Chargers' O-line root of loss to Steelers
There is obviously more than one reason the Chargers lost Monday night, but for the purposes of this article, let’s stick with the most glaring: the poor play along the offensive line.
First up, the Pittsburgh defensive line was far from “the Steel Curtain.” They have one Pro Bowl type player on the defense—Cameron Heyward (our sixth ranked interior lineman)—and a few other good ones, but that’s not enough to scare anyone with a reasonable front five.
Unfortunately, at the moment, that’s not something the Chargers have. They have a feast of moveable parts (due to injury and poor play), few of whom are playing to an acceptable standard.
The Chargers have excellent weapons across the board; but, if like last night, Philip Rivers doesn’t have the time to use them, they are simply expensive ornaments.
Let’s consider what’s gone wrong, and what the best case scenario in San Diego is moving forward.
When the season started, the Chargers had King Dunlap here. That’s a good enough option when he’s on the field (80.6 season grade), but he’s still in the concussion protocol. For the second straight week, Chris Hairston had to play, and he’s been a penalty machine to date (five), as well as a below-average run and pass blocker. Things changed again when he was forced to leave after 17 snaps, forcing the one good player available, Joe Barksdale, to come across from right tackle.
The Chargers spent big in free agency to sign one of the premier players available, Orlando Franklin, from division-rival Denver. He was having significant issues with pass protection (not completely surprising for a player moving to a new team) before he went out with ankle problems. This brought un-drafted free agent Kenny Wiggins to the role, and he has had real problems as a run blocker.
A lot went pear-shaped when new starter Chris Watt crashed and burned in the first three games. When he was injured early in Week 3, he was ranked 30th at the position, although he was improving slightly. Trevor Robinson, an ex-Bengal for a reason, took over, and has struggled even more than he had previously in Cincinnati. Two sacks and seven hurries are a lot for a center in 210 snaps, but couple that with a poor run blocking grade, and this position has been (and remains) a huge issue.
When you draft an offensive lineman 11th overall, as the Chargers did with D.J. Fluker, you need him to be a superstar at a key position (tackle or center), not a borderline starter at guard. So far, his grade of 66.3 sees him as our 39th ranked guard, which is a long way short of fair return. As you may expect for such a mountain of a man, his run blocking is in better shape than his pass protection, but when even that is barely average, it shows the depth of the problem.
As mentioned above, Joe Barksdale is a good—and somewhat underrated—player. He’s performed well in earlier seasons in St. Louis before a bad late-season slump in 2014 saw him available to the Chargers. His 80.3 overall grade is only a hair behind Dunlap, and if they get both playing together, it does give them a solid set of bookends.
If everyone is healthy and Orlando Franklin finds his feet, this could turn into a better-than-average unit. They have two good tackles, a high quality left guard in Franklin, and an average (although hugely overvalued) one in Fluker. The major problem is at center. Neither Watt nor Robinson seem to be the answer, and the play of J.D. Walton in New York suggests he’s not it either.
Unless something dramatically changes soon, expect the Chargers to address the position with vigor in the postseason.