Steelers Opponent Preview: Leavin’ on a Jet Plane (the San Diego Chargers)

via NFL.com

I received the following in my inbox from a friend who is a Bills fan, but at that moment was concerned about his fantasy team:

Philosophical question: would you swap out Percy Harvin (Bills) for Martavis Bryant?

I can sort of argue it either way. Harvin has been a consistent producer each week, some a little low. He’s also experienced and part of the team Bills have built this year.

Bryant, on the other hand, has been out for the first four games and not practiced with Vick I have to assume at any point (limited if yes). But he could be so hungry and talented that no matter who is tossing the ball, he can make it happen.

Both are predicted to produce about 7 fantasy points this weekend as of now.

I’m about 55/45 or 60/40 in favor of keeping Harvin in place. Mostly because Big Ben is out. If he was in, I’d swap Bryant in a second.

I answered my friend’s question, and I’ll post the answer at the end of this article. But one of the points I made had to do with the San Diego defense and my lack of acquaintance with it. Monday night’s results may largely hinge on this question.

After all, we pretty much know what we’ll see from Philip Rivers. Drafted from the same rich quarterback lode as Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Rivers, while sometimes being touted as the “class” of the class, is the only one without any hardware. In fact, despite Rivers’ obvious capabilities as a quarterback, he has definitely underachieved in the “legacy” category, at least. Let’s take a quick look at the careers of the three men drafted early in 2004. For a while it looked as if Matt Schaub deserved to be in this competition, but he’s fallen out of the running.

  • Eli Manning (No. 1 overall, to the San Diego Chargers)
  • Philip Rivers (No. 4 overall, to the New York Giants, traded with Chargers)
  • Ben Roethlisberger (No. 11 overall, to the Pittsburgh Steelers)QB Comparison, 2004-2015

Rivers spent two years on the bench after he was drafted watching Drew Brees, so he missed a couple of potential years to accumulate wins, go to the playoffs, and so on. I find it interesting that Pro Football Reference considers his value to be higher (and that is with two less years to accumulate it) than either Manning or Roethlisberger, despite no Super Bowl appearances. But they have their methods, I suppose. Ultimately any rating system is going to be flawed to some extent.

As usual Rivers has played well during the first quarter of 2015. His current NFL QB rating average for these games is 105.2, close to his career-high average of 105.5, which he achieved in 2008 and 2013. This season he has a 70.9% completion percentage and has thrown eight touchdown passes (albeit with four interceptions.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here is the lifetime win/loss record for Chargers vs. Steelers (since 1971, when the Chargers became a team):

Steelers: 22 Chargers: 9. This includes playoffs. Regular season is 21 to 7. Since 2000 the record is 6 wins, 2 losses.

Of course, the most recent loss was the disastrous one at Heinz Field in 2012. Before this game the Chargers had never won a regular season game in Pittsburgh—they were 0 for 14.

The Steelers team which showed up that dreary day reminded me strongly of a quote from George MacDonald’s Lilith: “...it had a dull, disconsolate look, as if it found itself of no use, and regretted having come.”

Ben Roethlisberger was wretched in his first game after the rib injury, courtesy of the Chiefs. He was 22/42 with an interception. He did throw three touchdowns.

Rivers, who never misses games, even playing an AFC Championship game with a torn ACL, was an equally wretched 21/41, and threw three touchdowns, but no interceptions. The big difference was a bizarre play in which Ben threw a lateral from about the Steelers 2-yard line to Antonio Brown, back before he was Antonio Brown.

The ball deflected off of David Paulson’s backside as he was losing the battle with LB Jarret Johnson. It bounced into the end zone, where an inexperienced Brown tried to scoop it up instead of “accidentally” kicking it out of bounds.  Quentin Jammer fell on it, and voila, touchdown. It was San Diego’s second touchdown in 12 seconds of play, and rather dispiriting, as well it might be. The score was 27-3 and the sound of shattering televisions could be heard throughout the ‘Burgh.

