GAME DATE: 10/4/09
TV: NBC (Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Andrea Kremer)
SERIES: 27th regular-season meeting. Pittsburgh leads the series 20-6. The Chargers are 2-1 against the Steelers in the postseason, their only loss coming last January in a playoff at Heinz Field. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers are 13-0 in the regular season against San Diego, 14-2 overall. They beat the Chargers twice last season, 11-10 in the regular season and 35-24 in the playoffs. The Steelers have won five straight at home to San Diego in all games, last losing the AFC Championship Game in Three Rivers Stadium to the Chargers after the 1994 season.
PREDICTION: Steelers 28-17
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Steelers need to get their floundering ground game clicking against a Chargers run defense allowing 4.5 yards per carry while it continues to cope with the lost of NT Jamal Williams. However, RB Willie Parker is battling a turf toe and backup Rashard Mendenhall was benched last week for missing assignments. Pittsburgh can move the ball through the air, but the defense has been wearing down late and has given up fourth-quarter leads in consecutive games.
San Diego has been even more skewed toward the run - No. 2 in passing; No. 31 in rushing - but could get RB LaDainian Tomlinson back from an ankle injury. Still, the offensive line is holding up well in front of QB Philip Rivers and the Steelers' aggressive pass rush has lost some of its bite with just five sacks on the season.
FAST FACTS: Chargers WR Vincent Jackson has averaged 17.5 yards on 146 career receptions. ... All three of the Steelers' games have been decided by three points.
QB Philip Rivers
--CB Antoine Cason (groin) was limited in his practice time but he should go Sunday and be the team's nickel back.
--OLB Antwan Applewhite (hamstring) likely won't play in Pittsburgh; he didn't practice Thursday. Applewhite certainly doesn't get the recognition of Merriman, Shaun Phillips and Larry English, but when healthy he is a regular part of the rotation on passing downs.
--OG Louis Vasquez (knee) worked again and seems on track to return to the starting lineup. But it will be just his second NFL start and he faces a tough task going against the Steelers' front.
--DE Travis Johnson (groin) isn't expected to play Sunday. Johnson came over from Houston earlier with a reputation of having a hard time avoiding nagging injuries. He could miss his third straight game.
--C Nick Hardwick (ankle) is out for the next seven weeks.
--SS Troy Polamalu, despite reports to the contrary, was never going to return to play Sunday. He did not practice again Thursday and hopes to play Oct. 11 in Detroit. He left the opener with a sprained MCL.
--C Justin Hartwig returned to practice and will start Sunday. He has an ankle injury and the Steelers have no experienced center behind him.
--WR Shaun McDonald will suit up Sunday and serve as the No. 4 receiver in place of demoted Limas Sweed.
--WR Mike Wallace could become a bigger target as the No. 3 man after his 102-yard game vs. Cincinnati. The rookie is the fastest man on the team and has streaked open deep on several occasions.
--CB Deshea Townsend played some safety last week vs. the Bengals and could see more time there again Sunday with Polamalu out. Townsend also serves as their nickel cornerback.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
If it's a Chargers-Steelers matchup, the talk usually reverts to the quarterbacks, both hailing from that sensational 2004 class: the Chargers' Philip Rivers and his counterpart, Ben Roethlisberger.
But Sunday night's outcome could have as much to do with these two teams' struggling running games and if the No. 1 backs are able to go.
RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Tomlinson twisted his ankle in the season-opening win in Oakland and hadn't practiced until this week. And after two days of testing the ankle, indications are he will be back on the field Sunday.
The Chargers could certainly use him as they have been unable to generate much of a running attack, ranking No. 31 in averaging 66 yards per game.
If Tomlinson can go, it will not only help the running game but possibly keep some heat off of Rivers.
Rivers has made his mark this year -- and it's the primary way the Chargers have been moving the ball -- by throwing deep to Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd.
The best way Rivers can pull that off is if the Steelers have to at least respect the Chargers' running game, and that is much more likely if Tomlinson is able to go.
Tomlinson is eager to do just that, after not getting to play in the Chargers' playoff loss in Pittsburgh last year because of a groin injury.
Tomlinson hasn't fared all that well against the Steelers when he has played. He has never rushed for 100 yards in four games against the Steelers, but is averaging 3.5 yards a carry.
If Tomlinson can play, it also takes some of the pressure off the undersized Darren Sproles. The versatile Sproles could see his carries diminish -- which will save his body for receptions and returns -- if Tomlinson is in the mix.
The Steelers might not have Willie Parker to run against San Diego on Sunday night, and he was the star of their offense in their two games against the Chargers last season.
Parker ran for 115 yards in an 11-10 victory during the 2008 regular season and then gained another 146 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a 35-24 playoff victory over the Chargers.
Parker has turf toe and did not practice Wednesday or Thursday. He said it still pains him but that he will try to practice on Friday. If he cannot go, the Steelers likely will start Rashard Mendenhall, who was benched on offense last week by coach Mike Tomlin for messing up so much in practice. There's also a chance that third-down back Mewelde Moore, who ran for 303 yards in three straight starts last season, could open at halfback.
"Rashard had a great week of practice," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "We'll see how (Parker) is. I feel very confident in Mewelde and Rashard. We'll see how it plays out. Coach will make that decision as we go along."
Tomlin decided that Mendenhall, the team's top draft pick in 2008, would not play on offense in Cincinnati after he saw him screw up several plays over several days in practice last week. Mendenhall also ran the wrong way on his first carry of the season and ran into quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for no gain against Tennessee.
Mendenhall was chastised by some teammates last season when he did not come around often to the locker room after he was placed on injured reserve with a broken shoulder.