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Chargers welcome back TE Gates, seek swagger

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SAN DIEGO, Calif. — The San Diego Chargers are hailing that the gang’s all here — just in time for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Chargers ditched their two-game losing streak and look to stay undefeated at home when they welcome a national TV audience as a stage for the return of their star tight end.

All-Pro Antonio Gates returns after serving a four-game suspension, running afoul of the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

“It’s great getting him back,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “He’s fired up to be back.

“He felt left out those four weeks and hated he couldn’t help and all those things but he’ll be back in there rolling on Monday.”

The Chargers feel rejuvenated as well. They climbed from their rut in thrilling fashion by beating the Cleveland Browns on Sunday with no time on the clock, both literally and figuratively. A loss against the Browns might have indicated that time ran out for the Chargers this season.

But going against the Steelers will be more of a challenge than going against the Browns. And when considering the Chargers’ wins have come at the expense of the winless Lions and the 1-3 Browns, the Chargers are still seeking this season’s signature win.

If this young team can build on Sunday’s triumph with a great outing Monday night, that would mean something now and also down the road to many of these inexperienced players.

But the Steelers offer skill personnel in the backfield and wideout that will test a Chargers’ defense, especially against the run.

The Chargers feel, they survived a rash of injuries — the front line at the forefront — and played without the dynamic Gates. All that said, they arrived at the quarter pole with a 2-2 record.

Now guys are getting healthy. Now here comes Gates.

“It looked like the old Antonio Gates running around out there,” coach Mike McCoy said after Wednesday’s practice. “You can’t replace Antonio Gates. He’s one of the best of all time.”

Monday will be the time for the Chargers to prove they’re more than a .500 club. A win would not only put them above the break-even mark, but doing it against the Steelers would inject a big dose of confidence.

In the NFL, that is a legal performance enhancing drug.

NOTES: G Orlando Franklin (ankle), CB Jason Verrett (foot), LT King Dunlap (concussion), RG D.J. Fluker (ankle) and CB Craig Mager (hamstring) were among those who didn’t practice Wednesday.

SERIES HISTORY: 29th regular-season meeting. The Steelers lead the series, 21-7. The Chargers won the last game in San Diego in 2006 (23-13) and the last game in Pittsburgh in 2012 (32-24). But the Chargers still have much work to do to even this series. Of course the biggest win for the Chargers came in the only time they defeated the Steelers in three playoff games. The visiting Chargers prevailed in the 2004 AFC Championship Game, despite being nearly a 10-point underdog. The win sent the Chargers to their only Super Bowl.

GAME PLAN

–When foisting the NFL passing yardage leader against a suspect defense, Philip Rivers should just play like Philip Rivers. That’s how the Chargers could attack the Steelers, even if Rivers is playing behind a hobbled offensive line. That line will be tested by the Steelers’ front, which has 14 stacks, fourth-highest in the NFL.

But Rivers proved again on Sunday he’s the master of making the most out of little, with dump-offs and intermediate routes that pay off. Especially with Antonio Gates returning, the Chargers will be on the attack.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Chargers secondary vs. the Steelers passing game.

On paper, the Chargers feel the cornerback tandem of Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett is the perfect mixture of experience and youth. But the pair can’t stay on the field. Flowers was concussed on Sunday one week after not playing with a bad knee. Verrett has missed the past two games with a hurt foot. They’re needed to track Antonio Brown and a new running mate, Martavias Bryant; he’s coming off a suspension. Look for backups Patrick Robinson — he has played well — and Stevie Williams to see plenty of action. A pass rush would help as well.

–Chargers run defense, which is allowing nearly 5 yards per carry vs. the Steelers running game.

It’s a trend, not an aberration: The Chargers have trouble stopping the run. The Steelers will present Le’Veon Bell, who has fresh legs and the power, too. Look for the Chargers, ranked 29th in rushing yards allowed, to insert inside linebacker Denzel Perryman more into the base defense to slow Bell.


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