Take 5: Chargers-Steelers highlights Week 13
No offense to the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, but the NFL’s flex schedule saved the day, bringing us the Los Angeles Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers in prime time Sunday, a matchup featuring teams with two combined losses since September.
Despite playing in the same conference, Class of 2004 quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger have met just twice since 2009, but they are playing as well as ever entering Sunday.
1. Rivers is red-hot on third down
Rivers’ 28-of-29 passing day was tremendous, but his third-down execution of late is downright staggering. Aside from a Geno Smith cameo, the Chargers converted 12 of 20 against the Denver Broncos and the Arizona Cardinals — plus another via penalty — despite averaging 10.5 yards to go.
The eight failures included: Two third-and-21s; two coming up a yard shy (one converted on fourth down); one Mike Williams drop; and two wide receiver screens ruined by Von Miller’s spidey senses, forcing a game-changing interception and game-saving incompletion.
Altogether, Rivers went 13 of 16 for 252 yards on third down, executing all kinds of designs. He hit Keenan Allen underneath on option routes or short-area double moves, gave Mike Williams and Tyrell Williams chances on jump balls, beat blitzes with quick screens and even recreated the magic with 38-year-old Antonio Gates (three grabs, 66 yards on third downs vs. Denver). The chemistry hasn’t faded — on one play, when Broncos safety Justin Simmons undercut Gates’ out route, Rivers adjusted with a lofted blooper as Gates drifted deeper.
Pittsburgh enters with the NFL’s fifth-ranked third-down defense, as the pass rush has come on strong. But Los Angeles’ O-line has been steady, and Rivers’ anticipation helps beat the rush with an early delivery, especially when going to Allen, whom he trusts completely.
In the secondary, the Steelers must match up with the Chargers’ size. Allen is a lanky 6-foot-2, while Mike Williams and Tyrell Williams are 6-foot-4 and can jump. With Artie Burns relegated to special teams, none of Pittsburgh’s top corners stand over 5-foot-11.
2. Can anyone handle Pittsburgh’s receivers?
On the other side, nobody has been able to stop Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
On Sunday, Denver often devoted Chris Harris Jr. and safety help to Brown, a tremendous display of respect (i.e. fear) that left things open for Smith-Schuster and Ryan Switzer. Not a top-end athlete, Smith-Schuster has shined from Day 1 with route-running savvy and rhythm, while his speed and physicality make him a handful after the catch.
The Chargers counter with cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Michael Davis, plus hot-and-cold second-year man Desmond King in the slot. Davis hasn’t stood out good or bad (not a bad thing for a corner), and Hayward is having another fantastic year, especially reading the top of routes.
Despite some exotic third-down designs, Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley still plays Cover-3 in almost all other situations, giving Pittsburgh chances to exploit predictable coverages as it did in a Week 10 torching of the Panthers. That means Los Angeles’ pass rush — with Joey Bosa facing swing tackle Matthew Feiler — must get home.
3. Mike Zimmer and Tom Brady playing cat-and-mouse
Almost nobody blitzes Brady anymore because the 41-year-old New England Patriots quarterback has seen it all, but Minnesota Vikings head coach Zimmer loves pressure and is exceedingly stubborn. The Titans battered the Patriots with disguised blitzes and zone exchanges in Week 10, and Zimmer should follow suit.
The Vikings’ overload pressures rely heavily on their safeties’ versatility, with Harrison Smith keying most designs. Whether blitzing or dropping, Smith is superb at disguising his intentions until the last possible moment, preventing quarterbacks from sniffing out the plan.
Brady’s nose is as good as any. He’ll bait the Vikings into showing their hand too early with the hard count, or go hurry-up to either catch defenders out of position or prevent them from disguising at all. With Xavier Rhodes (hamstring) hurt and Andrew Sendejo (groin) on injured reserve, Minnesota could be trusting backups to resist Brady’s mind games.
Another fascinating part of this battle: The Vikings primarily utilize variations of quarters coverage (Cover-4), featuring aggressive safeties who play flat-footed and attack rather than sinking deeper at the snap. Theoretically, that should work well against a horizontal Patriots pass game that mostly throws underneath, but New England could respond by attacking vertically and with double moves.
4. Talib to the Rams’ rescue
It’s too simple to say Los Angeles Rams’ drop-off on defense was the result of Aqib Talib’s absence, but his return could stabilize a struggling unit.
Because he’s 32 and was acquired for only a fifth-round pick, Talib took a backseat this offseason to Marcus Peters, but he’s the more important piece. Both known as gamblers, Talib plays a style that is more consistent while Peters prefers off coverage and reading quarterbacks. Talib takes chances when given opportunities, but he’s primarily a press-man corner who wins at the line and stays in a wideout’s hip pocket.
We know that fits Wade Phillips’ defense perfectly because we saw it in 2015 and 2016, and Talib is far from washed up. Quick receivers give him trouble in short areas, but the 11th-year pro remains nimble enough for most others, and he still has plenty of speed.
He should especially help against big targets, like Detroit Lions second-year man Kenny Golladay on Sunday. Talib might not shadow Golladay — his reps could be limited in his first game back — but the two should tangle often, especially with Golden Tate traded and Marvin Jones on IR.
The 6-foot-4, 213-pound wideout has been tremendous on contested throws, turning sure incompletions or interceptions into receptions. Though not yet a technician against press coverage, Golladay can overcome a jam at the line to get free anyway. That will be particularly difficult against Talib.
5. Brutal situation for Driskel’s starting debut
Jeff Driskel’s skill set — live arm, willingness to read the field and excellent mobility — is intriguing enough for the Cincinnati Bengals to be competitive without Andy Dalton (thumb, IR).
Facing an admittedly soft Cleveland Browns defense last Sunday, Driskel decisively attacked zone windows, including a pair of lasers up the Cover-2 seam to Tyler Boyd (including a 28-yard TD). He used his legs occasionally but did not depend on them, playing mostly from the pocket despite pressure.
But the circumstances of the former sixth-round pick’s first NFL start are downright squeamish, even with A.J. Green returning.
Broncos linebackers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb visit with Cincinnati missing left tackle Cordy Glenn (back) and backup Jake Fisher (back, IR). Cleveland defensive ends Myles Garrett and Anthony Zettel went through Bengals tackle Cedric Ogbuehi like wet tissue paper on Sunday, and right tackle Bobby Hart wasn’t much better against Emmanuel Ogbah.
Cincy brought back old friend Andre Smith (his third Bengals stint), but it’s hard to imagine him improving either spot. Smith was just cut by the Cardinals after being torched by Bosa, and Miller & Co. roasted him six weeks ago in Arizona.
The Bengals must incorporate Driskel into the run game, where his speed (4.56 40-yard dash) could have a lesser but similar impact to Lamar Jackson’s presence in Baltimore. Forcing Denver to account for Driskel keeping the ball would create lanes for Joe Mixon, one of the NFL’s most elusive runners, and opportunities for RPOs that highlight Driskel’s quick release.
–David DeChant, Field Level Media