PITTSBURGH — Rarely do matchups align like this.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Chargers have a combined 15 wins, look poised for playoff pushes and are getting it done with only the slightest differences.
They each start at least 12 draft picks and at least five first-round picks but have found success on the free-agency market. They have undrafted free-agent standouts, 15-year veteran quarterbacks, Pounceys and Wattses, similar rookie rotations and a link to Ken Whisenhunt, the Chargers’ offensive coordinator who once ran Pittsburgh’s attack for Bill Cowher.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called the Chargers “formidable” multiple times during a news conference, and their recent offensive production “unbelievable.” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn calls the Steelers “top to bottom” good.
The Chargers (8-3) might rely more on free agency to win than Pittsburgh (7-3-1), but that’s not quite a tiebreaker for what looks like an evenly matched game.
To try to find hidden advantages, let’s dig into the Chargers-Steelers connections.
The late-30s QB revival:
Since Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers held up jerseys in oversized suits during the 2004 draft, they’ve combined for more than 108,000 passing yards and 700 touchdowns. Roethlisberger sits at seventh all-time with 54,729 yards, edging Rivers by 1,262. Rivers is sixth all-time with 368 touchdowns, 15 more than Big Ben.
Their recent play suggests those numbers will balloon into a new stratosphere. Roethlisberger, 36, ranks second in 2018 passing yards with 3,664, while Rivers, 37, is tied for fourth in touchdowns with 26.
Playing until their 40th birthdays is not out of the question for either quarterback. The longevity makes Roethlisberger thankful to come from the 2004 draft class that also features Eli Manning.
“It’s pretty rare,” Roethlisberger said. “You look at guys who have played this long, to be on one team it doesn’t happen very often. I know I am blessed and lucky to be here and be here my whole career. I know those guys would tell you the same thing.”
Asked about Rivers’ game maturing over the years, Tomlin quipped he hopes his game is done maturing.
“He’s a guy who you’re excited about competing against because you know he’s dually prepared,” Tomlin said. “You know he’s extremely talented. He’s a unique competitor. He’s just one of those guys. He needs no endorsement from me.”
Not many twins in professional sports rival Maurkice and Mike Pouncey, who dominated high school ball in Lakeland, Florida, blocked for Tim Tebow at the University of Florida, became back-to-back first-round picks and have started a combined 207 NFL games.
After Mike signed a two-year deal with Los Angeles this offseason, the Chargers and Steelers both find their offensive edge from the players snapping the ball.
“Two tremendous centers in this league,” Lynn said. “Good athletes but they are professionals. [Mike] is here every morning at 5:30. His work ethic is off the charts. His attitude is contagious.”
Maurkice admits he talks to his brother “too much” on the phone, but he’s always got a good brotherly rib handy. Asked what would happen if he and Mike switched locker rooms, Maurkice said, “I’d take that team to the next level.”
Maurkice is one of two Steelers facing a brother across the field.
While T.J. Watt tries to outpace brother J.J. Watt in sacks, his middle brother, Derek, is a three-year Charger who has started eight games. Lynn calls the versatile Watt one of the more underrated fullbacks in the league.
T.J. won’t concede that Derek is the better athlete, but he’s happy for his success.
“I think that’s pretty damn cool [he’s in the NFL],” T.J. said. “That puts him in an elite category as an athlete.”
The high-pedigree pass-rusher
Both teams have high-level athletes at both edge-rush spots, and the spotlight will be on Watt and Joey Bosa, double-digit-sack guys who learned the NFL game long before playing it.
Bosa’s dad, John, played three years in the NFL. Before the Steelers drafted Watt in 2017, he watched brother J.J. train vigorously for six NFL offseasons on the way to three Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Both are relentless off the edge and can win with speed or power. Bosa might have more raw power than any pass-rusher in the league, returning from injury for two vicious sacks in his first two games of the year.
While Bosa recorded 23 sacks in his first two seasons, this year Watt became the fourth Steeler to notch 10 sacks in the first 10 games of a season.
The first-round rookie safety in the starting lineup
“It will definitely be dope, both of us being out there together,” said Edmunds, the No. 28 pick who has started 10 games for Pittsburgh. “Just got to get the win now.”
James, who went No. 17 overall to Los Angeles, was believed to have top-10 talent and has validated that belief with 78 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions. James is in the box more than Edmunds, who has 47 tackles and one interception and is hoping for more “library books” (what he calls picks).
“He’s a good player,” Edmunds said. “Just have to go out there and compete.”