By BOB LABRIOLA
The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers host the San Diego Chargers at 4:15 p.m. on Sunday at Heinz Field:
STEELERS CBs WILLIAM GAY AND FERNANDO BRYANT VS. CHARGERS QB PHILIP RIVERS: Like most teams in the NFL, there are facets of the Chargers game that have fallen short of expectations, but their passing attack isn't one of those. Rivers is having his best season. He leads the NFL in touchdown passes (21), leads the AFC with a 106.3 passer rating, and because he leads the NFL in average gain per pass at 8.72 yards, he is an opponent unafraid to attack down the field. The Steelers come into this game without Deshea Townsend (hamstring) and Bryant McFadden (arm), which means it will be Ike Taylor, Gay, Bryant and Anthony Madison at cornerback. "We worked Fernando out a couple of weeks ago and had a very good workout," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We wanted to be prepared if injuries set in so that we had a name to go to; it did happen and we were able to get him. He is in the building trying to learn in a hurry. We are optimistic about him being able to do that; he is a sharp guy and a veteran football player. He will spend some time with our staff and start the practice process for us. Hopefully he will be able to help us this weekend." The numbers on the depth chart alone show he's going to have to help this weekend.
STEELERS KICK COVERAGE VS. CHARGERS KR DARREN SPROLES: "It Only Takes One" could be the motto in this phase of the sport, because just as it's true that the impression of a bad return game can be changed dramatically with one long one, so can the opinion of the coverage. So far, the Steelers haven't allowed that "One," either on punts or kickoffs. "We got a little continuity. It is year two. I think you have to acknowledge that," said Tomlin about the improvement over 2007. "Also, we've got some continuity with the core players. Anthony Madison is in the second year in the coverage units, Lawrence Timmons is in his second year in the coverage units. They are making plays for us. The addition of Keyaron Fox is big. Young guys like Pat Bailey are kicking in, but more than anything I think it's the continuity that is associated with being in year two. It has been a winning edge for us, and it needs to be a winning edge for us this weekend because San Diego is very good and it starts at Sproles as a return man on both punts and kickoffs." Sproles is listed at 5-foot-6, but he is dynamite in that small package. He has a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown this season, and his 66-yard touchdown catch-and-run is further evidence of his explosiveness.
STEELERS OTs MAX SRARKS AND WILLIE COLON VS. CHARGERS OLBs SHAUN PHILLIPS AND JYLES TUCKER: Two things that used to be true every NFL season are not in 2008: the Steelers run the football, and the Chargers play tough defense. Without Shawne Merriman, the Chargers have fallen to last in the NFL in passing yards allowed, and that's probably because they're 24th in sacks per attempt and 28th in interceptions. So dissatisfied was Coach Norv Turner with the pass defense that he fired coordinator Ted Cottrell after the loss to New Orleans in London and replaced him with linebackers coach Ron Rivera. Whatever pass rush the Chargers have generated has come from their pair of outside linebackers – Phillips (team-high 3.5 sacks) and Tucker (3 sacks) – and it usually falls to the tackles to contain these guys. If Colon and Starks can handle the assignment without help, it will give Ben Roethlisberger more weapons running through the secondary.
STEELERS WR SANTONIO HOLMES VS. CHARGERS CB ANTONIO CROMARTIE: In 2007, Cromartie was a sensation, an eight-game starter who had 10 interceptions and returned two of them for touchdowns. But he got a lot of those opportunities because he was the new guy in the starting lineup, and the way it works in the NFL is that opposing quarterbacks gradually learn to stay away from danger, at least the good ones do. Still, it's a statistical fact that the Chargers will come to Heinz Field as the worst pass defense in the league, and the Steelers should be expected to test it. Holmes has seven catches over the past two games, but he hasn't had the breakout game this season in terms of making plays down the field that the Steelers need and expect. This game could turn into a modified shootout, and if it does Santonio Holmes vs. Antonio Cromartie will be a factor.