Z-Factor is a Steel City Underground feature that selects one Pittsburgh Steelers player that is expected to be critical or key to the team's success in the upcoming game as selected by SCU writer Zac Celedonia and adds pre-game commentary and analysis that is sometimes tongue-in-cheek.
The skies are turning black. Smiles and friendly conversations are endangered. All hope is lost. Well, at least that was the mood around Pittsburgh after the Steelers lost for the first time after they'd ripped off a six-game win streak over the past seven weeks of the 2018 NFL season. Not all fans gravitate towards the doom and gloom mindset, but for those who do, the season's over.
For those of us who chose to actually watch all the games and enjoy the full NFL season, we have primetime football to discuss as the 8-3 Los Angeles Chargers travel to Heinz Field on Sunday night.
Stop me if you've heard this before, but the Chargers are one of the hottest teams in football right now. Us seasoned fans have seen this act before, many times. Much like their inter-division foe, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Chargers have been infamous for being a good team during the regular season and then doing diddly-squat come playoff time since either team became relevant. This may be the best Chargers team, talent-wise, we have seen to date since franchise quarterback Philip Rivers was drafted, however.
Star running back Melvin Gordon may be out with injury but the Chargers have the weapons to pick up the slack. Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, and Travis Benjamin are all known threats to stretch the field or even score a touchdown on any down. You still have fifty-four-year-old Antonio Gates running around out there (who we all know Rivers could throw to blindfolded by now).
And the most worrisome threat of all could be Gordon's replacement, Austin Ekeler, who has shown the ability to play a role similar to Dion Lewis/Christian McCaffrey (whom the Steelers struggled with in containment), rushing and catching passes out of the backfield, causing mismatches with the defense.
The Steelers are going to need a dynamic player to step up his efforts to help slow down all these pieces on the Chargers offense.
Free safety Sean Davis is having his best NFL season yet, and I think he puts an exclamation point on it this Sunday night.
Davis has had an interesting career trajectory, to put it in a positive perspective. He flashed as a rookie in 2016, winning the Steelers' Joe Greene Award (given to the best rookie performer on the team). The next season looked good on paper for Davis as he led the team in tackles with 90, and racked up three interceptions. He was the first defensive back to lead the team in tackles since Ryan Clark in 2011. But tackling and communication in the secondary in 2017 left much to be desired. Missed tackles and miscommunication lead to big plays. And Davis was caught up in the mess with everyone else.
The Steelers struggled to find a true position for the versatile defensive back ever since they drafted Davis. How could we forget when they tried him at corner? When moved to strong safety, he was serviceable.
This year, Davis has seemingly erased those issues - the lack of tackling and miscues in communication with his teammates - thus far. In fact, Davis plays a crucial role now, as he has taken Mike Mitchell's place as the man who gets the other defensive backs in the right position and makes the calls (like the quarterback of the Steelers' secondary). He's a heavy hitter in the right position on the field.
I think the third-year pro has finally found a home this year at free safety, allowing him to use all of his athleticism and range. And the move may have saved his career from going to serviceable to stud. Davis will be the Steelers' Z-Factor this weekend, helping the Steelers slow and limit the Chargers playmakers.