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Matchups, prediction as AFC playoff race gets real

Sunday Night Football’s Steelers-Chargers game is the perfect showcase of 2021 AFC playoff contenders. The Los Angeles Chargers (5-4) are in a three-way tie for the seventh seed despite losing three of their last four games. The Pittsburgh Steelers (5-3-1) just tied the worst team in football (the Detroit Lions) and still improved their playoff positioning. These are two very flawed teams, but that doesn’t seem to be disqualifying in the NFL this year. Every team is showing some warts.

Pittsburgh Steelers offense vs. Los Angeles Chargers defense

Ben Roethlisberger missed the Steelers’ Week 10 game against the Detroit Lions after self-reporting COVID-19 symptoms the day before the game. In his absence, Roethlisberger proved that he still has great value, even if his skills have diminished.

Mason Rudolph started in a pinch, and the offense wasn’t good under his stewardship. The Steelers scored 16 points, turned the ball over three times, went 1-of-3 in the red zone, and didn’t score a touchdown on their final 13 drives. Remarkably, the Steelers are 27th in yards per play (5.0), yards per carry (3.8), and yards per pass (6.1). Yuck.

The Chargers also underperformed at home against an inferior NFC North opponent Sunday, losing 27-20 to a Vikings team that was seemingly in crisis. Brandon Staley and Renaldo Hill’s defense has given up 154 points in the last five weeks, including 27 on 381 yards and 24 first downs in Week 10.

And the news got worse this week with defensive lineman Jerry Tillery testing positive for COVID-19 and Joey Bosa landing on the reserve list after coming in close contact with him. The Steelers average just 5 yards per play (ranking 27th), while the Chargers surrender 5.6 per play (19th).

Ben Roethlisberger vs. Chargers defense

Roethlisberger is expected to start despite missing the entire week of practice recovering after a positive COVID-19 test. He has played far below his standards in Year 18, but he’s still the best of what the Steelers have on their roster. On the year, he ranks 21st in completion percentage (65.6%), 22nd in passer rating (90.0), 26th in EPA+CPOE (0.06), 27th in QBR (41.9), and 28th in yards per attempt (6.6).

The Chargers have the NFL’s No. 4 pass defense (6.77 yards per attempt), but that’s largely a function of opposing teams believing that it’s more effective to attack their very bad run defense. Quarterbacks throw just 30.4 times per game against Los Angeles, the second-lowest average in the league behind the Lions. A better reflection of the Chargers’ pass defense is yards per pass (6.8), interception rate (2.2%), and passer rating against (92.6), which are all middle of the pack.

Advantage: Push

Steelers weapons vs. Chargers defensive backs

Chase Claypool returned to practice this week after missing the Lions game with a toe injury. Already without JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is out for the season with a shoulder injury, Pittsburgh’s offense needs Claypool, who is second to only Diontae Johnson in receiving yards (613) among Steelers receivers.

Claypool (14.9 yards per catch) is the closest thing the Steelers have to a deep threat. If not for Ja’Marr Chase and Mac Jones, Najee Harris would probably win Offensive Rookie of the Year. His 646 rushing yards rank sixth in the NFL.

A healthy Derwin James is a dangerous thing. His stat line through Week 10 would be impressive even if it were through Week 18 — 80 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, 3 pass breakups, 3 tackles for loss, 3 quarterback hits, and 1 interception.

Cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. has had a solid rookie campaign (2 interceptions, 63.4% completions against) but is susceptible to giving up the big play. Michael Davis returned to practice this week after missing the last two games with a hamstring injury.

Advantage: Push

Steelers offensive line vs. Chargers front seven

Both of Pittsburgh’s guards are banged up. Left guard Kevin Dotson has been ruled out of Sunday’s game with an ankle injury. Right guard Trai Turner is dealing with an ankle injury of his own but will try to give it a go.

Their replacements, if they both can’t play, would presumably be B.J. Finney and J.C. Hassenauer. That’s bad news for a group that already ranks 29th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards (3.8) and 24th in adjusted sack rate (5%).

Along with Bosa and Tillery, Chargers defensive players Christian Covington and Drue Tranquill spent time this week on the NFL’s reserve/COVID-19 list. They have 128 tackles, 22 quarterback hits, 11 tackles for loss, and 9.5 sacks between them. Plus, Linval Joseph is not expected to play due to a shoulder injury.

If there’s a silver lining to all of this ugly medical news, it’s that Kyzir White — 5 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions in 2021 — has managed to stay healthy. But it might not be until inactives are announced that we’ll know what to expect from a Chargers defense that ranks last in defensive rush efficiency (5.6 yards per carry) and 19th in sack rate (6.2%).

