Bolts Face Early Test in Pittsburgh

The Chargers face the Steelers on Sunday night and will there be a tougher test this season?

Not only do the Chargers have to travel three times zones and try to win in a place they have never prevailed in the regular season, but the Steelers figure to be in a sour mood.

The Steelers have dropped two straight and have no intentions of going to 1-3.

Chargers, welcome to Pittsburgh, home of the defending Super Bowl champions.

Coach Norv Turner isn't surprised the Steelers have seen the best efforts from the Bears and the Bengals the previous two weeks. He points out the Steelers particularly were keen in those games early on, but just faltered at the end.

"In the fourth quarter, the games have gotten away from them from two very good quarterbacks and two very good offenses," Turner said. "I do believe when you are in that position, everyone is going to play their best against them and that was has happened to Pittsburgh the last two weeks."

But it's this week, this Sunday night, which is first and foremost in the thoughts of the Chargers (2-1), who are a game off the AFC West lead. They're coming off a win over Miami which wasn't without its anxious moments -- especially early in the game. That followed a home loss to the Ravens and a shoddy showing in the opener, which resulted in a win over the Raiders but much head-scratching to go with it.

The Chargers are still trying to find their identity, other than Rivers flinging the ball around like the second coming of Dan Fouts.

That's why Sunday's game means so much, although it is still only October.


QB Philip Rivers
Gregory Shamus/Getty
"There are two sides to it -- I'm not trying to minimize what this game means," Rivers said. "But it means the same as any win or loss; it is going to count the same.

"But to win on the road against the defending champs would say a lot, especially what we have been through these first few weeks and it would get you to 3-1. We wouldn't be shocked if we were 3-1 -- if someone would have picked that in May they would have said that is pretty good."

A victory could also be accompanied by a dose of feel-good, something would last until at least Oct. 19 and a Monday night showdown with the first-place Broncos.

"Then we go into the bye week with a little momentum," Rivers said.

Whenever these teams met -- and they saw each other twice last year -- the talk turns to Rivers and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Both were picked in the first round of that talent-laden 2004 draft, with Rivers being selected fourth overall and Roethlisberger going No. 11.

"It's always put that the quarterbacks are going against one another but he and I both know we got tough defenses to worry about," Rivers said. "As a competitor you look at other quarterbacks and where you stack up and certainly guys in your draft class as Ben is.

"I think all of us would agree having two championships gives him a head start there."

Rivers is playing better to date in leading the NFL's No. 2-ranked passing attack. Rivers has thrown for a NFL-best 991 yards, with three touchdowns and three interceptions.

Roethlisberger has thrown for 860 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions.

But both quarterbacks are trying to win without much of a running game. And while the attention will focus on Rivers and Roethlisberger, this game may come down to which team can run the ball the best.

What's obvious is Rivers is becoming one of the top deep passers in the game. And with the Steelers missing All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, that could be something he exploits.

"It takes the other 10 guys to make it happen and the guys up front and the guys that are really going to get it," Rivers said. "It improves with time and repetition."

The Chargers and Steelers getting together is becoming something of a habit as well. This time, the Chargers hope to leave Pittsburgh with a win after showing their mettle.

"We know we are going to get their best shot," Rivers said. "And they will get ours."

SERIES HISTORY: 27th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead the series 20-6. The Chargers have never won in Pittsburgh during the regular season since the series began in 1971. But they have won twice in the playoffs, the most famous coming in the 1994 AFC title game when the nine-point underdog Chargers shocked the Steelers on a fourth-quarter pass from Stan Humphries to Tony Martin. With less than two minutes remaining, the Steelers marched to the Chargers 3 before LB Dennis Gibson batted down a Neil O'Donnell pass to Barry Foster to preserve the win and send the Chargers to their only Super Bowl.

NOTES, QUOTES

--RB LaDainian Tomlinson is back practicing for the first time since spraining his ankle in the season opener on Sept. 14.

"I'm just trying to get back into it and seeing how it feels," Tomlinson said. "This is where you gain the confidence back by practicing so today was a measuring stick of where I am -- it felt pretty good."

Tomlinson, who said he wasn't restricted in any of his movements, is looking to play Sunday night when the Chargers face the Steelers. When these teams met in last season's playoffs, Tomlinson was idle with a groin injury.


RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Harry How/Getty
"It was good that he was out there," QB Philip Rivers said. "I thought he looked good."

The Chargers are being cautious with the 30-year-old Tomlinson, hoping his ankle ailment isn't a chronic injury throughout the season. That is why some believe he will sit out Sunday and then have another week of rest during the bye to get close to 100 percent.

"I'm hopeful but at the same time we are going to do the best thing for the team," Tomlinson said.

The deciding factor will be if there is any swelling in the ankle after he pushed it on Wednesday.

"The key is the next day to see how it responds later tonight and in the morning," Tomlinson said. "We will see as the week goes on."

--With or without Tomlinson, coach Norv Turner said there must be improvement in the Chargers' running game, which is ranked No. 31 in the league.

"We have to run the ball well enough so they don't zero in on the passer," Turner said.

--Since 2002, the Chargers are 10-3 against teams that played in the previous Super Bowl.