Let us hope for better things this time. After all, Mike Vick was 19/26 last week, with no interceptions. That looks a lot better than what Ben rolled out the last time these two teams met. And Quentin Jammer is a “free agent,” so there’s that.

Offense:

Chargers:

Rivers has some good offensive weapons at his disposal. And I use the term “good” advisedly. According to Pro Football Focus ratings there isn’t a single player they consider to be Pro Bowl level. Here are the ratings:

  • Above average starters: RT Joe Barksdale, RB Melvin Gordon, and LT King Dunlap.
  • Average starters: TE Ladarius Green, WRs Malcom Floyd and Keenan Allen.
  • Back-up level starters: LG Orlando Franklin, RG D.J. Fluker, WR Dontrelle Inman, and Philip Rivers.
  • Below replacement: C Chris Watt.

Watt is the lowest-rated player on either team.

The wild card is Antonio Gates, who isn’t rated at the moment.

Steelers:

  • All-Pro level: Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell
  • Pro Bowl: G Ramon Foster
  • Above-average starters: Marcus Gilbert
  • Average starters: Kelvin Beachum, Heath Miller, and Marcus Wheaton
  • Back-up: Will Johnson
  • Below replacement level: Michael Vick, David DeCastro, and Cody Wallace.

The wild card here is of course Martavis Bryant. If he doesn’t play, they have DHB listed as Below Replacement.

I was curious to see how well this lined up with the Football Outsiders‘ opinion of the two offenses.

Currently they have the Chargers offense ranked at No. 12, up from No. 14 the previous week, according to DVOA.

The Steelers offense is ranked at No. 6, down from No. 4 the previous week.

As far as individual players, we’ll compare them by category. I’m going to skip quarterbacks. There is little question San Diego has the advantage here, despite PFF being surprisingly unimpressed by Rivers. (He is ranked No. 20, right behind, curiously, Drew Brees. Ben is still No. 1, and they have Vick at No. 33, 12 places ahead of Matthew Stafford…)

I was hasty in condemning Pro Football Focus. They have added an individual player comparison feature to what we ordinary mortals can get, although it isn’t nearly as detailed as the old Premium Stats. Here’s what they’ve got:

Running backs:

Le’Veon Bell, (No. 1), Melvin Gordon (No. 7), DeAngelo Williams at (No. 13), and Danny Woodhead (No. 54).

I would just remind us that Woodhead, who the Steelers have been burnt by before in his travels around the league, had 138 yards of offense against the Browns last Sunday.

Wide Receivers:

Antonio Brown (No. 2), Keenan Allen (No. 31), Malcom Floyd (No. 44), Darrius Heyward-Bey (No. 48), Steve Johnson (No. 49) and Marcus Wheaton (No. 52).

However—Malcom Floyd left the Browns game with a concussion. Jacoby Jones, our old frenemy from Baltimore, hasn’t practiced for the first quarter of the season because of an ankle injury. And Steve Johnson also left the Browns game, with a hamstring injury. Marcus Wheaton left the Ravens game with an ankle injury. I’m guessing both Wheaton and Johnson will play. Concussions are more difficult to predict. I’m not at all sure at this point Martavis Bryant is going to play—he has only practiced one day this week, which presumably indicates he’s injured, but I guess we’ll find out later today.

Tight Ends:

Ladarius Green (No. 9), Heath Miller (No. 14), Matt Spaeth (No. 19), and John Phillips (No. 30).

However—Antonio Gates will return from suspension on Monday night. This is a pretty big deal. Gates and Rivers have played together for Rivers’ entire career. You don’t lose your connection with someone like that after four weeks out. And we know the Steelers defense has struggled with tight ends.

Offensive Line:

In Run Blocking PIT is rated No. 4, SD No. 25. In Pass Protection SD is No. 24, PIT No. 25.

However—you can throw this out, sort of. The Chargers have been hit by numerous injuries and have signed a couple of guys off the street.

Where have we heard that before? Well, in 2012 the exact same scenario played out when they came to Pittsburgh. This was part of the reason the Chargers win was such a huge upset. So what’s going on this time?

