Five Storylines Heading Into Steelers-Chargers

Injuries, ducks and Rivers

Matt Koll
October 11, 2019 - 1:04 pm

It all comes down to this in my opinion. Six games into the season and the fate of it is on the line for the Pittsburgh Steelers. If they fall to 1-5, I don’t see any coming back from it. So what’s all going into this one? Here are five storylines I’m looking at heading into Sunday night.

5. More Melvin?

What started out as a Le’Veon Bell-style holdout for the Chargers top running back has since ended and Gordon made his first appearance of the season last week against Denver. Gordon originally said he was prepared to holdout for the entire season like Bell did, but then realized he’s not that crazy and came back. I’m not sure we’ll ever see that move pulled again. That’s one thing Lev may have set the market on.

Anyway, Gordon only carried the ball 12 times for 31 yards last week and chipped in 4 catches for just 7 yards. Not exactly a stellar debut but not exactly a surprising reason either, and for a couple reasons. The first game back for players coming back from holdouts haven proven to be volatile, we saw that firsthand in Pittsburgh with Bell in 2017. Also, Austin Ekeler has been killing it in Gordon’s absence. Ekeler has 583 total yards in his five games and his 39 receptions leads the team, even more than top receiver Keenan Allen.

More in-game reps figure to only lead to bigger stats and bigger impact for Gordon as the season rolls along and it’s an added weapon that might be just what the Chargers need to jump start their offense. The Steelers struggled with the running back by committee approach from the 49ers a few weeks ago, let’s see how they handle this one.   

4. Steelers Offensive Injuries

This goes further than just a 3rd string quarterback most likely getting the start. Mike Tomlin dropped the news bomb on us Tuesday when he announced Jaylen Samuels had his knee scoped following the Steelers loss to the Ravens and that he was going to be lost for about a month. A fairly big blow to an offense that hasn’t yet found its identity and with a starting back in James Conner who hasn’t been that “feature back” he was to begin 2018.

James Washington will likely miss multiple weeks with a shoulder injury suffered last Sunday as well, although he had yet to get fully involved in the offense. Tight end Vance McDonald hasn’t practiced all week and was in and out of the game last week. In fact, he was standing on the sidelines watching newbie Nick Vannett by the end.

So what does this mean for the offense? More Benny Snell Football one would think, as the rookie from Kentucky slides up into the primary backup role and…gulp…maybe Donte Moncrief in the receiving corps? It might be a little crazy, but I think Moncrief gets a helmet, gets in the game, and makes at least one catch of significance in this game. It will be interesting to see if Ryan make-the-catch-and-immediately-go-down Switzer sees his role expand, too. He’s been virtually eliminated since Ben went down.

Also of note, Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson were limited in practice this week. If one misses or isn't 100%, it could be catastrophic. 

3. Pass Rush On Rivers

Where can the Steelers gain an advantage over the Chargers? Pass rush.

LA had their center Mike Pouncey go down this week, a stabilizing force in the middle of what was already a shaky offensive line. They were already missing tackle Russell Okung. Philip Rivers has been sacked in every game but last week against the Broncos pitiful pass rush. The Texans and Colts each sacked hit at least 4 times.

The Steelers come in 3rd in the NFL with 19 sacks. Message to Keith Butler: Let the dogs eat. The pass rush and creating turnovers has become the identity of what is shaping up to be a pretty dynamic defense.

Philip Rivers is a pure pocket passer and while he can still sling it back there, he’s not winning too many foot races. I expect to see him go down at least three times, if not 5+. Now, whether or not that will be enough to disrupt him is the question.

Rivers had 5 TD’s and just 1 INT against Miami and Indianapolis. But against Detroit, Houston and Denver (games in which the Chargers lost) Rivers threw just 2 TD’s with 3 INT’s.

2. Will Duck Let It Fly?

There’s a difference between Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges. You could see it right away when he came in the game midway through the 3rd quarter against Baltimore.

He wants to fire away. He’s got some gunslinger in him and he’s beaming with confidence. Whether or not that confidence is misplaced remains to be seen but Hodges seems to be much more aggressive than Rudolph. Is that a good thing? I’m not so sure.

At the very least, Rudolph was efficient in taking what the defense gave him and methodically worked the Steelers down the field. Hodges seems like he’s never met a throw he doesn’t think he can’t make. In Ben Roethlisberger, I like that mentality. In Duck Hodges, an undrafted rookie from Samford…maybe not so much.

Related: Devlin Hodges looks forward to opportunity to start Sunday

We’ve heard a lot about his “moxie” and his demeanor being well beyond his actual NFL playing experience. It was hard not to like what he did after taking over for Rudolph against what has been a putrid Ravens pass defense. But the game changes when a team has a week to prepare for a guy.

There’s also the question of whether offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner will even let him let the ball fly or if he will put the clamps on him much like he did with Rudolph. We’ll see.

1. Win or Go Home

The last time I said this was before the Cincinnati game and the Steelers won.

While last week was a tremendous opportunity to come from tied for worst to first in the AFC North with just one win, I didn’t feel the same about it.  

The AFC North is proving to be the worst in the league. Its overall record is 6-14 and the only wins outside the division have come against the Dolphins, Cardinals and Jets.

That’s why at 2-4, you still feel good about things and your chances to compete for a division title.

1-5 on the other hand…I don’t if any division can be won after going 1-5.

For all intents and purposes, this is the season for the Steelers. Win and we can at least keep the conversation going. Lose and the focus becomes developing younger players and getting daily updates on Ben’s elbow.

 

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