The Pittsburgh Steelers have performed well without their star running back, Le’Veon Bell, and the Los Angeles Chargers will find out in Sunday night’s game in Pittsburgh whether they can survive without their top running back.
Although James Conner’s fumble in the Steelers’ 24-17 loss to the Denver Broncos last week was troubling, he has been more than an adequate replacement for Bell, rushing for 849 yards and 10 touchdowns and catching 49 passes for 453 yards and a score.
For this contest of AFC heavyweights, the Chargers (8-3) will be without running back Melvin Gordon, who will miss one to three games with a knee injury. He has run for 802 yards and nine touchdowns to go along with 44 receptions for 453 yards and four touchdowns.
He has been a key part of the Chargers’ surprising success this season, as they have won seven of their last eight games.
“Collectively we all have to pick up when you’re down one of your best guys,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “It’s a group effort to pick up.”
Austin Ekeler has the task of replacing Gordon, and he has impressive numbers, rushing for 409 yards and averaging 5.8 yards per carry, while catching 32 passes.
“We have a lot of faith in him,” Rivers said. “He’s strong. It’s his balance and how low he is cutting in and out of holes. He’s powerful and tough to bring down. The first guy that hits him usually doesn’t bring him down.”
He is looking to have success against a Steelers front that has been leaky against the run the past two weeks.
“I’m not going to overblow it, but we have to be more accountable,” Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “We have to make sure we’re following our assignments, tackling well. And then when we do get the opportunity, we have to strip the ball.”
The absence of Gordon might require Rivers to be a bigger part of the offense. He was spectacular in last weekend’s 45-10 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, when he set two NFL records – one for completing his first 25 pass attempts of the game and the other for the highest completion percentage in a contest, connecting on 28 of his 29 passes.
He ranks third in the NFL in passer rating and has 26 touchdown passes against just three interceptions.
The Steelers (7-3-1) have a pretty good quarterback themselves in Ben Roethlisberger, who was part of the same 2004 draft that brought Rivers into the league.
“We both like standing in there and holding on to the ball until the last second and take a hit,” Rivers said. “He’s been a heck of a player for a long time.”
Roethlisberger’s problem this season has been interceptions. He has thrown 12 of them, tied for the second-most in the league, and he threw two critical picks in last week’s loss to the Broncos.
Turnovers in general have plagued the Steelers. They committed four against the Broncos, giving them 19 for the season. Only six teams have more turnovers and all six have losing records.
Opponents have committed just 12 turnovers against Pittsburgh, giving the Steelers a minus-7 differential. It is amazing they have the record they do.
“If you look back at the last eight quarters of football for us as a football team it’s something that we have to tighten up and tighten up rather quickly,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “We’ve turned the ball over some on offense. We have to do a better job of safeguarding and preserving it in everything that we do, whether it is passing or running with the football.
“On the defensive side of the ball save the last snap of the game in Jacksonville (two weeks ago), we’ve played eight quarters of football without creating a turnover and I think you can’t have one discussion without the other.”
“We were fortunate to get out of Jacksonville. We talked about that and obviously we couldn’t get out of Denver, so we have some work to do in those areas. It’s very fundamental. We always work in that area but it’s a re-centering, a point of emphasis and we’ll continue along those lines until we get the desired result.”
Perhaps playing at Heinz Field will help the Steelers, who have a 14-1 record against the Chargers at home. Most of those games were played a long time ago, however, and the one Chargers win at Pittsburgh came in their most recent visit, back in 2012.
“I just know it’s a heck of a place and their fans are into it,” Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said. “And that’s a tough football team.”
The Chargers have played well on the road this year, winning four of their five games away from home.
However, the Chargers still must prove they can beat the top teams. All but one of their wins this season have come against teams that currently have a losing record. The one exception was the victory over Seattle, which is barely over .500 at 6-5.