Antonio Gates returns: The Chargers’ future Hall of Fame tight end is back after serving a four-game suspension for PEDs. His return couldn’t have come at a more crucial time for the Chargers. It’s likely that wide receiver Stevie Johnson (hamstring) could miss Monday night’s game, and who knows how much Malcom Floyd (concussion) will play. That said, Gates’ return has obvious implications for fellow tight end Ladarius Green. Will the Chargers finally find a way to get the two involved, together, for more than a few plays? With San Diego down one (Stevie Johnson – out), maybe two wide receivers (Malcom Floyd – questionable), getting both Gates and Green involved early and often will be critical.
“I’m hoping (Gates) comes in and makes an immediate impact,” said offensive coordinator Frank Reich. “How many plays he plays is hard to tell at this point. You have a number in your mind, a range in your mind. You certainly don’t want him playing every snap, but you want him to be in there enough to get his touches and make the impact a guy like that can have.”
This week’s O-Line shuffle: As usual, things are still interesting (interchanging) on the offensive line. Left guard Orlando Franklin is out, left tackle King Dunlap is doubtful, and right guard D.J. Fluker and center/guard Chris Watt are listed as questionable. Both Fluker and Watt were limited participants in practice all week. Of the two, Fluker appears to be the more likely to play, having labored through the last two games. If Watt is active, the question is where and how much he will play. Watt was drafted as a guard out of Notre Dame and could play the position if the Chargers feel he is a better option than Kenny Wiggins. He practiced at both guard and center this past week. Moreover, backup Trevor Robinson earned high praise for his performance last week against Cleveland and did well filling in at center late last season. It’s unlikely that Fluker, at this point, would move back to one of the tackle positions.
The run (or lack thereof) defense: The Chargers run defense (29th in the NFL) has another tough test this week against a potent Steelers rushing attack led by Le’Veon Bell . After serving his two-game suspension, Bell has 41 rushes for 191 yards and two touchdowns since his return. San Diego allows a league-high 4.9 yards per carry and has allowed five runs of 20 or more yards, tied for second most in the league. Tackling and wrapping up, a serious struggle for this Chargers defense through the season’s first four games, will be a premium for the Chargers if they’re to contain Bell. And let’s not forget quarterback Michael Vick and the threat he poses as a runner.
“(Bell) is one of the best backs in the national football league,” said defensive coordinator John Pagano. “He’s very patient. He has great vision. He has great start and stop ability. He has a knack to be almost smooth into the hole. You’ve got to go out and tackle him because he is the type of guy who will lower his shoulder in the hole and you’ve got to have a good base, great technique and fundamentals.”
Receiver threat(s): Pittsburgh brings with them two dangerous wide receiver threats in Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. Brown, a three-time Pro Bowler, is one of the league’s most established receivers and has set franchise records in catches (34) and receiving yards (478) through the first four games of the season.
Like Antonio Gates, Bryant is eligible to play Monday for the first time this season after serving a four-game suspension for using a banned substance. It’s been reported over the weekend, however, that Bryant tweaked his knee in practice and will not be activated against the Chargers. The Steelers do not need to add him to the 53-man roster until Tuesday.
Secondary stops: Cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers are both listed as questionable to play Monday night against the Steelers. Backup corner Patrick Robinson, who started the last two games in place of Flowers (Vikings) and Verrett (Browns), had solid performances in both appearances. Robinson — a former first-rounder who spent five seasons with the Saints before signing with San Diego — notched a pick-6 off quarterback Michael Vick in 2012, running the ball 99-yards for the touchdown.
“In the past I’ve had some success against [Vick],” Robinson said Wednesday. “I hope to continue to have success on Monday.”
For a more in-depth look at the Chargers’ Monday Night football showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers, listen to Annie and Andrew’s game preview podcast here.