Tim Benz: Chargers poised to exploit Steelers’ recent weaknesses
If you’ve been reading “Breakfast With Benz” this week, you know I’ve been harping on a few specific problems that have slowed the 7-3-1 Steelers in recent games.
A five-game win streak barely became a six-game win streak against a bad Jacksonville team. Then, they lost Sunday in Denver.
Up next, the Los Angeles Chargers hop into Heinz Field at 8-3. They have lost just once since Week 3 and are fresh off a 45-10 blowout of Arizona.
So, the question becomes, of the many things the Steelers did wrong, how likely are the Chargers to continue exploiting those warts this Sunday night?
Let’s take a look.
After the Steelers lost to the Broncos on Sunday, head coach Mike Tomlin said, “I’m not displeased with anything in terms of how the game unfolded other than the turnover ratio.”
Sorry, coach. It’s more complicated than that. But, he’s right, the Steelers have been dreadful in that department of late.
The Black and Gold gave away the ball seven times in the two games against the Jaguars and the Broncos. Their only takeaway was a strip-sack fumble on the last snap of the Jags game.
The club is also minus-7 on the year. That’s 27th in the NFL, the worst of any team currently in a playoff spot.
Conversely, the Chargers take the football away more than they give it up. The Bolts are a plus-4 in that category. Quarterback Philip Rivers only has six interceptions in 344 attempts.
Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s players don’t take it away a ton. His unit only has 14 takeaways (17th in the NFL). That’s just two better than the Steelers total of 12 (22nd in the NFL). However, Los Angeles’ 11 interceptions are in the top six.
The Steelers rush defense has been bad these past two weeks. It allowed 303 total yards across both games. That average of 151 rushing yards per game would project to tie Oakland for the worst in the league.
As it stands, the Steelers are still ninth stopping the run overall. Meanwhile, the Chargers are the eighth-best rushing club on offense at 128 yards per game.
Much of that production will be shelved, though, as star running back Melvin Gordon is expected to be inactive with a knee injury. His 802 yards on the ground place him sixth among NFL running backs.
Head coach Anthony Lynn will lean on a trio of backups to fill that void. Lynn says Austin Ekeler will start. He averages 5.8 yards per carry. Detrez Newsome and Justin Jackson will see some action, too.
“Jackson and Ekeler, I consider those my ‘space guys,'” Lynn said yesterday. “Ekeler can run between the tackles. But I still think when he’s best is in space. Newsome can run between the tackles.”
Some Steelers fans will disagree. Apparently, so will some of the coaches and the quarterback. But the numbers prove the Steelers are better when they have a narrow pass-run split on offense.
The Chargers have the seventh-best pass defense in football (227 yards-against per game). Their rush defense is 13th at 107.5.
There’s no evidence to suggest that’ll influence the Steelers’ game-planning though. The Jags and Broncos both have better pass defenses than they do rush defenses. Yet, the Steelers snapped 110 pass plays as opposed to just 27 runs.
That strategy yielded just 37 total points over the last two weeks.
At 75 percent, the Steelers have the second-best red-zone offense in the NFL.
Yet, it’s been shaky lately. The Steelers went 0-6 with an interception in “and goal” offensive snaps Sunday. Chris Boswell’s fake field goal touchdown pass on special teams was the only thing that saved them in that category.
The Steelers did score two red-zone touchdowns in Jacksonville. But Roethlisberger chucked another red-zone interception there and had a second taken off the board via penalty before his “fourth option” scramble on a botched shovel pass attempt bailed out a pivotal late possession.
Los Angeles has the second-best red-zone scoring percentage defense in the league at 45 percent. It was 36 percent last year to lead the NFL.
A lot of those numbers look bad. But the Steelers are 27-8 at Heinz Field in prime-time games. They are due for a bounce back. Historically, Roethlisberger is really good in these situations. Gordon being out is huge. And I expect (OK, hope) the Steelers to sprinkle the run game into the mix more intelligently this week.
And, my goodness, at some point they’ll get a turnover or two, right?
I’ll stick with my prediction from earlier in the week: Steelers win 34-30.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.