SAN DIEGO — You'd never suspect it from his flamboyant approach to offense, but Don Coryell professes admiration for Chuck Noll's coaching methods.
"He's a no-nonsense kind of guy," Coryell said of the Pittsburgh Steelers coach. "Like Bud Grant, he doesn't make a lot of noise or try to promote himself. He just goes to work and coaches football, and he usually has a great defense and a solid offense."
This year is no exception, at least as far as the Steeler defense is concerned. It's not the same Steel Curtain that helped win all that Super Bowl jewelry, but it is still the best in the AFC against the pass and in total defense.
There isn't a whole lot at stake in tonight's nationally televised game. The Steelers still have an outside chance at the playoffs, and the Chargers still have an opportunity to earn Coryell another year at the helm.
It is, however, a pairing of a great passing team against a very stingy pass defense. The Chargers' Dan Fouts has been bothered by lower back pain, but he is expected to start, anyway.
"We're looking forward to seeing Dan," said the Steelers veteran defensive back, Donnie Shell, who has more interceptions than any active player. "It seems like we play the Chargers every year, and we know what they try to do.
"They have so many receivers, and all of them can give us problems. We'll be aggressive. I just wish we could sneak a 12th man on the field. Our emphasis will be to get as many people as we can around the ball."
Gee, Donnie, don't give away too many trade secrets.
It's certainly no secret the Chargers will have to be more protective of the ball in the first half than they've been in the past two games. Another three or four turnovers before halftime and the Chargers' dream of sweeping their final four games will be, like their playoff hopes, forgotten.
"We work hard on preparing our opening series and we're generally efficient at the start of a game," receivers coach Al Saunders said. "In the last two games, we've made too many mistakes, which put you in long down and distance situations and mean you have to go against nickel packages. We certainly need a concentrated effort early in this game."
Saunders said the key to Pittsburgh's defense, which has permitted an average of 169.5 yards per game, is involvement by the linebackers in pass coverages. "They're also very aggressive and do an outstanding job of breaking on the ball," he said. "They mix their coverages and do a good job of analyzing what their opponents do best."
One thing the Chargers need to return to is getting running back Gary Anderson integrated into the running and passing game. It's tougher for the defense to concentrate on Lionel James when Anderson is in the flow.
James is closing in on Terry Metcalf's NFL record for all-purpose yardage (2,462 yards). James needs to average 137 yards in the final three games to break the record. He has averaged 157.7 yards through 13 games.
A concern for the Chargers is the battered condition of the offensive line. Two players, Sam Claphan and Gary Kolwaski, were lost for the year with knee injuries last week. The reshuffled line finds Dennis McKnight, a guard, at right tackle, with Jim Leonard starting at right guard.
"Our line has done a pretty good job all year," McKnight said. "When we get any criticism, we're like porcupines. We put up our quills."
The Chargers hope their defense can put together a decent imitation of last week's effort against Buffalo. The Chargers had four interceptions and four sacks. Their objective tonight is to limit the Steelers' superlative receiving duo of John Stallworth and Louis Lipps.
When the Steelers get close, they have Gary Anderson, who has kicked 15 straight field goals.
The Steelers, who have lost two straight games, must win their final three, and hope Cleveland obliges by losing two out of three, to have a shot at the playoffs.