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Monday Night Football Preview: A Shootout Foiled

The Chargers are favored to beat the Steelers Monday night, but does that mean they can hold down Le'Veon and company?

A couple of weeks ago, I was getting jacked up for a battle between two of the big three quarterbacks from the 2004 draft. Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger have consistently been among the top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL, and a matchup between the two at this point in their careers had serious shootout potential.

Injuries suck. Instead, we still get a matchup between two former first-round picks, but one of them is a shell of his former self, 14 years removed from his NFL debut. Even so, that doesn't mean this game comes without intrigue.

Let's dig deep into this game using numberFire's game projection profile. This feature is available for each and every game on the NFL schedule for premium subscribers, showing a projected final score, projected stats, and similar games throughout history. It is also the main reason I get no work done on Friday afternoons as I spend most of my time checking these puppies out, so you have been warned.

We'll also be using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). This is our efficiency metric, which looks at the expected points players and teams add or subtract on each play throughout the season. This way, a player who picks up three yards on 3rd and 2 is seen as more valuable than one who picks up three yards on 3rd and 4. If they increase the expected points for the team on that drive, they are viewed in a positive light. NEP just conglomerates all of the shifts in expected points throughout the year and puts them in one number, adjusting for strength of opponents with the teams.

There are four important questions surrounding this game. Let's use a combination of the tools above to answer them before seeing what our projections have happening out west.

Can Michael Vick Keep the Steelers Afloat?

After last Thursday's game, it was painfully obvious that the Steelers' offense was not the same without Roethlisberger at the helm. At the same time, the Steelers were in position to take home a win if it weren't for a late comeback by the Baltimore Ravens. Now, we get to increase the sample size with Michael Vick at quarterback.

Things have not gone well so far with Vick leading the offense. He has dropped back a total of 38 times, resulting in -13.13 Passing NEP or -0.35 Passing NEP per play. Entering Week 5, the only player with at least that many drop backs and a worse Passing NEP per play was Jimmy Clausen, putting Vick in a class you'd assume he'd want to avoid.

Unfortunately, this shouldn't come as a huge shock. Of the 48 quarterbacks who dropped back at least 75 times last year, Vick ranked 47th in Passing NEP per play in his time with the New York Jets. His Passing NEP per play was actually better with that Jets squad than it has been in a short sample with the Steelers. Sources indicate that this is, indeed, bad.

Things get a bit more upsetting for Steelers' fans when you compare Vick to Roethlisberger. Over 94 drop backs prior to his injury, Roethlisberger had 0.56 Passing NEP per play, the top mark in the league among the 37 quarterbacks with at least 40 drop backs. What this means (loosely), is that Vick has been 0.91 points worse than Roethlisberger on each drop back. Over 30 drop backs, that's 27.30 points. Sub-Gucci.

Our projections aren't exactly seeing sunshine and daisies for Vick on Monday. He's slated for 205 passing yards on 34 attempts (6.03 yards per attempt) with 1.24 touchdowns and 1.06 interceptions. They've also got him down for 6 rushes for 40 yards and 0.21 touchdowns, so he can still add some value there, but it's clear that this is not the same team without Roethlisberger at quarterback.

Can Le'Veon Bell Be Productive With Vick at Quarterback?

Not only did Roethlisberger's injury deprive us of a matchup between him and Rivers, it also limited the time we got to see him with Le'Veon Bell. The two showed last year what they could do together, and then that dynamic duo was ripped from our eyeballs almost as quickly as we got it back. All of the sads.

Now, for many reasons, it would be fair to expect a down-tick in Bell's performance without Roethlisberger on the field. Teams can devote more resources to stopping the run, and the offense's overall effectiveness decreases, limiting his touchdown potential. That said, there's nothing stopping Bell from being the focal point of the offense, if he wouldn't have been already. Is the increase in volume enough to counter the expected drop in effectiveness?

It's still early, but Bell hasn't quite been able to equal his heroics of last year yet. He's currently 23rd in Rushing NEP per play among the 54 running backs who have carried the ball at least 20 times this year. Last year, Bell finished fifth in that same category.

