Perturbed Steelers understand significance

Willie Parker didn't plan to watch any football last weekend during the Steelers' bye. He was a bit perturbed. "The way we went on the bye was just pitiful," Parker said. "It was just bad."

But Parker couldn't stay away from the game. He watched the San Diego Chargers – tonight's opponent – give a game away to the Baltimore Ravens. And then Parker watched the Cincinnati Bengals get creamed by the New England Patriots, who ran it down the Bengals' throats.

"New England did to Cincinnati exactly what we were supposed to," Parker said. "We did it, yeah, but we didn't finish. We've got to finish. We've got to get everything turned around, man."

The Pittsburgh Steelers travel to meet the Chargers for tonight's 8:15 game. The Steelers are 1-2 and the Chargers are 2-1 and both teams are talented enough that no one would be surprised if the winner holds a key tiebreaker over the loser when January rolls around.

The Chargers are the NFL's No. 1 pass defense (and No. 1 overall) and the Steelers are the No. 28 passing offense, so if the Steelers are going to move the ball they must run it. However, they may find the sledding as difficult as it was two games ago at Jacksonville, when Parker was held to a career-low 20 yards rushing on 11 carries. Jacksonville is the NFL's No. 8-ranked run defense. San Diego is No. 2. But the Steelers feel they're better equipped to run on the Chargers.

"Anytime we play a 3-4 team as opposed to a four-down team, we've got an advantage," said guard Alan Faneca. "We see it all training camp, different times during the week when we're going competitive, to where it's almost second nature. Some teams play one or two 3-4 teams a year. I would have to imagine it's either a bigger challenge or they have to simplify their game plan or blocking schemes."

The Chargers are similar to the Steelers defensively in that both teams have solid linebacking corps, hard-working defensive ends and a big man in the middle.

Jamal Williams (6-3, 348) anchored last season's No. 1 run defense as the Chargers' nose guard and then started for the AFC in the Pro Bowl. Second-year man Luis Castillo (6-3, 290) is one of the league's best young 3-4 defensive ends. He's the player who crashed into Ben Roethlisberger's knee last season and knocked the Steelers' quarterback out of action for a week. But the Chargers' best pass rusher is another second-year player, outside linebacker Shawne Merriman (6-4, 272). He was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year last season and also started in the Pro Bowl.

"Everybody likes Shawne Merriman," right tackle Max Starks said with a hint of sarcasm. "Is it because of his little seizure he has after he has a sack?"

Merriman has four sacks this season and after each does a dance that parallels that of Seinfeld's Elaine character.

"They showed it and I was like, what is he doing? It looked like he was having a seizure back there, but that's what he does," said Starks, who'll block Merriman when the linebacker flops sides.

"He's a good pass-rusher," Starks admitted. "I credit his D-line for keeping him open and they usually put him in situations where he's one-on-one with a tight end or a running back and he abuses that."

That's what the Steelers are hoping for on the other side of the ball. They're the old-school masters of the 3-4 and believe veterans Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith and Joey Porter are still a class above Williams, Castillo and Merriman.

Porter, in particular, has a chance to enjoy a big game. He'll be matched against rookie left tackle Marcus McNeill (6-7, 336), the massive second-round pick out of Auburn.

"He's a lot better than a lot of rookies I've seen play," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "But I think Joey and I, we'll try to come up with a little something to make his head swim a little bit. Not playing us before and never having played the Pittsburgh Steelers ever before, it would have an impact on me. I don't know if it will on him or not."

Porter expects McNeill to get help. "They'll find a way to have somebody chip on me," he said. If not, first-year quarterback Philip Rivers, who lacks mobility in the way a young Bernie Kosar did, will be in Porter's sites.

"We definitely have the scheme to go out there and rattle any quarterback," Porter said. "We'll see how he handles it."

Of course, the pass rush will be moot if the Steelers can't stop running back LaDainian Tomlinson. They'll focus on stopping him the same way the Chargers will focus on stopping Parker.

"This game will show where we're at as a team," Parker said. "It's going to reveal our identity."

What's the identity right now?

"Mad," Parker said. "We're mad. I'm mad. We've got to get a win and get back on track. We know we're good enough to be a great team and that's our mindset."

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