PITTSBURGH – You’ll forgive San Diego’s Philip Rivers if he doesn’t necessarily put Pittsburgh on his vacation list.
Rivers has visited Pittsburgh three times in the past five years and each time has come out on the losing end of a game.
In fact, the Chargers have played in Pittsburgh 14 times in the regular season since the 1970 NFL merger. The Steelers have won all 14 of those games.
The Steelers (7-5) will try to keep their streak alive when they host San Diego (4-8) today at Heinz Field.
Currently sitting two games behind Baltimore in the AFC North standings, the Steelers also have the sixth spot in the AFC playoff race. To hold onto that spot and keep their hopes of winning a division championship alive, they will have to continue San Diego’s woes in Pittsburgh.
“I know there are some numbers that support West Coast teams coming east, but it’s not that we’ve been great everywhere but Pittsburgh,” said Rivers. “I think that would be not giving credit where credit is due. You’re playing a football team, not the time zone or the weather. They’re a heck of a team, and that’s really the biggest challenge.”
The challenge of playing the Steelers gets a lot tougher this week with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger set to return after missing the past three games with shoulder and rib injuries.
The Steelers went 1-2 without Roethlisberger.
“It opens up everything in our playbook,” said Steelers receiver Mike Wallace of Roethlisberger’s return. “I feel like (backup) Charlie Batch can run everything in the playbook, but with Ben in, it’s just a whole different level of game planning and things that teams have to do just to compensate for how athletic he is. I think he brings a dimension to the team that nobody else can bring.”
And then there is the Pittsburgh defense.
The Steelers lead the NFL in total defense, allowing 259.8 yards per game. The scary thing for opposing teams is that the defense appears to be getting better as the season wears on,
Strong safety Troy Polamalu, who had been hampered by a calf injury, returned to play last week against Baltimore, while outside linebacker James Harrison, who was slowed early in the season by a knee that required surgery in training camp, is heating up. Harrison has sacks in the past three games, including a sack last week against the Ravens that forced quarterback Joe Flacco to fumble, setting up a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“I feel like we’re getting healthier,” said Harrison. “You always want to be healthy when you’re trying to make a run to the playoffs. I guess it’s good timing.”
Not that the Steelers are completely healthy.
Cornerback Ike Taylor has a hairline fracture in his right leg and will sit out today, while linebacker LaMarr Woodley will miss his second game with an ankle sprain.
But the Steelers have given up 62 points in five home games and face a San Diego offense that has issues of its own.
The Chargers have lost seven of their past eight games after a 3-1 start, mainly thanks to an offensive line that has allowed Rivers to be sacked 36 times.
To make matters worse, three of the team’s starting linemen, including offensive tackles Mike Harris and Jerome Clary, were injured in last week’s loss to Cincinnati and are not expected to play against the Steelers.
The Chargers and Rivers will get little sympathy from the Steelers.
“I don’t know,” said Harrison when asked why he thought Rivers and the Chargers were struggling. “I hope they get lower. That’s not my problem.”
Odds and end zones
Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler has reportedly accepted the head coaching position at his alma mater, UTEP. It it not yet known if Kugler will finish out the season with the Steelers. ... Though they are 0-14 in the regular season in Pittsburgh, San Diego has won two of three playoff meetings with the Steelers here. ... Second-year cornerback Cortez Allen will make his first career start in place of Taylor.