has one sack to go along with seven pressures. And maybe if the pressure is consistent enough, Rivers can be induced into throwing interceptions, which he did three times during the two meetings last season.
STEELERS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR DICK LeBEAU VS. CHARGERS QB PHILIP RIVERS: Last year when the Chargers came to town for the regular season game, Rivers was among the NFL's leading passers and the Steelers were playing without injured cornerbacks Bryant McFadden and Deshea Townsend. In that game, Rivers completed 57.7 percent but for only 159 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception. Rivers' passer rating in that game was 43.6. In the playoff game, Rivers had a lot more success from a statistical standpoint, but most of it came late in a game in which the Steelers led, 28-10, early in the fourth quarter, and then later, 35-17, with four minutes to play. Mixing the pressure with coverage, and mixing up where the pressure will be coming from are the hallmarks of a LeBeau defense, and Rivers will be an even more savvy opponent having faced the Steelers twice so recently. This game could become a shootout, and so it will become incumbent upon the Steelers to do some things to slow Rivers down, or at least do more things to slow Rivers than the Chargers can do to slow Ben Roethlisberger.
STEELERS RBs WILLIE PARKER AND RASHARD MENDENHALL VS. CHARGERS ILB STEPHEN COOPER: The last time the Steelers had a 100-yard rusher was against the Chargers in that AFC Divisional Playoff game, and it was Willie parker who did it with 146 yards on 27 carries, plus touchdown runs of 3 and 16 yards. Add in the fact the Chargers will be without All-Pro nose tackle Jamal Williams, who's on the injured reserve list, and it would seem to be a great opportunity for the Steelers to resurrect their running game. But Parker missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday with a toe injury he has described as very painful, and so the bulk of the carries could fall to Mendenhall. But it was just last Sunday when Coach Mike Tomlin did not allow Mendenhall to play on offense due to the second-year pro not being "on the details," but since then Tomlin has said Mendenhall isn't in the dog-house and Mendenhall has said he learned his lesson. Running the football would help the Steelers defense against Rivers and the Chargers offense, and it could end up being Mendenhall who gets the bulk of the carries on Sunday night.
STEELERS WRs HINES WARD AND SANTONIO HOLMES VS. CHARGERS CBs QUENTIN JAMMER AND ANTONIO CROMARTIE: The concept of the Steelers using their offense to keep the Chargers offense off the field is a good one, but it need not happen solely because of a potent and consistent running attack. Ben Roethlisberger is capable of controlling the ball with his passing, and he had success doing it against the Chargers twice last season. In both of those games, the Steelers possessed the ball for 36:30, and Roethlisberger completed a combined 76 percent of his passes. Certainly, this doesn't all fall on the quarterback, and the performances of the Steelers' receivers has been far from flawless so far this season. In terms of glaring mistakes, there was Ward's fumble in the opener, and Holmes' drop in the end zone in Chicago and his mis-read of the coverage in Cincinnati. Cromartie and Jammer are a couple of former No. 1 picks, two athletic cornerbacks with good size and speed. When teams went at Cromartie in 2007 he responded with 10 interceptions, and when they avoided him last year Jammer recorded two and tied his career-high with 19 passes defensed. But Ward had 194 yards receiving in the two games last season, and Holmes averaged a little better than 12 yards per catch. The Steelers receivers have made plays against this Chargers secondary and will need to do so again.
By BOB LABRIOLA