Here are five keys to the game heading into the Week 13 match between the Los Angeles Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers.
1. Stick with JuJu and AB – The Steelers own two topflight wideouts in JuJu Smith Schuster and Antonio Brown. Smith-Schuster leads Pittsburgh with 77 catches for 1,055 yards and four touchdowns while AB has 71 receptions for 874 yards and a team-high 11 touchdowns. Every week corners are tasked with covering tough wideouts, but the Bolts' ability to stick to their men Sunday night will be their toughest challenge yet. That's because the man throwing them the ball, Ben Roethlisberger, is considered the best in the business at extending plays. "Big Ben" is nearly impossible to bring to the ground, standing tall in the pocket to deliver darts even with defenders draped all over him. Thus, Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley hammered home how tough a test the Chargers face this week:
"The biggest thing looking at it — obviously the challenging first and second down normal football that you get, but (it's) the extension of plays. (Roethlisberger's) ability to extend plays and (how) the receivers and the quarterback are all on the same page. You see a lot explosive plays come off that, so it's challenging to prepare for that."
Of course, when Pittsburgh's not airing it out, they're pounding it with James Conner, whose 186 carries on the year are over 160 more than anyone else on the roster. Conner is averaging 4.6 yards per carry on the year and has 849 total rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, so Bradley explained why the defense also must be wary of Pittsburgh's bell-cow back:
"He's a guy that jumps out, too. Very patient runner, but has the ability to be a very strong runner as well. (He) breaks tackles (and has the) ability to make people miss in the open space. (Also the) screen game that he's involved in (and) catching passes out of the backfield. Fits in very well with that offensive scheme."
2. Ekeler's Time to Shine – Football fans from coast-to-coast have likely heard of Austin Ekeler. However, this marks the first time many will get to see the second-year back in action, and they figure to see a lot of him with Melvin Gordon likely out with a knee injury. Ekeler has been effective in a complementary role, carrying the ball 70 times for 409 yards and one touchdown. He's averaging an impressive 5.8 yards per carry, which ranks second in the NFL, while he owns the highest percentage of any player in the league for runs going at least 10 yards with 22.9. Ekeler's also caught 32 passes for 453 yards and three touchdowns. While he's clearly been effective when paired with Gordon, now it's his time to shine as the team's lead back. There are several reasons the Bolts have full faith he can do just that, and Head Coach Anthony Lynn pointed toward his brute strength as one that particularly stands out:
"That's a fact. It's not an opinion, that's a fact…. We go through the offseason program, these percentages and weights, we were very surprised how strong he was. I mean, technically, pound-for-pound, he's the strongest guy on our team. That's why you see him running through tackles. That's why you see him creating yards after contact. He can do those types of things. He's not a big back, but he can still do those types of things."
3. Action Jackson – Austin Ekeler isn't the only running back who'll see a bigger role as rookie Justin Jackson will also get his fair share of carries. A seventh-round pick out of Northwestern, Jackson was banged up throughout training camp and the preseason. After spending the first three weeks on the practice squad, the Bolts promoted him to the active roster in late September. Jackson's opportunities have been few and far between, but he saw his first extended action against the Cardinals last week once Gordon went down, and the results were impressive. He carried the ball a career-high seven times for 57 yards, averaging a gaudy 8.1 yards per carry, improving his season totals to 12 carries for 64 yards (5.3 ypc). Lynn noted how Jackson's fresh legs will provide a boost this late in the season, but it was Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt who broke down why the Bolts are high on the rookie:
"When we picked him late in the draft, one of the things that stood out was his production from college. We didn't see as much of that maybe in OTAs and training camp. He was nicked up a bit, but he did enough to make the roster and he's really been doing a good job on the scout team. That's a credit to him. If you ever wanted to have a model for this is why you work on those teams to prepare you, it showed up last week. When he had to go in there, we haven't seen that in a game. We haven't seen him run like that. We haven't seen him make these moves. You see it in practice, but just don't know that's really what it's going to be like in a game. Credit to him. Like I said, he has worked hard. (Running Backs Coach) Alfredo (Roberts) and Coach (Lynn) have been on him constantly, and I think that they saw some talent in him, so hopefully he can replicate that again this week."
4. Turnovers Will Tell A Lot – Most of the talk coming out of Pittsburgh is about the Steelers' need to protect the rock. Turnovers were their Achilles Heel in their loss last week to the Denver Broncos as they outgained their opponent 527 to 308, yet were undone by four turnovers (two fumbles and two interceptions). The biggest came in the final seconds when Roethlisberger threw in an interception on 3rd-and-goal from the two-yard line with his team down by seven. Overall, Pittsburgh is minus-7 on the season in turnover differential. On the flip side, the Bolts rank 10th in the league as they are plus-4. However, turnovers have proved critical in the three games the team has lost this season. Take their most recent defeat to the Denver Broncos. The Chargers turned the ball over twice while not forcing a single takeaway, and the pair of giveaways changed the tenor of the game. Thus, in a game featuring two explosive offenses and stingy defenses, who wins the turnover battle will tell us a lot. Just how important are turnovers? While Philip Rivers is coming off the single most efficient game in NFL history, he's still kicking himself over a strip-sack that occurred in the second quarter, stressing how the Bolts can't afford those types of mistakes Sunday night:
"I mean, I was sick about the turnover, the fumble really. We had a play, probably should have left on. I changed the play to one that was going to cause to hold it a little longer, then turned it over. I had plenty of time on that play to get a pass off. I just held on to the ball too long. That is one that stands out. That's a turnover that you can quickly brush aside. It didn't cost us because our D goes three-and-out and misses a field goal. Those are huge plays in games. We know that. That's one that stands out. I don't spend a whole lot of time, especially when you know what's coming this week, Pittsburgh. Especially this point in the season. I think you acknowledge things you need to clean up, what could we have done here and there collectively as a group, then it's on to the next game, figure out what we're going to do against these guys."
5. Embrace the Elements – An 8-3 team vs. a 7-3-1 team. The marquee game in primetime. A cold, potentially rainy Sunday night at Heinz Field with the Terrible Towels waving and "Renegade" echoing throughout the packed stadium. It truly doesn't get any better than this. While the team's preparation remains the same, and this is a game like any other between the white lines, there's no denying Sunday night's showdown with the Steelers has a different type of feel to it. While Philip Rivers has played in this type of atmosphere before, many of the Bolts haven't. In fact, this marks the Chargers first Sunday night game since the 2014 campaign. Thus, while it's all business on the field, Rivers noted it's only natural to get extra pumped up for the big game:
"I think it would be silly to say it's another game just from the standpoint of that. You get excited when you play in these games. You mentioned it being a Sunday night game. These guys that haven't been in one, those are the games you grew up watching, know what I mean? You didn't have the NFL Sunday Ticket, Red Zone and all that. It was whatever game was on Sunday night, Monday night, that's whatever we watched. At least back when we were little. These guys might have had different access. It's always exciting. I think it's okay to have a little added juice. That just comes with it. I think it's key that you keep your normal routine, normal week, approach it like we have been. If you're going to approach this one differently, like I've always told you, we've been cheating ourselves in previous weeks, which I haven't. I think keep it the same, keep it normal. Coach (Lynn) will do that for us. He's always been very steady from the front. Got to prepare, find a way."
Check out the top practice photos as the Bolts get ready to take on the Steelers in Pittsburgh.