Stillers-Chargers Preview(Game #16)
The Stillers travel to San Diego to close out the season against the 1-win Chargers. Of course, the main aura surrounding this game, is not necessarily the Stillers, but more so all the permutations of "what if" involving the Colts and Jets. That's concerning, because the Chargers have been in most of their games, and worrying about what other teams are doing on Sunday, rather than worry about themselves and the Bolts, could cause the Stillers some problems.
* When the Bolts have the ball, the erratic, enigmatic Ryan Leaf handles the QB chores. Leaf has shown some flashes of competence this year, and if given time, can sling the ball in there. Last week, he passed for 269 yards -- a career day for any Pgh. QB -- and 2 TDs, and the one INT he threw was the fault of his TE. He's not blessed with greatness at WR, but he does have some veteran adequacy. Curtis Conway is a solid WR, and ex-Stiller Jeff Graham, who leads the Bolts in receiving, is having a decent season. Neither will cause too many DBs to lose sleep at nite, of course. TE Freddie Jones is having a superb season, snaring 68 passes and scoring 5 TDs. When you have a oft-unstable QB like Leaf, it's nice to have a cozy TE like Jones who can continually be counted on for relatively easy completions. RBS Terrell Feltcher and Jermaine Fazande tote the ball on the ground for the Bolts. Neither should be much of a problem for a defense that has had to face the likes of Dillon, E. George, Taylor, Wheatley, Davis, and Barber. What really hampers the Chargers, who are last in the conference in rushing, is their O-line, which is soft, flimsy, and porous. The key matchup will be the overall intensity & aggressiveness of the defense, against the Charger offense that has nothing to lose. If the Stillers play this mamby-pamby, passive scheme that Cowhead and Lewis love, it will allow Leaf to stand unfettered in the pocket -- which is his comfort zone -- and take stabs at completions on medium and long-range routes. Furthermore, if the defense wallows around in a fetid funk they way they did versus the NYG and Jax, the Chargers may garner just enough yardage on the ground to chew the clock and move the sticks.
* When the Stillers have the ball, (and assuming the team is still in the playoff hunt at the 4:05 EST kickoff) expect a cautious, play-not-to-lose gameplan that will be so conservative and uptight, it will make Rooney look like a freewheeling Donald Trump in comparison. Cowher will treat this as a playoff game, and if we've learned anything from Cowher's playoff history (the one onsides kickoff aside), it's that he's about as daring and ingenious as a lil' old lady taking a Sunday drive. Bettis will get the vast majority of rushes and be expected to carry the load for the offense. Expect a host of draws or screens on third-and-longs, which Cowhead will view as less risky. The front four of the Chargers, while not gaudy or flashy, has been stingy and defiant all season. They've given up the second fewest yards in the AFC on the ground this season. Of course, it helps when all-world LB Junior Seau is manning a LB spot behind this DL. The pass defense has been the sore spot for these Chargers, as only four teams have allowed more passing yardage this year. SS Rodney Harrison has had an outstanding season, both in stuffing the run and in pass defense. Problem is, his mates haven't come close to matching his contributions. Fakhir Brown and DeRon Jenkins man the CB spots, and neither should be confused with Mike Haynes or Mel Blount. The key matchup will be the Stiller passing game against the Chargers' porous pass defense. The Bolts have been fierce and stubborn against the run, and playing in a meaningless finale means they will have little fear in bringing Harrison up to help man an 8-man front. The running lanes will be congested all day, so at some point Stewart is going to have to hit Shaw, Ward, and Edwards in the medium and downfield passing game.
* Spec Teams: Due in part because they've gotten so many reps, the Bolts KO return team is fairly capable. Ronney Jenkins has shouldered a large burden in KO returns, and has an impressive 23 yd. average and one TD to his credit. Darren Bennet and John Carney give SD reliable veterans for punting and kicking. After lsat week's sterling 53-yd TD on a punt return, Hank Poteat will be a marked man. It'll be interesting if Little Billy sits Hank on the bench and inserts PeePee Hawkins when the punt is expected to land inside the 15, which Cowher has done almost entirely until last week, when, after Hank's TD, Cowhead grudgingly allowed Poteat to field a later punt at around the 10. The Skins nearly blocked Josh's first punt last week (the guy actually OVER-ran the play) when a man came from our left side totally untouched, so let's hope this has been rectified.
* It's easy to dismiss the Chargers as a hapless bunch of laggards who are ripe for a beating. However, the Chargers have been in almost all of their games, but then faltered -- as the Stillers like to do -- in the 4th quarter. With absolutely no pressure on them, the Chargers can play carefree, worry-free football, and take some chances and try some stunts that might not occur in 'normal' situations. The Stillers, meanwhile, will play the airtight, can-hardly-breathe, "let's hope we're close in the 4th quarter" kind of game that, while it may supposedly minimize mistakes, also allows the opponent to remain in the hunt at all times. Expect a sloppy, ugly, low-scoring game, in which the freewheeling Chargers will cause a lot of problems. I actually won't be surprised at all if the Stillers choke and lose this game, but I don't think the Chargers' will to fight will last as long as ours. The Stillers will barely eke by in a slovenly effort, 16-13.
The Still Mill