Game rides on legs of Tomlinson

Old friends will meet this week and the Pittsburgh Steelers know the San Diego Chargers gameplan. Heck, who doesn't.

Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer knows Steelers coach Bill Cowher as well as anyone. It was Schottenheimer who gave the Super Bowl-winning coach his first NFL coaching position when he hired him in Cleveland as a 28-year-old assistant.

And Schottenheimer knows the bent of the Steelers defense on Sunday night will be putting the brakes on LaDainian Tomlinson and making first-year starting quarterback Philip Rivers win the game.

"I would imagine that is their approach," Schottenheimer said. "But they are a football team that has found different ways to win in the past, but that is probably a significant part of the plan."

"These guys are number two in the league in rush offense," Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher said. "With LaDainian and Michael Turner, who is another guy that has come in and given them a great contrast with LaDainian. I think there is no question that they are playing pretty close to the top. In the first two games they got ahead quickly and they ran the ball. I think the last game that was played very close throughout the game until the last minute. I think you are seeing them getting a little more comfortable with each game. I think when you have the ability to run the ball like they do, they are certainly playing to their strengths."

Tomlinson has gained 100 yards in but one of the team's first three games, although he finished with 98 yards last week against the stingy Ravens defense.

But when a team breaks in a quarterback, as the Chargers are doing, the new passer must prove his mettle. And the Steelers can't help but notice that Schottenheimer has been reluctant to put too much on Rivers' plate.

Rivers was allowed to pass just eight times in the second half Sunday, as the Chargers were content to just pound the ball with Tomlinson and Michael Turner.

It almost worked. But among the reasons it didn't was because the Ravens loaded the box and were able to stop the run just enough to give them a chance to win, 16-13.

The Steelers come in with the NFL's fourth-leading run defense, allowing 78.3 yards per game. But the stubborn Schottenheimer -- who boasts of owning the league's No. 2 run offense -- will make the Steelers prove their ranking with a heavy dose of the ground game.

If that's productive, Schottenheimer will again be careful in how much freedom he gives Rivers in the offense.

Steeler notes:

Rookie Willie Reid, drafted to return punts for the Steelers, will finally get his chance to do so Sunday night in San Diego.

Coach Bill Cowher took the unusual step Thursday afternoon of giving away a piece of strategy when he announced that Reid would dress for the first time this season and return punts against the Chargers. Reid will join fellow rookie receiver Santonio Holmes as the deep kickoff return men.

Cowher has been criticized heavily in Pittsburgh for using Ricardo Colclough on punt returns, even after Colclough showed no adeptness at doing so through training camp and the preseason. When Colclough's fourth-quarter muff on Sept. 24 led to the go-ahead touchdown in Cincinnati's victory over Pittsburgh, Cowher took him off the punt returns.

It was unclear whether Cowher would use Holmes or activate Reid until Thursday. Holmes will return all punts that are kicked near midfield because Cowher likes his hands and his awareness of balls that land inside the 20.

Reid, a third-round draft pick, owns the Florida State record for punt returns and averaged 15.4 yards over his college career. He had 10 of the Steelers' 14 punt returns in the preseason, averaging 8.8 yards.

"He's worked very hard," Cowher said of Reid. "This is his opportunity and we'll go from there."

Reid, asked the key to returning punts, said with a straight face, "First, catching the ball."

Reid also plays wide receiver, but Cowher would not elaborate on how else he might be used, if at all.

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