LT King Dunlap, their best offensive lineman, was out last week with a concussion. We won’t get an update as to his status for Monday until after today’s practice. Orlando Franklin, the LG and second-best offensive lineman, was out with an ankle injury. Chris Watt, the center, was out with a groin injury. LG D.J. Fluker played but was hardly 100%, being three weeks out from a high ankle sprain.

The offensive coordinator used back-ups, free agents, and a lot of tight ends. And by gum, wouldn’t you know, Rivers was the AFC offensive player of the week for that game. Hopefully he can’t do it twice in a row.

Looking back at the game after the Chargers beat the Steelers, it seems whatever magic pixie dust they sprinkled on the O line wore out. They played the Carolina Panthers in Qualcomm, and Rivers was sacked six times, fumbled three times, losing two, and the team gained a total of 164 net yards, losing 7 to 31. Naturally past results do not guarantee future performance, but it’s interesting nonetheless, especially as this game eliminated the Chargers from any hopes of making the playoffs.

Defense:

San Diego:

  • Pro Bowl: CB Patrick Robinson
  • Average starter: S Eric Weddle, OLB Melvin Ingram, and DE Corey Luiget  
  • Back-up level: OLB Jerry Attaochu, NT Sean Lissemore, and CB Jason Verrett
  • Below replacement: CB Brandon Flowers, ILB Manti Te’o, ILB Donald Butler, SS Jimmie Wilson, and DE Kendall Reyes.

However—the secondary is incredibly banged up, with Addae out for a couple of weeks, Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett injured, and Craig Mager, their third-round pick, out as well.

Pittsburgh:

  • Pro Bowl: Mike Mitchell
  • Above average starter—Cam Heyward and Ross Cockrell
  • Average starters: Steve McLendon, Stephon Tuitt, and James Harrison
  • Back-up level: Will Allen,  Ryan Shazier,
  • Below replacement level: William Gay, Lawrence Timmons, Bud Dupree, and Antwan Blake.

PFF ratings:

Defensive Interior:

Cameron Heyward (No. 19), Steve McLendon (No. 50). The closest other player was Corey Liuget (No. 65).

Edge Defenders:

Melvin Ingram (No. 28), James Harrison (No. 38). Everyone else is below No. 50.

Linebackers:

Ryan Shazier (No. 58), Sean Spence (No. 88), Terence Garvin, (No. 93), and Denzel Perryman (No. 94). (ILBs don’t seem to be a strength of either team if you believe PFF. Everyone else is below 100.)

Cornerbacks:

Patrick Robinson (No. 6), Ross Cockrell (No. 17), Steve Williams (No. 47). Everyone else for either team was rated below No. 50, mostly a long way below.

Safeties:

Mike Mitchell (No. 8), Eric Weddle (No. 24), Adrian Phillips (No. 37), Will Allen (No. 53). It goes way down from there.

These are the Football Outsider assessments:

Total Defense:

  • Steelers: No. 13, up from No. 19 the previous week
  • Chargers: No. 25, down from 23 the previous week

Defensive Line:

  • Steelers: Run blocking: No. 16; Pass protection No. 6 (!) (This mainly has to do with sacks and pressure.)
  • Chargers: Run blocking: No. 30, Pass protection No. 27

Special Teams:

  • Steelers: No. 24
  • Chargers: No. 29

The Twelfth Man—the Pacific Time Zone:

It would be remiss to not note the Steelers’ record on the West Coast during the Tomlin era—0 and 3. Flying the other direction, they are also 0 and 1 in England. A lot was made before that particular match of the fact the Vikings flew in a week ahead of time, for the purpose of acclimating. The Steelers flew in 24 hours before.

Tomlin has said he thinks it is more important to maintain the players’ routines. He may be correct, but he has four fails and no positive evidence to put forward. And Monday’s game is particularly bad, beginning as it does at effectively midnight for the players. It seems to me this shouldn’t be acceptable when the league fills out the schedules. And yet, wasn’t it also a Monday night game when the Steelers went to Candlestick Park to get their butts handed to them in the dark?

