Pittsburgh haven't enjoyed their start to the season, but Week 6 gives them an opportunity to get back on track despite their turnover at quarterback, writes Mark Kirwan...
"If their running back can chew up yardage, their defence has shown a real nastiness this year that should keep them in this game. They're ahead of their league-leading sack pace from last year with Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and TJ Watt piling up numbers and pressuring quarterbacks, while rookie linebacker Devin Bush leads the team in tackles."
Pittsburgh Steelers @ LA Chargers
Live on Sky Sports Action
The Pittsburgh Steelers name is synonymous with a rare commodity in the NFL - stability. They've had just three coaches in 50 years, all Lombardi trophy winners, and they're a club known for taking the long view on things - and benefitting because of it.
But this year has seen them look far less steady than we're used to.
There were the high-profile departures of Brown and Bell in the offseason of course. Those tasked with replacing two league-best talents can be forgiven for not hitting the same heights, but it's the turnover at quarterback that's been the biggest issue in Western Pennsylvania's football fraternity this season.
Devlin Hodges starts this game after second-year back-up Mason Rudolph was totalled by Earl Thomas last week. The now-concussed QB was starting because multiple Super Bowl champ Ben Roethlisberger twanged a ligament in his throwing arm in Week 2 and is out for the season. Josh Dobbs, their third-string QB in the preseason, was traded to Jacksonville the week before when Nick Foles went down.
As such, the Steelers are lining up with a player who was their fourth-choice signal-caller at the start of the campaign - he was on the practice squad a month ago. Now he's the starter. Paxton Lynch is next in line. Yikes.
It all makes one the NFL's most bankable franchises look like they're set for a period of turmoil at 1-4 on the season. They could do with a win here to revive tapering hopes of a playoff spot.
Truly terrible towels?
But fret not Steelers fans. While Hodges is an undrafted rookie out of a less-flashy college team, he has some pedigree. He collected the Walter Payton award during his final year in college - previous recipients include Adrian Peterson and Tony Romo - and won the Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Year award three seasons in a row.
He also showed some ability when filling in last week and came closer to a win than he had any right to against Baltimore.
Coach Mike Tomlin will know he can't lean on the rookie too heavily though. Rather, the plan has to be to feed James Conner the ball and try to run over the Chargers rather than relying on Hodges.
If their running back can chew up yardage, their defence has shown a real nastiness this year that should keep them in this game. They're ahead of their league-leading sack pace from last year with Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and TJ Watt piling up numbers and pressuring quarterbacks, while rookie linebacker Devin Bush leads the team in tackles.
Adding to the sense of a team in flux, they traded away their 2020 first-round pick this season for defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. It's the first time they've done that since 1967, though Fitzpatrick may prove to be worth the cost as he has helped shore up a problem spot so far.
If the defence can be consistent, it'll keep their hobbled offence in games, reversing the theme of the last decade and the so-called "Killer B's" of Big Ben, Bell and Brown.
The times are changing in Pittsburgh.
Chargers need reserve power
Some things always stay the same though. Chargers players dropping like flies and the team failing to live up to expectations is one such example.
Hunter Henry, Nasir Adderley, Casey Hayward, Justin Jackson, Melvin Ingram and, hell, even their kicker is hurt as they welcome the Steelers.
And look at the players who aren't even on the active roster. Center Mike Pouncey went to IR this week. Russell Okung is dealing with blood clots. All-Pro safety Derwin James is done for the season, as is Adrian Phillips.
If that wasn't enough disruption, they had running back Melvin Gordon attempt a contract holdout until last week. His efforts didn't earn him a better deal, but may have made a lot of money for his replacement, Austin Ekeler, who confirmed he can be a lead back having displayed talent as Gordon's understudy in previous seasons.
The running back's return didn't go smoothly last week either. He had just 31 yards on 12 carries and no touchdowns on season debut. Partly that was down to Denver racing out to 17-0 lead and LA having to chase the game, but Ekeler looked good enough to stay in the line-up whether Gordon wanted to play or not.
LA have beaten the Colts this season, but have lost to the Lions, Texans and a winless Broncos last week, and almost made the Dolphins look competent at times.
This is a team I do not want to bet on.
If they were healthy they could've been a real dark horse in the AFC, but the Chargers are in such a state it's hard to believe they're 6.5 points favourites in this game.
Some of that's accounted for by home advantage, but the Chargers temporary home while they wait for a new stadium to be built is a running joke in the league. The only time they fill it out is when a popular visiting team comes to town and loads of opposition supporters turn up.
Ateam like Pittsburgh, basically. This will sound like a game at Heinz Field for the yellow and black-clad visitors.
The other big contributor to the handicap is the QB situation. Of course, we can't be certain how Hodges will perform this week, but he didn't look like Nathan Peterman last week when thrown into the action, and I'd generally trust the Steelers and Mike Tomlin to work out a gameplan that'll help the inexperienced starter.
Throw in LA's never-ending injury story, the way Pittsburgh are troubling opposition QBs, and 6.5 points is too much at [1.96]. I would even look at bigger prices for fewer points (ie Steelers +3.5) - or would increase my stake at +6.5 - on the Steelers here.
On the Total Points market, the 41.5 line is quite low, but considering how both of these teams are likely to veer towards the run, it makes sense to look at the under. Pittsburgh are unlikely to compete in a shootout here with Hodges under center, and the Chargers, save for Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler, have not looked great passing the ball this season. Philip Rivers will also be under a lot of pressure behind that line. It all points to a low-scoring game.
For a touchdown interest, I'd consider the Pittsburgh D/ST in the To Score a Touchdown market on the Sportsbook at around 11/2 because they'll get to Rivers so much. Fumbles and interceptions all come into play in that circumstance.
If you combine Pittsburgh +6.5, Under 41.5 Total Point and the Pittsburgh D/ST to score in the Same Game Multi tab on the Sportsbook, you get a juicy price of over 24/1. For the more conservatively minded, swapping in the most likely scorer for the Steelers, James Conner, in a run-heavy game brings up a price of 8/1.
1.5pts on Pittsburgh +6.5 on the Handicap market @ [1.96] on the Exchange
1pt on Under 41.5 on the Total Points market @ [2.0] on the Exchange
0.5pt on Pittsburgh D/ST To Score a Touchdown @ 11/2 on the Sportsbook
0.2pt on Pittsburgh +6.5, Under 41.5, and Pittsburgh D/ST To Score a Touchdown @ 24/1 on the Sportsbook
0.5pt on Pittsburgh +6.5, Under 41.5, and James Conner To Score a Touchdown @ 8/1 on the Sportsbook