Michael Lombardo: There are several factors contributing to San Diego's lack of success on the ground. First is the lack of talent on the interior offensive line. Center Nick Hardwick and right guard Louis Vasquez were both injured during the season-opener and haven't played since, although Vasquez could be back on Sunday.
Secondly, San Diego's running game is very predictable with LT sidelined. Sproles is not built to run between the tackles, which allows defenses to be on high alert for screens, stretch plays and anything else designed to get Sproles in space.
These issues -- combined with San Diego's success through the air -- have prevented the Chargers from committing to the running game. Great running backs can wear down opposing defenses over the course of a game, but the Chargers aren't capable of making that happen right now.
TE Antonio Gates
ML: Gates is off to a strong start this season. He's back to running silky-smooth routes and is coming up with big catches in key moments. Through three games, he ranks among the top-five tight ends in receptions (15) and yards (225).
The one place Gates has yet to make his usual impact is the red zone. After averaging 10 touchdowns per season over the last five years, Gates has yet to score in 2009. However, this is a team-wide problem more than a personal one. The Chargers have scored just one touchdown in their last 11 trips to the red zone.
JW: What's the injury news, first, on the O-line, and second with Shawne Merriman?
ML: On the offensive line, rookie RG Louis Vasquez returned to practice this week and is expected to play for the first time since the opener. Although he's inexperienced and still adjusting to a pro-style offense after playing his college ball at Texas Tech, he is a big upgrade over Brandyn Dombrowski, who struggled mightily in that spot over the last two weeks. Dombrowski will return to his natural position as the backup tackle.
Center Nick Hardwick is out with an ankle injury. Hardwick is a Pro Bowl-caliber player, so that is a loss, but backup Scott Mruczkowski is a talented, experienced player, so there hasn't been much drop-off there.
Merriman (groin) said on his weekly radio show that he will play this week. However, the Chargers are considering holding him out so that he gets two weeks to recover (the team has its bye in Week 5). Even if he plays, he's not the explosive Merriman of 2007 and is not a player the Steelers need to worry about.
NT Jamal Williams
ML: There's been a weird trend through San Diego's first three games: opponents have run the ball at will during the first quarter, then struggled to run it after that. I don't know if the Chargers are just unprepared and forced to make adjustments mid-game, or perhaps they're coming out overexcited and overrunning their assignments. Either way, opponents are coming out of the gates running the ball with ease. Given that the Steelers figure to come out fired up on Sunday night, that trend may very well continue this week.
The Chargers are adapting to Williams' absence and the team's young defensive linemen are improving on the job, but there is still a long ways to go. If the Steelers need to run to pick up tough yards to wear down the clock, my guess is they'll be able to do so effectively.
JW: With or without Merriman, do the Chargers have any kind of pass rush this year?
ML: The Chargers still have Shaun Phillips and first-round pick Larry English, so they can send some pretty good heat off the edges with or without Merriman. The problem is that San Diego isn't getting any push up the middle. When the pass rush comes off the corners, quarterbacks are able to step up into a clean pocket and throw without harassment.
Like the run defense, the Chargers are getting better here. ILB Kevin Burnett, the team's lone free-agent addition, is coming off his best game since joining the Chargers. Also, ILB Stephen Cooper is getting healthier after playing on a sprained ankle and rookie SS Kevin Ellison is working his way into the rotation because of his ability to play downhill. Nonetheless, the Chargers are not quite ready to tame a quarterback with Ben Roethlisberger's escapabilty.
JW: Are the Chargers in the right mental state for a primetime game against a team that's been embarrassed two weeks in a row?
ML: In a word, no. Actually, this is what Chargers fans should be most worried about. The problem is that the Chargers have become so accustomed to starting slow over the past two seasons. I get the sense that many players feel -- given the number of injuries the team has endured -- that there's nothing wrong with starting 2-2.
The Chargers have an excellent opportunity in front of them. They could finish the first quarter of the season at 3-1; send the defending champions reeling with a third straight loss; and enjoy a happy-go-lucky bye week before running the divisional gauntlet with thee straight games against AFC West foes, two of which are at home. I'm just not sure the Chargers are approaching this game with the sense of urgency it deserves.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.