Sunday Night Football Preview: Can the Steelers Pull Off the Upset With a Third-String Quarterback?
This Sunday night matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Chargers was much more appealing back when the schedule was made, as injuries to both teams have sapped some of the excitement from this one. But luckily, there are plenty of interesting betting angles to discuss.
According to oddsFire, 63% of the bets and 58% of the money is coming in on the Chargers (-6) to cover the spread. However, the public isn't as willing to back the Chargers on the moneyline, as 62% of the bets and 54% of the money is coming in on the Steelers (+220) to win outright. With 53% of the bets taking the over (41.5) and 52% of the money backing the under, the public sees the point total as being spot on.
Will the Chargers take care of business at home? Or do our projections give the Steelers a chance with their third-string quarterback under center?
Passing Game Preview
It's a bit surprising that the Steelers rank 12th in the NFL in Adjusting Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back even without Ben Roethlisberger for much of the season. They face yet another test in Week 6, however, as Mason Rudolph will miss the game due to his scary concussion from last week, and undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges will draw his first start.
We obviously don't have much to go on with Hodges as last week was his first action as a pro. Hodges completed seven of nine passes for 68 yards in relief but didn't push the ball downfield. His -0.21 Passing NEP per drop back wasn't inspiring, but it's too small of a sample to draw any meaningful conclusions.
The Steelers will be without wide receiver James Washington, though they hope to have tight end Vance McDonald available against the Chargers. The passing game will likely funnel through JuJu Smith-Schuster, whose 0.53 Reception NEP per target is the second-best clip on the team to Washington's mark of 0.68. Surprisingly, rookie receiver Diontae Johnson has been almost as efficient as Smith-Schuster as Johnson has drawn just five fewer targets on the year and posted a 0.45 Reception NEP per target. The rest of the receivers have contributed almost nothing to the passing game this year, however, so the absence of Washington may be more meaningful than some may realize.
The Chargers' defensive performance has suffered due to injuries, and they enter Week 6 allowing 0.26 Adjusted Passing NEP per drop back, "good" for a very disappointing rank of 26th overall. Most of the passing game success against the Chargers' defense came from Jacoby Brissett, Matthew Stafford, and Deshaun Watson. Hodges is most certainly not in that class of quarterback.
For a more realistic comparison, the Chargers held Josh Rosen to a -0.01 Passing NEP per drop back in Week 4, and Joe Flacco to a -0.14 Passing NEP per drop back in Week 5. There are some holes to poke in those two performances, however, as the Chargers actually allowed Rosen's best week of the season, according to Passing NEP per drop back, and while Flacco struggled, the Broncos did defeat the Chargers last week. The Bolts continue to be without Adrian Phillips and Derwin James in the secondary, and pass-rusher Melvin Ingram is questionable for Sunday night.
The Chargers have disappointing marks across the board, according to NEP, and the passing offense is no exception. The Chargers rank 24th in the league with 0.06 Adjusted Passing NEP per drop back through five weeks. Philip Rivers really saw things bottom out in last week's loss to the Broncos, posting an abysmal -0.31 Passing NEP per drop back. Rivers threw for only 211 yards on a whopping 48 attempts as he continually checked down to Austin Ekeler for short gains.
The Chargers are in desperate need of some more options in the passing game, as outside of Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Ekeler, Travis Benjamin is the only active Charger with more than eight targets, and Benjamin's 0.04 Reception NEP per target leaves a lot to be desired. Tight end Hunter Henry is questionable for Week 6 and would be a huge boost to the passing game. He's expected to be limited this week if he does play, however, so the full impact may not be felt immediately.
The Steelers' defense has posted an excellent -0.02 Adjusted Defensive NEP per drop back this year, good for the sixth-best rate in the league. Outside of Steven Nelson missing this week due to a groin injury, the Steelers' D is relatively healthy. After a slow start to the season, the Steelers' defense has clamped down on opposing passing games the last two weeks. In Week 4, they held Andy Dalton to -0.48 Passing NEP per drop back, and in Week 5, they stifled Lamar Jackson, holding him to a -0.24 Passing NEP per drop back. Outside of games where they were torched by Tom Brady and Russell Wilson, this passing defense has been very respectable.
Rushing Game Preview
While the Steelers fare well in most NEP metrics, their rushing offense is a notable exception. Pittsburgh has produced -0.10 Adjusted Rushing NEP per rush, the seventh-worst rushing performance in the league through five weeks. Jaylen Samuels will be out again, leaving the Steelers with only James Conner and Benny Snell Jr. to carry the rock.
Conner has produced -0.23 Rushing NEP per rush over 58 carries, while Snell has produced an even worse -0.31 Rushing NEP per rush on six carries. Conner did show some signs of life last week as he recorded his first positive NEP performance of the year and posted his best rushing Success Rate of the year at 57.14%. It's worth noting, however, that Conner's performance did come against a struggling Baltimore Ravens rush defense.
The Chargers have allowed 0.07 Adjusted Rushing NEP per rush this season, which puts them toward the bottom of the league with a ranking of 21 overall, and they are closer to being among the league's very worst rush defenses than they are a league-average unit. The Chargers have actually given up the bulk of their rushing damage at home, where Marlon Mack in Week 1 and Phillip Lindsay in Week 5 gouged them for over 100 yards each.
While the Chargers were able to limit the rushing offenses of the Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, and Miami Dolphins, this is still far from a lock-down unit at home. Typically running the ball on the road can be a challenge, but with the Chargers lack of home-field advantage and their past performance, that shouldn't be a concern for the Steelers' rushing attack in this one.
Offensively, the Chargers have the sixth-worst rushing attack in the league, with a clip of -0.10 Adjusted Rushing NEP per rush. To make matters worse, LA is now missing their two best offensive lineman, as center Mike Pouncey joins tackle Russell Okung on the sidelines.
Melvin Gordon did not provide a spark in his first game back, recording an abysmal -0.34 Rushing NEP per rush on 12 carries to go along with a 25% Success Rate. Even Ekeler, who has been a fantasy stalwart this year, has produced a disappointing 0.01 Rushing NEP per rush. With an offensive line set to get worse due to injury, expecting a sudden turnaround would be unwise.
Pittsburgh enters the game with the league's fifth-best run defense, allowing -0.09 Adjusted Rushing NEP per rush. They've held their own against some tough running games in 2019, such as the New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, and Baltimore. There is little pointing towards the Chargers having success on the ground in this Sunday night matchup.
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