35 games. That’s how long All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown had at least 5 receptions and 50 yards, consecutively. That ridiculous streak ended against the Baltimore Ravens, as Brown came up 8 yards short of extending his streak. A lot went into the streak being broken, but the overall ineffectiveness and oversimplified gameplan had the most to do with it. This week, I believe Brown is going to start that streak once again. While getting the ball to Brown and working the underneath game is not going to be the focal point of the offensive attack on Monday night when they venture out west and take on the San Diego Chargers (nor should it), it will be a reliable, simple read for Vick to make consistently. This is something that was lacking against a suddenly depleted Ravens defense. What will be the focal point then?
Key Match-up to Watch Offensively:
Le’Veon Bell vs. the San Diego Chargers Run Defense
The Chargers currently boast a bottom-five run defense in football. When the Chargers played the Minnesota Vikings in Week 3, running back Adrian Peterson had 20 carries for over 120 yards and 2 touchdowns. Against a Ravens front-seven that had not surrendered a 100 yard rusher in 29 consecutive games, Bell carried it 22 times for 129 yards and a score.
San Diego should be afraid. Very, very afraid.
The gameplan for Monday night is going to be no secret – it’s going to be the Le’Veon Bell Show. Expect Bell to get his number called time and time again against a Chargers defensive unit that simply cannot stop opposing teams from shredding them on the ground. Bell, likely in combination with DeAngelo Williams with added effort from Vick, are going to have their way on Monday night.
The interior of the Steelers offensive line has proven to be dominant thus far in the season, notably in pass protection but have done exceedingly well in the run game. I circled and made note of this game previously as a game the absence of Pouncey would not be as noticeable as others. Cody Wallace has struggled immensely thus far in his relief, but he should be able to play well against a weak Chargers defensive line. Expect David DeCastro and Ramon Foster to open holes up in the middle of the Chargers defense and for Bell to explode through for big gains all night.
This may be the biggest mismatch, at least on paper, of this upcoming week of games. The best running back in football against a defensive unit that has struggled to stop even mediocre rushing attacks.
The single-game rushing record for the Steelers was set back in 2006 by Willie Parker when he ran for 223 yards against the Cleveland Browns. I’m not saying this will fall, but I’m also not saying it won’t, either. Bell has proven to be a special player in this league, and against a defense that has struggled the way the Chargers have thus far, it’s a reality.
Key Match-up to Watch for Defensively
William Gay / Antwon Blake vs. Keenan Allen
This may be the scariest part of the game Monday night for Steelers fans. Wide receiver Keenan Allen has proven to be a solid receiver in the league, and the Steelers secondary has proven to be the weak link on an improving defensive unit. Through the first four games of the season, Allen has notched over 30 receptions and registered over 380 receiving yards, and has tacked on three scores. The Steelers secondary has allowed quarterbacks to complete over 66% of passes thrown their way, and this is a mismatch that quarterback Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense is going to exploit early and often.
That being said, the cornerbacks have only allowed two touchdown receptions through the first four games thus far. The “bend, don’t break” mentality that has been instilled for this defense seems to be working. For now, at least.
Both William Gay and Antwon Blake have had their struggles early in the season, particularly Blake. While showing to be invaluable in the run game and on special teams, Blake’s continual struggles in coverage have been picked apart by opposing quarterbacks. This is something that is unlikely to change this Monday night against Rivers. Expect Blake to be targeted early and often. Blake is a player I had high hopes for this season, and expect him to turn things around at some point, but his struggles right now are going to lead to easy completions for the Chargers.
Ultimately, I believe this is a match-up that is doomed to fail for the Steelers right from the start. While the Chargers lack any dynamic weapon on the boundary opposite Allen with Stevie Johnson down with a hamstring injury, Allen himself may be enough to do damage to a secondary that will not be able to contain his athleticism and talent.
It’s also worth noting that Antonio Gates returns to the Chargers this week, but I do not believe Gates is going to be a weapon against a front seven with the speed of the Steelers. Gates has not seen live snaps this week, and for a player of his age not to see considerable snaps to this point, I do not believe he is going to be a factor. In fact, this week may see Shazier’s first career interception when Rivers tries to force a ball to Gates.
What’s the Gameplan?
As previously stated, it’s going to be an afternoon of running the ball efficiently for the Steelers. The two-headed monster of Bell and Williams is going to prove to be next-to-impossible for the Chargers to stop, and this is going to allow for chunk yardage to be gained on the ground all afternoon. Todd Haley was recently quoted in saying he would like to get the ball to Williams on the ground more often, and this is the perfect game for that to happen.
While the ground game is going to be the focal point of the offense this week, the efficiency of the rushing attack is going to set up the play-action deep balls against a Chargers secondary that does not have an answer to the speed of the Steelers receivers. This week welcomes back wide receiver Martavis Bryant, and it is a welcomed addition to an already-loaded offensive unit.
I spoke on Twitter early this week of the potential to have Bryant see double coverage throughout the game, and I believe this is going to be the case. The Chargers may concede the underneath passing attack to Brown if they feel they can adopt the “bend, don’t break” mentality against the offense. While Brown is likely the most dangerous player with the ball in his hands in the league, Bryant has shown he can be just as devastating as a deep threat. In his first pass as a member of the Steelers back in the preseason, Vick completed a 63 yard bomb to Bryant against a Buffalo Bills defense that is considerably better than the Chargers. Look for Vick to take these sorts of shots when Bryant is matched up against the 5’9 Brandon Flowers or Jason Verrett.
After a heartbreaking loss to a Ravens team they likely should have beaten (and ended their season), the Steelers rebound with a much-needed West Coast win. I just believe the Chargers are going to have too much to handle in Bell and Williams, and Brown rebounds with a big game and a revamped offensive scheme to better incorporate Vick’s skill set. Expect to see Vick have simple progressions and work the underneath passing attack, allowing Brown to do most of his damage in his ability to get yards after the catch.
The defense will struggle with Allen and Rivers, but Shazier’s return brings back a wrinkle they lack with him out of the line-up. Don’t expect Danny Woodhead to explode out of the backfield or on a pass in the flat and burn the defense.
Steelers 24 – Chargers 17.