Here is an easy solution, free of charge from yours truly, for the League office. Anytime a game involves a team who has to travel more than one time zone, you just make the game a late afternoon Sunday game for a team traveling east, who will be playing at more or less the equivalent of a 1:00 pm start. For a team traveling west, make the game at 1:00 pm, which will be equivalent to a late afternoon game for the visiting team. You could also make it a Sunday or Monday night game for a team traveling east.

That is enough variation to take care of all the TV-related issues such as who gets prime time games and so on. Home field advantage is one thing—time zone advantage is another. And having said that, the Chargers managed to beat the Steelers the last time around, away and with a time zone disadvantage (IIRC the game was played at 1:00, which was mid-morning for the Chargers. Mind you, that’s when practices usually take place.)

Back to the Mike Tomlin “clock management” issue. I’ve traveled a lot, over as many as 9 hours of time difference, and from my experience I would say Tomlin has a point. I’m usually better the first day after arriving than I am the subsequent days. At first you run on adrenaline, and then you have to recover a bit.

Since it supposedly takes a day per hour of time difference, you would have to go to the venue mid-week to properly adjust, and then you would be inconvenienced in terms of practice facilities, not sleeping in your own bed, and all the other annoyances which go along with traveling. Furthermore, you don’t really want to adjust to the new time zone, because if you’re the Steelers you have to turn around, fly right back to Pittsburgh, and play the Arizona Cardinals six days later.

That said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting a different result. And perhaps Tomlin isn’t, exactly. As per a report in the TimesOnLine, he has been trying to shake up the players’ clocks a bit:

Outside linebacker Arthur Moats says the Steelers, a team that plays more prime-time games than most (five this season), are accustomed to odd start times. Even in training camp, where coach Mike Tomlin will routinely schedule walk-through practices for as early as 7:55 a.m.

“He’s got us out there at various times of the day just to get us from getting a real rhythm,” said Moats. “It prepares you for situations like this. You’re not really concerned about time or location, so we’re ready to go whenever that whistle blows.”

Moats says this week’s long road trip, after a 10-day break, is far preferable to last week when the Steelers had five days between games.

The Wrap:

So what does it all mean? There’s no reason to sleep on the Chargers’ defense (or on that of any NFL team for that matter). So hopefully the Steelers aren’t as sleepy (or even catatonic) as they looked in the last contest between these two franchises. If they can channel their inner night owls, there ought to be a number of opportunities in both the ground and passing game for the Steelers. Melvin Ingram, the Chargers’ best pass rusher, has 1.5 sacks this season and one forced fumble. The overall team numbers are not terribly impressive—five sacks, three forced fumbles.

However—four of the Chargers’ five sacks and one of the fumbles were last week, against the Browns. It sounds like the Chargers’ defense is improving as rapidly as the Steelers’ seems to be. The question is, was the improvement due to playing the Browns or are they just starting to click? And the Browns certainly were competitive—the Chargers won the game on a last-second field goal, and in the meantime the Browns touched them up for 100 rushing yards and two touchdowns. If not for a lost fumble the Browns might well have won that game.

And just for kicks I checked to see how the Browns have done since they became the current Browns (1999). They are 4-7 against West Coast teams when they play on the West Coast. Given the comparison with their overall record during this time—85-260, a 32.7% win percentage—their 43% win percentage against West Coast teams on the west coast is almost unbelievable. By contrast the Steelers have a 63.6% win percentage during Mike Tomlin’s tenure and a 0% win record on the west coast. Although this is hopefully merely an artifact of a small sample size, it does seem really weird. But back to the upcoming game.

PFF Ratings thinks considerably more of the Ravens’ offense than they do of the Chargers’ offense, despite the drop-off from Philip Rivers to (this year’s) Joe Flacco. And that is rating the starters. One would assume the backups on the O line are less impressive.