Advantage: Push

Los Angeles Chargers offense vs. Pittsburgh Steelers defense

The Chargers’ Week 10 top-line stats weren’t good. They managed just 253 yards, 4.6 yards per carry, and went 5-of-12 on third downs. Additionally, they were held under 25 points for the third time in four games after putting up 105 in Weeks 3-5. The passing game was the big issue Sunday. They managed just 171 net yards passing on 36 dropbacks.

If that wasn’t enough to alarm quarterback Justin Herbert and play-caller Joe Lombardi, flipping on the Steelers’ Week 10 game tape should have sent them into a near-panic. Pittsburgh held Jared Goff to 114 yards on 25 attempts in Week 10. That’s the good news. The bad? T.J. Watt will not play this week with knee and hip injuries. Plus, the Lions ran all over the Steelers for 229 yards on 39 carries.

Overall, the Steelers have been average on defense — 18th in yards per play allowed (5.6) — but excellent in situational football, ranking in the top 10 in third-down defense, red-zone defense, and goal-line stops. The Chargers, meanwhile, are sixth in first downs (22.6), seventh in third-down offense (43.9%), and 14th in yards per play (5.8).

Justin Herbert vs. Steelers defense

Two things can be true: 1) Herbert isn’t playing as well in Year 2 as he did in Year 1. And 2) He’s still pretty good, last week notwithstanding. His completion rate (65.4%), interception rate (2.0%), yards per attempt (7.2), yards per game (282.8), passer rating (96.3), and QBR (63.5) are all slightly worse this year than they were his rookie season.

He’s still a top-half quarterback, based on EPA+CPOE (.103), but the sense is there’s some meat left on the bone. It’s criminal that a player with his remarkable arm ranks 29th in intended air yards (7.2).

A breakthrough might not come this week. The Steelers are good at keeping plays in front of them. They’ve allowed just three pass plays of 40 or more yards, the fourth-fewest in football.

Yet, if you can protect and show patience, you can expose a pretty average Steelers pass defense. They enter Week 11 ranked 19th in passer rating against (95.5).

Advantage: Chargers

Chargers weapons vs. Steelers defensive backs

Los Angeles’ offense runs through four players: wide receivers Keenan Allen (65 catches, 698 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Mike Williams (41 catches, 608 yards, 6 touchdowns), running back Austin Ekeler (863 yards from scrimmage, 9 touchdowns), and tight end Jared Cook (28 catches, 318 yards, 2 touchdowns). Ekeler has thrived despite seeing the eighth-most eight-man boxes of any NFL rusher (30.4%). He’s averaging more than a half-yard over expectation per carry. Williams’ catch percentage (56.9%) could use improvement.

Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is in the COVID-19 protocol and is not expected to play. That’s a big loss that cannot be replaced by just one player. Instead, as Mike Tomlin said, the plan will be a “multi-person discussion” that will include Miles Killebrew and Tre Norwood. Fitzpatrick leads the Steelers in tackles (64) this year but hasn’t made the game-changing plays for which he’s become famous.

Cornerback Joe Haden won’t play (foot injury). James Pierre is the next man up. Cameron Sutton has been solid as Pittsburgh’s other starting corner and has yet to allow a passing touchdown. But he doesn’t have a pick, which isn’t a surprise. The Steelers are 30th in interception rate (1%).

Advantage: Chargers

Chargers offensive line vs. Steelers front seven

Week 1 starters Oday Aboushi (right guard) and Bryan Bulaga (right tackle) are both on the injured reserve, but the Chargers haven’t fallen off a cliff. They rank seventh in sack rate (4.5%) and 11th in yards per carry (4.4). The Vikings have one of the league’s best pass rushes, yet Minnesota hit Herbert just 6 times on 36 dropbacks in Week 10.

Certainly, it has helped that the Chargers have Herbert get the ball out of his hands quickly (with an average time to throw of 2.68 seconds).

As for Blitzburgh, there’s no replacing Watt. He has followed up an incredible 2020 with perhaps an even better 2021 — 20 quarterback hits, 12.5 sacks, and 13 tackles for loss. But the Steelers’ defense is not a one-man band.

Cameron Heyward has been an ageless wonder, recording 4.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and 7 tackles for loss. Plus, outside linebacker Alex Highsmith is a factor, even if his sack total (1.5) doesn’t pop off the page. While the group does a great job getting after the quarterback, it is not good against the run. The Steelers’ yards-per-carry allowed average (4.61) is fifth-worst in football.

Advantage: Push

Betting line and game prediction

The Chargers are 6-point home favorites despite losing three of their five home games in 2021. And it makes sense. While their metrics are similar, the Chargers just feel like they’re a touchdown better than the diminished Steelers, especially with Roethlisberger’s situation.

Steelers vs. Chargers Prediction: Chargers 28, Steelers 20

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