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Steelers face Chargers team limping to season's end

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SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 02: San Diego Chargers head coach Norv Turner yells at line judge Mike Spanier in the first half during the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Qualcomm Stadium on December 2, 2012 in San Diego, California. The Bengals defeated the Chargers 20-13. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Alan Robinson
Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, 11:04 p.m.
 

Wanted: General manager, coach and starting offensive line for once-prominent NFL franchise. Linemen must be available to play Sunday in Pittsburgh. Others start shortly after season ends. All must be skilled in rebuilding, capable of working with oft-erratic quarterback Philip Rivers and equipped to beat Oakland Raiders twice a season.

The San Diego Chargers didn't resort to taking out want ads before traveling to play the Steelers at Heinz Field, but it was close.

A perennial contender not long ago, they were forced to pick up three offensive linemen virtually off the street to supplement an injury-destroyed starting unit. One of them, Reggie Wells, a former South Park High player, was doing laundry in his parents' house near the Pittsburgh airport when the Chargers called.

That came before word leaked that coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith were out when the season ends.

Not exactly the best way to prepare to fly cross country to play an internal clock-disrupting early afternoon game in a city where they are 0-14 during the regular season, right?

“You're playing a football team, not the time zone or the weather,” Rivers said.

Still, the Steelers (7-5) hope they're catching the Chargers (4-8) — losers of seven of eight — at the right time, or just when everything is going wrong for San Diego.

They're getting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger back from a three-game layoff with rib and shoulder-related injuries. Their receiving corps is close to being fully healthy now that Antonio Brown is back. The defense shut down the Ravens late in the game last Sunday, enabling Shaun Suisham to kick a last-play field goal that decided their biggest win this season.

They don't want to let those positive factors slip away, not when they need a strong stretch drive to secure the playoff spot they currently hold, if only tentatively. And certainly not against a Chargers team that hasn't beaten anybody except the Chiefs since Sept. 16.

“Every week is going to be a key to the journey,” Brown said. “Every game from here on out is going to be exciting and interesting and will give us opportunity to make the playoffs.”

Roethlisberger, who watched the Steelers go 1-2 without him, can't afford to be rusty against a No. 9-ranked Chargers defense that is playing better than its won-lost record indicates.

San Diego's problem is an offense that has been limited to 13 or fewer points three times in the past six games. Rivers is the AFC's most-sacked quarterback, and it won't help that three-fifths of the line that started a 20-13 loss to Cincinnati last week is injured and out.

“I'm sure their coaches will do a good job of putting together a simplistic plan to make it easy on those guys so they can just go out and play as much as they can without thinking,” Steelers tight end Heath Miller said. “The quarterback is one of the best.”

As a team, the Chargers are one of the NFL's worst. And the Steelers understand they must take advantage of it.

“The sense of urgency is changing,” receiver Mike Wallace said. “This whole time it's been a pack race. Now that we're at the end, we've got to separate ourselves as one of better teams, one of the best teams in league.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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