The Ravens offensive line is a lot better than the Chargers’ appears to be, even with their starters. Rivers has been sacked 12 times, thrown four picks, and fumbled twice, losing both of them. The Ravens have a better running back, and while the Chargers’ receivers are better, they aren’t worlds better. However, the Steelers didn’t have to play the Ravens’ best tight end, so that could be a problem. Even so, from what I can see this isn’t a bad matchup for the Steelers.

As for special teams, on one level it seems to be a wash. We don’t know what we have in our new kicker. The Chargers’ kicker, Josh Lambo, is a rookie, but has been fine so far, or what would be fine for a Steelers fan at this point. He missed one kick out of eight attempts for an 87.5% average. One he didn’t miss was the game winner last week at the very end of regulation.

Keenan Allen returns their punts and has three returns for a total of five yards. Brandon Oliver mostly returns their kicks and has a 24.6 average, with the long being 30 yards. (Jacoby Jones was supposed to be doing both.) The Chargers have given up, conversely, an average of 31.1 yards on kick returns and 14.2 yards in punt returns.

I saw a theory on a Chargers fan site that since so many special teamers are playing regular defense and offense they are getting very little special teams practice. There may be something to that.

So perhaps there is an opportunity here as well. A touchdown from Dri Archer, say, might earn him a roster spot for a while longer, at least if he isn’t the sacrificial victim when they put Martavis Bryant on the roster.

Here’s how I initially answered my friend’s fantasy question:

Tough one. I’d be tempted to stick with Harvin this week. First, I’m not entirely sure Bryant will be dressed for the game. I think the Steelers brass are trying to make a point to him. Although if they are convinced he gives them the best chance to win they probably play him anyhow. Also, Bryant and Vick have had very few reps together.

That said, he caught that gorgeous pass in the last preseason game – from Vick. And one thing about Bryant, he’s tall enough for Vick to see.

I might actually make the decision based on how good the SD defense is. (I haven’t started researching for my preview article.) If they are likely to be up in Vick’s grill all day, I would play Harvin. If there is a decent chance for the Steelers O line (which is a lot better this year than they’ve been for a lot of years now) to keep him pretty clean, I’d lean towards Bryant.

Here’s my answer now: I still don’t know. I think the boom-or-bust answer is Bryant, the safe one Harvin. Fortunately I don’t care whether Bryant has a great game. I just want the Steelers win it. One thing is for sure—no one is calling it a gimme this time around.

15 comments

  • Agree with you about Bryant possibly not suiting up. Told Ivan during the San Fran game that it wouldn’t surprise me if Tomlin sits him for an additional game just to make a point.

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    • Well, the latest is that he tweaked his knee on Monday. Hopefully that makes him think as well. After all, there are a lot of things out of your control that can take football away from you. Why wouldn’t you do everything in your power to make sure you don’t lose for something that is in your control?

      Like

    • It would be very inconsistent of Coach Tomlin to sit Bryant for an additional game when he let Bell play right off of his suspension. I don’t think that is the case, his knee injury is legitimate, lets hope is not a boo boo, those things can take a while to heal..

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      • It might be inconsistent, but they clearly think Bryant has a possibly career-threatening problem and Bell doesn’t. That said, I think it must have been a real injury, because whether or not they let him play they would surely want him to practice…

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  • These player ranking really have me confused. Russ Cockrell is above average and William Gay is below replacement. Ramon Foster is Pro Bowl and David DeCastro is below replacement. I know Cockrell had 1 game with two interceptions with a TD given up but BPWG is our best CB. Foster better than DeCastro, no way!

    Love the article and appreciate the effort you put into this but it is hard for me to place much trust in some of the rankings. If it were left to me I would change a lot of the players around in the rankings you have shown.

    This sounds critical and trust me I am not criticizing you, just the rating system.

    Go Rebecca! Go Steelers!

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    • I’m with you, fever. Tuitt -average? Will Allen and Shazier back up level. Seriously? I don’t get that at all. Do they pick the ratings out of a hat?

