Steelers, Chargers square off in prime time
The Los Angeles Chargers (2-3) will host the Pittsburgh Steelers (1-4) for a prime-time, cross-divisional AFC matchup on Sunday night. It will mark the second time in as many seasons that these two teams have faced off on “Sunday Night Football.” The Chargers overcame a 23-7 halftime deficit to secure a 33-30 victory on the final play of the game in last season’s Sunday night matchup in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers will try to return the favor on Sunday night in Los Angeles. But that is easier said than done under the circumstances. With Ben Roethlisberger out for the season, and Mason Rudolph not able to return from the concussion he suffered in last week’s heartbreaking 26-23 overtime loss to division rival Baltimore, the 1-4 Steelers are turning to undrafted rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges to carry the passing game on the road against the Chargers.
Injuries have been a contributing factor in the Chargers’ early-season struggles as well. In fact, the injury bug bit the Chargers hard before the season even started with the loss of All-Pro safety Derwin James and starting left tackle Russell Okung. And it hasn’t stopped biting since, with several other starters falling victim along the way.
But they still have more than enough talent in place to avoid losing to a winless Broncos team at home, which is exactly what happened last week. The underachieving Chargers now sit at 2-3 on the season in search of redemption in the form of a much-needed win against the Steelers on Sunday night.
Pittsburgh at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct 13 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Chargers -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Pittsburgh quarterback Devlin Hodges
This time last year, Hodges was throwing passes for FCS school Samford. And up until three weeks ago, he wasn’t even on the Steelers’ active roster. But with Mason Rudolph still in the NFL’s concussion protocol and already ruled out for Sunday’s matchup, the undrafted rookie quarterback will make his first career start for the Steelers on the road against the Chargers. Hodges filled in admirably after Rudolph went down in the third quarter last week against the Ravens, completing seven of his nine pass attempts for 68 yards. He also added 20 rushing yards on two carries.
Hodges will be matched up against a Chargers pass defense that ranks eighth in the NFL, allowing just 215 passing yards per game. He will also face the potential wrath of elite pass rusher Joey Bosa, which is intimidating for even the most seasoned of veterans.
That being said, hope is not completely lost for a Cinderella story to unfold for the rookie quarterback. Despite the Chargers’ lofty NFL ranking in terms passing yards allowed per game, they rank just 27th in the league in passing yards allowed per attempt (8.5). And opposing quarterbacks have a combined passer rating of 108.5 against them so far this season, which is the sixth-highest in the NFL.
Hodges will still need his supporting cast to step up in a big way in order to find success on Sunday night. Most notably — the Pittsburgh offensive line, running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
2. Will Philip Rivers bounce back?
Rivers averaged just 4.4 yards per pass attempt in last week’s home loss to Denver. He also failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time this season. But he did toss a pair of interceptions en route to a passer rating of just 58.6. Not only was it Rivers' worst performance of the season, but it also ranked among the worst of his 16-year career. The question is — will he rebound against the Steelers in Week 6?
History indicates that he will. Rivers has not had back-to-back games without a touchdown pass since 2015. He also has a very impressive track record against Pittsburgh. He completed 72 percent of his passes for 299 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in last season’s Week 13 win against the Steelers and boasts an impressive 10-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his last four starts against them.
But success will not come easy for the eight-time Pro Bowl quarterback on Sunday night. The Pittsburgh pass defense currently ranks a respectable 12th in the NFL, allowing 230 passing yards per game. However, it’s the Steelers' pass rush that is most worrisome, particularly now that the Chargers are down another starting offensive lineman with last week’s loss of Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey to a season-ending neck injury.
The Steelers have already racked up 19 sacks through five games, good for third in the NFL. They terrorized Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson last week on their way to five sacks. And an opportunistic Steeler defense also forced Jackson to throw three interceptions. Pittsburgh enters Week 6 tied with New England for the most takeaways in the NFL with 12.
3. The run game
As if the Pittsburgh offense wasn’t already facing enough adversity with its quarterback situation, the Steelers also make their way to Los Angeles with a run game that currently ranks among the worst in the NFL, averaging just 67 rushing yards per game. After a breakout 2018 season, running back James Conner has failed to run for more than 55 yards in a game all season, while averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. Backup running back Jaylen Samuels has been even worse at 2.8 ypc and is now dealing with a knee injury that could keep him sidelined for over a month, propelling rookie Benny Snell Jr. into the backup role.
While a matchup against the Chargers’ No. 18-ranked run defense (119 ypg) appears somewhat favorable on paper, the Chargers are going to undoubtedly load the box to shut down the Steelers ground attack and force rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges to try to beat them with his arm. It's a strategy that stands a good chance of working.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles is banking on running back Melvin Gordon to spark a lackluster ground attack that is averaging 89.8 rushing yards per game heading into Week 6 (24th in the NFL). Gordon was unspectacular in his season debut last week against the Broncos, rushing for just 31 yards on 12 carries. He should fare better against a Steelers' run defense that ranks No. 21 in the NFL, allowing 126 rushing yards per game. But success isn’t guaranteed when you consider that Pittsburgh is giving up only 3.9 yards per carry, which puts them in the top 10 in the league in that category.
Fellow running back Austin Ekeler will continue to figure into the Chargers’ plans in the run game as well. But Ekeler’s greatest value remains as a pass catcher out of the backfield. He matched a Chargers franchise record with 15 receptions last week against Denver. And Ekeler could see plenty of targets come his way again on Sunday night as a check-down option for Philip Rivers against the blitz-heavy Steelers.
The Steelers are probably going to have a tough row to hoe offensively on Sunday night with an undrafted rookie making his first career start at quarterback to go along with a run game that has yet to show up this season. Fortunately, the Steelers have a defense that can keep them in the game against the beat-up Chargers. But it still won’t be enough, as Philip Rivers finds a way to lead the Bolts to victory.
Prediction: Chargers 20, Steelers 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.