Big Ben out to bounce back

Steel­ers, Charg­ers in key matchup for their play­off push

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - USA TODAY SPORTS - Michael Mid­dle­hurst-Schwartz

Af­ter a loss to the Bron­cos last week, Ben Roeth­lis­berger took aim at his own Steel­ers team­mates with a pre­ci­sion that eluded him on a game-de­cid­ing in­ter­cep­tion to cap his group’s fi­nal drive.

Wide re­ceivers An­to­nio Brown and James Wash­ing­ton, as well as of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Randy Fitcht­ner, were among those who drew pointed scru­tiny from the vet­eran quar­ter­back. Brown and cen­ter Mau­r­kice Pouncey came to Roeth­lis­berger’s de­fense, but the Steel­ers have to show they won’t be un­done by the type of drama and dis­ap­point­ing per­for­mances that have plagued them in re­cent years.

Sun­day’s prime-time show­ing against the Charg­ers could be a crit­i­cal junc­ture for both teams in their play­off push.

Pitts­burgh’s pass­ing at­tack is far from in dis­re­pair, as Roeth­lis­berger threw for 462 yards while com­plet­ing 41 of 52 at­tempts against the Bron­cos. But the 15th-year pro is out­pac­ing the rest of the league with 472 pass­ing at­tempts, and re­dis­cov­er­ing the run game could re­lieve some of the strain on him and his re­ceiv­ing corps.

Af­ter be­ing named the AFC’s of­fen­sive player of the month in Oc­to­ber, James Con­ner posted just 143 rush­ing yards in his last three games while av­er­ag­ing 11.7 car­ries per con­test. Turnovers and dropped passes have been partly to blame for his shrink­ing pro­duc­tion and op­por­tu­ni­ties.

But the Charg­ers’ de­fense could be vul­ner­a­ble up the mid­dle af­ter los­ing de­fen­sive tackle Corey Li­uget and mid­dle line­backer Den­zel Per­ry­man in re­cent weeks. And es­tab­lish­ing Con­ner, both in the run game and as a check­down tar­get, could help neu­tral­ize Los An­ge­les’ pass-rush­ing tan­dem of Melvin In­gram and Joey Bosa, the lat­ter of whom recorded two sacks last week.

If the Steel­ers do re­turn to their passhappy ways, there again might be a ques­tion of how of­ten to dis­trib­ute tar­gets be­tween Brown and JuJu SmithSchus­ter. Cor­ner­back Casey Hay­ward has been re­li­able in shad­ow­ing op­po­nents’ top tar­gets, and Pitts­burgh might have Smith-Schus­ter on the out­side to avoid the ef­fec­tive Des­mond King in the slot and in­stead set up show­downs with Michael Davis and Trevor Wil­liams.

Here are four more matchups that will de­fine Week 13 in the NFL:

❚ Browns QB Baker May­field vs. Tex­ans’ sec­ondary: By any mea­sure, in­terim of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Fred­die Kitchens’ re­vival of the Browns’ at­tack has been as­tound­ing. In the three games since he has led the unit af­ter Hue Jack­son’s and Todd Ha­ley’s fir­ings, Cleve­land has gone 10-for-10 with touch­downs in the red zone. May­field’s 129.5 passer rat­ing also ranks sec­ond among all quar­ter­backs, be­hind only the Saints’ Drew Brees, dur­ing that span.

For Hous­ton, the key to de­rail­ing May­field might be forc­ing him into the hazardous sit­u­a­tions he has avoided in re­cent weeks. His two-game streak of not tak­ing a sack seems likely to come to an end, as pass-rush­ers J.J. Watt and Jade­veon Clowney have over­whelmed op­pos­ing lines through­out this sea­son. May­field also has not thrown an in­ter­cep­tion in the last two games, and the Tex­ans’ sec­ondary can’t af­ford to let up the long scores it did in Mon­day’s win over the Ti­tans.

❚ Pa­tri­ots WR Josh Gor­don vs. Vik­ings CB Xavier Rhodes: New Eng­land was con­tent to ride Sony Michel last week against the Jets, as the rookie piled up a sea­son-high 133 yards on 21 car­ries. But the Pa­tri­ots likely can’t rely on that same for­mula against a Vik­ings’ de­fense that ranks fifth in rush­ing yards al­lowed per game (93.6) and boasts the league’s low­est third-down con­ver­sion rate (27 per­cent). Tom Brady will likely have to take down­field shots at some point, and Gor­don is per­haps his most danger­ous option.

Rhodes is ques­tion­able with a ham­string in­jury, and his sta­tus looms large. If the all-pro se­lec­tion is lim­ited or un­able to play, the Vik­ings will have to reshuf­fle the sec­ondary and pro­vide con­sis­tent safety help over the top on Gor­don. Mack­en­sie Alexan­der is also ques­tion­able with a knee ail­ment, which could prove to be a prob­lem given how of­ten Mike Zim­mer will have to use a nickel look.

❚ Ravens QB La­mar Jack­son vs. Fal­cons LB Deion Jones: If Jack­son can lead Bal­ti­more to its third con­sec­u­tive win and fur­ther build the team’s play­off cre­den­tials, he would make it dif­fi­cult for coach John Har­baugh to turn back to Joe Flacco when the vet­eran is fully re­cov­ered from a hip in­jury. Still a work in progress as a passer, Jack­son has re­lied on his legs to pro­vide a spark, rush­ing for 190 yards (the most for any quar­ter­back dur­ing the Su­per Bowl era in his first two starts) while help­ing pow­er­ing the team to a fran­chise-record 509 yards on the ground.

Jones is slated to make his re­turn for the first time since suf­fer­ing a bro­ken foot in the opener, and his pres­ence in the cen­ter of At­lanta’s de­fense could have a rip­ple ef­fect. His lat­eral speed makes him an ideal can­di­date to chase down the likes of Jack­son and force the Ravens into more ob­vi­ous pass­ing sit­u­a­tions.

❚ Ea­gles RBs Josh Adams and Dar­ren Spro­les vs. Red­skins’ front seven: Spro­les is set to play for the first time since the sea­son opener, with Philadel­phia’s play­off hopes hang­ing in the bal­ance. A loss Mon­day would put the Ea­gles two games be­hind both the Red­skins and Cow­boys in the NFC East with four games left. Adams has been one of the lone of­fen­sive bright spots this sea­son, rush­ing for 82 yards and a touch­down in last week’s 25-22 win over the Gi­ants. While the un­drafted rookie from Notre Dame should re­main the focal point in the run game, Spro­les could still see plenty of work, es­pe­cially in the pass­ing game with Golden Tate yet to es­tab­lish a con­sis­tent con­nec­tion with Car­son Wentz.

Wash­ing­ton’s de­fense ranks eighth in the NFL against the run, but the unit is trend­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion af­ter giv­ing up 4.8 yards per carry in its last four con­tests and al­low­ing the Cow­boys’ Ezekiel El­liott to crack the 100yard bar­rier this sea­son with a 121-yard ef­fort on Thanks­giv­ing. The Red­skins also have given up third-and-short con­ver­sions at a league worst rate of 95.8 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to ESPN. Given backup quar­ter­back Colt McCoy’s short­com­ings as a starter, Wash­ing­ton needs its de­fense to do its part and pro­vide fa­vor­able op­por­tu­ni­ties for the of­fense.

RON CHENOY/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Steel­ers quar­ter­back Ben Roeth­lis­berger threw for 462 yards in a loss to the Bron­cos last Sun­day.

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