Big Ben out to bounce back
Steelers, Chargers in key matchup for their playoff push
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.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 462 yards in a loss to the Broncos last Sunday.