The Pittsburgh Steelers will host the 8-3 Los Angeles Chargers Sunday night at Heinz Field in what figures to be a very entertaining game. The Chargers enter that contest with one of the better offenses in the league and especially when it comes to how they have played so far on first downs this season. Head coach Mike Tomlin made sure to point that out when he talked to the media on Tuesday.
“Philip Rivers and company have been getting a lot of notoriety and recognition and rightfully so,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “They’re playing at an unbelievable level right now. I think it can just be displayed in their yards per play on first and 10. I think are 7.06 yards a play on first down for the season. I think there’s two teams in the NFL that’s averaging 7 yards on first down, it’s them and the Rams, I think, or maybe them the Rams and Kansas City.”
According to Pro Football Reference, the Chargers have averaged 7.07 yards per play on first downs entering Week 13 and only the Los Angeles Rams (7.28) have averaged more per play. On first and 10 plays, specifically, the Chargers offense has averaged 7.37 yards per play. Drilling down even further, the Chargers offense is averaging 9.47 yards per pass play on first and 10 plays and 5.79 yards per play on running plays. Even in their three losses this season the Chargers offense has averaged 6.98 yards on 1st and 10 plays.
“So that’s the type of company that they’re keeping in terms of damage that they’re producing on first and 10,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “So, forget possession downs, you know, they’re getting you on first and 10 and it just speaks to Philip Rivers, their planning, the autonomy that they give him in terms of getting in good plays at the line of scrimmage. When you’re averaging 7 yards a play on first down it’s because you’ve got no negative plays. They’ve given that guy enough latitude, he’s getting out of negative plays, or potentially negative situations. You don’t see them getting dropped behind the chains very often and it just speaks to their schematics and what they do under Coach Whiz (Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt), but also, the latitude, the autonomy and the intelligence that Philip Rivers has and the way that they are able to utilize it in terms of attacking people.”
The Chargers offense has already produced 28 explosive plays of 20 yards or longer on 1st and 10s so far this season with 10 of those being runs. 5 of those 10 runs have come courtesy of Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, who will miss the Sunday night game against the Steelers with an MCL injury. Of their 18 explosive receiving plays on 1st and 10s to date, wide receiver Tyrell Williams has been on the receiving end of 5 of them. Gordon, by the way, has two explosive 1st and 10 receptions so far this season.
That nice success the Chargers offense is having on first downs to date has also resulted in them only needing to run 119 third down plays so far this season and only the Kansas City Chiefs have run fewer. However, when faced with third downs so far this season the Chargers have needed 7.07 yards on average and that’s just slightly below the NFL average of 7.09 through Week 12 of the regular season. The Chargers offense has converted just 37.8% of their third downs to date and 21 other teams currently have better conversion rates than they do.
In short, the Steelers defense needs to come up big on first downs Sunday night to force the Chargers offense into as many third downs as possible. To date, the Steelers defense has allowed an average of 5.56 yards per play on first and 10s this season and only seven other teams have lower averages than they do. On third downs this season the Steelers defense has a fifth-best conversion rate against of 35.71%.
It’s worth noting at this point, however, that the Chargers 8 wins so far this season have come against teams with a combined record of 25-51-1. Additionally, only team the Chargers have beaten so far this season that had a winning record at the time they played them were the Seattle Seahawks
The Chargers offense will likely be the toughest one the Steelers defense has faced since Week 2 and the Kansas City Chiefs. If the Steelers defense can limit Philip Rivers and company to 21 or less points Sunday night one would think it would result in a win for the home team. However, if the Chargers score more than 21 points Sunday night, we could have another situation where the Steelers offensive might need to score during their final possession in order to come away with the win.