These struggles have been true in his role in the passing game, as well. He has turned 15 targets into 14 receptions for 1.85 Reception NEP. His 0.12 Reception NEP per target ranks 19th out of 20 running backs who have been targeted at least 15 times this year. They've taken our sweet prince of efficiency and turned him into a peasant. You monsters.

Good ol' Le'Veon will be getting a bit of help Monday, though, in the form of the Chargers' rushing defense. They entered Week 5 ranked 24th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play. This should at least make up for part of what Bell is missing with Vick at quarterback.

Because of his versatility within the offense, our projections are really digging Bell from a fantasy perspective this week. They have him down for 81 rushing yards and 0.51 touchdowns to go with 6 receptions for 49 yards and 0.24 touchdowns. That's good for our top projected running back entering the weekend. This would seem to hint that although Bell's efficiency may go down with Vick, his value in the fake football realm should not.

Can the Steelers Contain Philip Rivers?

As I mentioned at the top, Rivers is one of those guys who has consistently been among the top 10 quarterbacks in the league ever since he became a starter. Rivers has been in the top 10 in Total NEP (which includes rushing stats) among quarterbacks seven of the last nine years, finishing in the top five on four occasions. He's superb, even though he doesn't always get dapped up as being so.

Although he hasn't been quite as good this year, Rivers has still been respectable. He's currently 11th in Total NEP out of the 37 quarterbacks with at least 40 drop backs and 15th in Passing NEP per play. It's not the same Rivers, though it's possible that's not completely his fault to shoulder.

The Chargers' offensive line has basically been in flames the entire season thus far. They haven't started the same five up front in consecutive weeks, and they'll be without the starters on the left side again this week. This has limited the Chargers both in the passing game and the running game as Melvin Gordon has failed to launch thus far in his rookie campaign. That's certainly not the full reason Rivers has slipped, but it hasn't helped.

It's possible things could be looking up. When the Steelers roll into town, they'll be bringing with them a defense that ranks 17th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. That's not a bad mark, but it takes a bit of a hit when you consider that includes matchups against the teams ranked 27th and 31st in Adjusted Passing NEP per play. Because the Chargers rank 10th, and the game is on the road, this may be a bit more of a challenge for the Pittsburgh defensive backs.

Our projections are big into Felipe Rios Monday with this matchup. They have him throwing for 300 yards on 40 attempts (7.5 yards per attempt) with 2.30 touchdowns and 0.99 interceptions. Those are numbers that can certainly get the job done and put Rivers back on the right track. But can they get the win? Let's take a look.

Can the Chargers Improve to 3-2?

Heading into the game, the Chargers are favored by 3.5 points, at home, and facing a back-up quarterback. What's not to love? But that doesn't mean they can get too comfortable quite yet.

Again, one of the features of numberFire's game projections is a look at similar games throughout history. This can give us a glimpse at what we possibly can expect and provide a blueprint for an underdog to grab a victory. This is exactly what we see when we look at the most similar game from history, back in September of 2012 when the Dallas Cowboys upset the New York Giants.

In that game, the Giants were four-point favorites entering the season opener. The action started fine with neither team scoring through the first 20 minutes.

It was around that time that Tony Romo threw an interception which the Giants returned down to the one-yard line, threatening to score. The Cowboys proceeded to lock down on defense, forcing the Giants to kick a field goal from the four-yard line. That would prove to be important.

The Cowboys went on a 14-0 run after their goal-line stand to claim a 14-3 lead. The Giants were never able to draw the game closer than when it was briefly 14-10 before Dallas again widened the gap. The Cowboys went on to win, 24-17, claiming victory on the road.

This should show that -- even though things are aligning for San Diego -- they'll still need to take full advantage of their opportunities to knock off the Steelers. This is a rather ominous sign for the Chargers as they currently have scored touchdowns on 57.14 percent of the trips to the red zone, the 15th best mark in the league; the Steelers are second at 76.92 percent. The odds may be stacked against the Steelers, but that doesn't mean this thing is anywhere close to a lock.

What the Projections Say

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