--Select Chargers are joining the rest of the NFL to show support for Breast Cancer Awareness Month by wearing pink cleats, wristbands, gloves and sideline caps -- and they will do so in front of Steelers fans waving pink Terrible Towels, in place of the usual yellow ones. Tomlinson said he will be among the Chargers going pink.

--This will be the third time the Chargers have played in Pittsburgh in less than a year. They fell to the Steelers in the regular season last year, 11-10, then in the AFC divisional playoff game, 35-24.

--The Chargers have only one touchdown in 11 trips to the red zone over the past two games, but Turner said that's fixable. "I'd be a lot more concerned if we had not been getting to the red zone," he said.

--Mike Tomlin is 2-0 versus the Chargers in his short tenure as Steelers head coach.

BY THE NUMBERS: 5-0 - Chargers' record when playing the defending Super Bowl champions the season after they won the title.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "There is no question we want to get the run game going better and keep the big plays there. When we keep that mix when the run game is really going, the big plays should be there even more down the field." -- QB Philip Rivers on the Chargers' potential once the running attack gets untracked.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

It will be interesting to watch how RG Louis Vasquez responds after missing the past two games with a knee injury. It appears Vasquez will return to the starting lineup, and he will have to do it against the talented front line of the Steelers. The Chargers are going to try to rekindle their running game, and they often do that by running to the right side, where Vasquez can flatten people. But this will still only be Vasquez's second NFL start and he has to prove that he has confidence in his balky knee.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--DT Ogemdi Nwagbuo is getting better every week in the eyes of coach Norv Turner. That said, the majority of rivals' running lanes have been right up the gut. Nwagbuo is replacing Pro Bowler Jamal Williams, who is out for the season.


RB Darren Sproles
Gregory Shamus/Getty
--RB Darren Sproles could see his carries diminish as the Chargers are trying to be careful with their undersized dynamo. Considering how big a part he is in the passing game and on returns, the team would like to spell him some from running the ball.

--WR Vincent Jackson is on a roll with 100-plus receiving yards in consecutive games. If he gets to the century mark on Sunday he'll be the 11th Chargers to do so in three straight games.

--WR Chris Chambers continues to be the invisible man among receivers. He didn't have a catch Sunday and has only two for 30 yards on the season.

--QB Philip Rivers has only 19 overall losses as a starter but 13 have come on the road. He's lost two to the Steelers in less than 11 months.

--DT Alfonso Boone, who signed with the Chargers on Sept. 22, has quickly become part of the line's regular rotation.

GAME PLAN: Depending on the health of LaDainian Tomlinson, the early indications are the Chargers will attack the Steelers through the air. The Chargers, like the Steelers, have had trouble establishing a ground game. And the Steelers aren't exactly a team known to be soft against the run -- especially in Pittsburgh. So rather than try to do something they don't do well against something the Steelers do well -- stop the run -- look for Rivers to exploit the Steelers' secondary, especially down field.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

Chargers passing game vs. Steelers secondary.

The Chargers, featuring the big-play capabilities of wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd, have brought back the vibe of the past when Dan Fouts was flinging long passes to Charlie Joiner, et al. Philip Rivers is doing the same thing with Jackson and Floyd as his targets. The Steelers have been mediocre against the pass and that unit is missing All-Pro S Troy Polamalu, who keeps a close eye on an offense trying to get up top. He'll be replaced by Tyrone Carter and that is a significant drop off although Carter is a 10-year pro. CBs James Harrison and Ike Taylor will also be tested.

Chargers CBs Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer vs. Steelers WRs Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes.

The Chargers are having their woes in trying to stop the run, but the last line of defense has been pretty stout against the pass -- and that is without much of a pass rush. Cromartie doesn't like to hit, but when he stays true to his assignments, his talent makes completions difficult to come by. Jammer doesn't have the hype of Cromartie, but he is a better pure corner, isn't afraid of contact and is solid in run support. But without a pass rush -- Chargers have but three sacks this year -- QB Ben Roethlisberger should have time to let Ward and Holmes do their thing. It will be up to Cromartie and Jammer to keep Roethlisberger's pass-catchers at bay because it figures the way the Steelers are having trouble running the ball they are going to rely on Big Ben's big arm.

Chargers pass protection vs. NT Casey Hampton and Steelers pass rush.

With Pro Bowl C Nick Hardwick out for another seven weeks at least, new center Scott Mruczkowski is going to figure out the Steelers' zone blitzes. With the Chargers not running the ball, it is going to be up to the front line to pick up the blitzers and try to keep Rivers in one piece. Rivers got sacked twice last week but was rocked many more times. The Chargers could get a break if RG Louis Vasquez returns, but even if he does, he will be a rookie playing on a sore knee.

INJURY IMPACT:

O --LB Shawne Merriman (groin) worked briefly on the side and it appears he will be down this week. If he does go, he won't have his usual burst off the edge.

--OLB Antwan Applewhite (groin) wasn't able to work out at all. He won't go on Sunday.

--RB LaDainian Tomlinson (ankle) did participate in all the team drills. What will determine his availability is if the ankle responds well after his initial practice since getting ready for the season opener.

--RG Louis Vasquez (knee) practiced and all indications are he will make his second NFL start on Sunday.

--P Mike Scifres (groin) was cautious in his work but he will be ready for Sunday.

--C Nick Hardwick (ankle) didn't practice and won't play for at least the next seven weeks.


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