With the Cincinnati Bengals racing out to a 4-0 lead, the Pittsburgh Steelers don't have much room for error in the AFC North, particularly after an ugly overtime loss to Baltimore last week dropped them to 2-2. Pittsburgh's offense was underwhelming with Michael Vick under center, which is cause for concern for a team that needs to stay within striking distance until Ben Roethlisberger can return from a knee injury.
On Monday night against a San Diego team in danger of falling out of its own divisional race, Vick will need to improve. Vick was an efficient 19-of-26 passing with a touchdown and a few key plays on the ground against the Ravens, but he threw for just 124 yards and failed to convert on a couple of key fourth-down conversions at the end of the game.
Philip Rivers, meanwhile, has been fantastic, leading the league in passing yards through the first month of the season. But injury issues (particularly on the O-line) and struggles on defense have the Chargers sitting at 2-2, two games back from the undefeated Denver Broncos. Despite a slow start from Peyton Manning, they look very capable of running away with the AFC West.
Let's take a more in-depth look into a key early-season showdown for both teams.
Just two of Michael Vick's 25 pass attempts against the Ravens traveled farther than 20 yards downfield, and both were incomplete. With Vick only having three days to prepare to be the starter in that game, the Steelers went ultra-conservative with their play calling, leaning heavily on the recently returned Le'Veon Bell to move the offense on the ground. But with an extra week of prep combined with the return of deep-threat receiver Martavis Bryant and a San Diego defense that ranks in the bottom fourth of the league in yards allowed per attempt, expect Pittsburgh to press the ball downfield a bit more this week.
An injury-riddled Chargers offensive line started three new players against the Browns last week, but the group ended up doing a solid job. With their starting left tackle, left guard and center sidelined, the line allowed Philip Rivers to be pressured on just 10 of 40 drop backs. The run blocking wasn't as hot: Melvin Gordon and Danny Woodhead averaged a measly 1.8 yards before contact on their 20 carries.
But even if San Diego's line does struggle in pass coverage against a Steelers front that had five sacks and 10 quarterback hurries a week ago, Rivers should be just fine. He's completed a league-high 69 percent of his passes while under pressure, and if you factor out throwaways and drops, that number jumps to an insane 86.5 percent.
Who to watch
After struggling in his first game back from suspension, Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell shook off the rust last week, piling up 129 yards and a touchdown while adding seven receptions. With Big Ben watching from the sideline, this offense is more reliant on Bell now more than ever. He's going to get a ton of touches against the Chargers, who are allowing a league-worst 4.9 yards per carry.
The injuries along the offensive line make it difficult to judge Chargers rookie Melvin Gordon. With an 88-yard outing against the Bengals in Week 2 serving as the lone exception, the 15th overall pick has averaged 3.6 yards per carry in three of his first four games. He's also failed to make much of an impact in the passing game (six receptions for 34 yards), though that's not surprising given Danny Woodhead's grip on the third-down role.
How to Watch
When: 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego
Announcers: Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden
Although both teams are coming in with the same 2-2 record, the experts aren't giving much love to the Steelers after their brutal OT loss in Week 4. At CBS Sports, seven of their eight analysts are siding with the home team. Here at SB Nation, it's the same 7-1 margin in favor of the Chargers, with only Stephen White picking Pittsburgh on the road.
The Chargers are favored by 3 points at home, according to Oddsshark.com.
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