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    • I know what you mean – I find some of them very strange. And some of those have changed a good bit (up in the case of Cockrell, very much down in the case of Gay) since early in the season. Part of it depends on how much they weight various things. I tried looking for other possible rankings. I found a site that has Stephon Tuitt ranked #90 and Frostee Rucker (now with the Cards) at 87. (This is out of 125 players. No. 125 is none other than Bud Dupree—they just lump linemen together.) Interestingly, you could say the other site thinks a lot less of Tuitt – on PFF he is in the top quarter of the ratings, but as #90 of 125 Tuitt is almost in the bottom quarter. That said, with a PFF score of 74.4 for Tuitt and Rucker with a score of 73.9, you can say there is a similar valuation put on their accomplishments so far.

      I have a theory—I think that these things are more and more tipping towards fantasy football (I know that’s the case for PFF) and consequently what they are evaluating is no longer so much how much a player helps his team but how much value he has as a fantasy player. Sometimes those things align, of course.

      If you take the case of Heath Miller, Steelers fans have always believed he is undervalued in the larger community because so much of his value to the Steelers is as a blocker. Blocking doesn’t help your fantasy team, of course. But to be fair to PFF, the facet of his game that drags his score down is his run blocking. They consider him a good receiver and very good pass blocker.

      But if you look at the top-rated tight end in the league (Gronkowski) you can tell that receiving trumps either kind of blocking. He’s actually quite a reasonable run blocker, although not so much in pass blocking. But the receiving end of it trumps everything else. The fact is, we don’t need a Gronkowski on the Steelers. Probably no one would turn down someone like that, but he would just be competing for touches with AB, Lev Bell, and Bryant. What we need is Heath Miller. Or a Matt Spaeth.

      The other thing to think about is what is meant by “average.” In school an “average” grade should be a C. But in most places now you risk having an investigation into your teaching if you grade on a classic bell curve, with the majority of the grades in the middle (i.e. average) area. We have all become like the children in Lake Woebegone – we are all above average.

      It’s clear that in the PFF system “average starter” is hardly a diss. They are just saying they aren’t, at least yet, an above-average player, which by definition is a small percentage of the league. (A grade of above 77.9 gets you into the “above average”—above 84.9 gets you into the Pro Bowl category, and above 89.9 gets you into All-Pro.) If you are graded below 70.0 you are considered back-up level, and below 60 is ‘below replacement.’ In other words, if you aren’t better (in their estimation) than approximately 2/3s of the league you are a back-up or worse.

      Again, I’m not saying I agree with all of these grades. But also remember they are adjusting very quickly at the beginning of the season, and one bad game (or one good one) has much more of an effect on the player grade than it will later in the year, when things average out a good bit more. Two weeks ago William Gay was at 77.1 – near the top of ‘average starter,’ but his pass coverage took a nose dive the last two games. They still consider his run defense to be excellent – that score has been sitting over 80 all season – but they clearly weight slightly towards pass coverage. So a player in a system in which the DBs are important in run coverage is not going to look as good.

      But I do think it is interesting to compare players, and this is one way to do it. I can’t imagine what the Chargers fans are saying right now when Philip Rivers was given a 68.0 score for last week’s game, in which he was the AFC offensive player of the week. Fortunately that’s not my problem…

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    • Oh, and for what it’s worth they think DDC is a terrific pass blocker (all scores over 80) and a poor run blocker (all scores at or below 40.) I wouldn’t know, as I can’t sort that out by watching. Ramon Foster, on the other hand, doesn’t have either a pass or run blocking score below 81. So however they judge, they think he’s terrific.

      Like

  • Yea I wonder about this also. Computers or hats or even monkeys throwing darts at a dart board. Regarding time well I think the only time the players care about is the 60 minutes during the game.

    Hopes; I hope we can limit the Rivers to Gates connection.I hope our new kicker can make some kicks for us. I hope we can get in Rivers face consistently because I think Rivers is their only hope of winning this game.

    I believe the Steelers will take care of their run game this week and win this game.

    Will be fun to see how Mike Vick does this time around.

    If I were a betting man I would add this site to my must reads.

    Like

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