ReFo: Chargers @ Steelers, Week 14
In a week that could have been disastrous, the San Diego Chargers played one of their best games of the season after learning that head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith had just entered lame-duck status. They went into Pittsburgh and defeated the Steelers handily, 34-24.
For Pittsburgh, this was not what they had in mind for the return of starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. They were coming off an emotional win against division rival Baltimore, and with the defense playing at a high level, it appeared that Roethlisberger’s return would set them up for a late-season run. They’ll now set their sights on the Cincinnati Bengals as the two teams battle for a wild card spot in the AFC.
At 5-8, the Chargers do not have postseason aspirations, but if the defense continues to play as it did on Sunday, the new regime will have a good foundation on which to build the franchise. The pass rush was in Roethlisberger’s face all game and they helped force two key turnovers that led to victory on Sunday.
Let’s take a look at the other key performances in the game.
San Diego – Three Performances of Note
Pass Rush Sets the Tone
On a day when 12 different Chargers recorded at least one pressure, it’s difficult to single out the most dominating performance. The two players who stood out the most, however, were defensive tackle Cam Thomas (+5.9) and defensive end Corey Liuget (+3.0). Thomas had his best day as a pro as he picked up five QB hurries and a QB hit on his 21 pass rushes, and he added two stops on only five run snaps. On Roethlisberger’s lone interception of the day, he bull rushed left guard Maurkice Pouncey into the quarterback and, even though Thomas was unable to pick up the sack, he forced Roethlisberger to re-set in the pocket before throwing blindly into coverage for the turnover.
Liuget continued his top notch play as he recorded a sack, hit, and four hurries on his 38 pass rushes. He’s been one of the bright spots in a disappointing Chargers season, as the former first-round pick has really bounced back after a sub-par rookie season. He also batted two passes on his way to a +2.3 pass rush grade.
Weddle Makes His Case
There’s a battle brewing at the safety position in the AFC. Eric Weddle has been challenged at the top this season by Miami Dolphins FS Reshad Jones and Buffalo Bills FS Jairus Byrd. Weddle’s all-around game was on display Sunday as he graded at +4.5. He’s one of the few safeties in the league who can be a force as an extra defender in the running game while not neglecting his pass coverage responsibilities. Here, he picked up three stops, while not allowing a catch on his two targets in the passing game. One of the incompletions was a jarring hit to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery that knocked the ball loose on a post route. Weddle even threw in a first-down run on a fake punt as he made plays all over the field.
Makeshift Offensive Line
No quarterback has more intentional throwaways than Phillip Rivers, and the 20 he’s accumulated the past three games would rank fourth in the league for the entire season. Perhaps it’s the uncertainty up front that has him extra cautious in the pocket, but the makeshift offensive line provided him some good protection in this game. They surrendered only seven total pressures on 45 passing plays, despite left tackle Kevin Haslam and right tackle Reggie Wells making their first starts of the season. Both guards, Rex Hadnot and Louis Vasquez, were perfect in pass protection grading at +1.8 on the day. It was a surprising day for the 31st best offensive line in Pass Blocking Efficiency.
Though they pass protected well, the line struggled in the running game as San Diego running backs picked up only 87 yards on 32 carries (2.7 yards/carry). Wells was particularly poor at -3.9 as he was pushed around by Steelers DE Ziggy Hood. Only center Nick Hardwick carried a positive grade in the running game as it was an uneven day for the offensive line.
Pittsburgh – Three Performances of Note
Third Down Woes
The Chargers offense was by no means dominant in this game, but they converted 12 of 22 third downs as the Steelers were just unable to get off the field at key points. The main culprits for Pittsburgh were cornerbacks Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown, who respectively graded at -3.2 and -4.1 in coverage. The pair combined to give up 12 of 13 passes their way for 130 yards, 10 of which went for either first downs or a touchdown. Brown had trouble with Chargers WR Danario Alexander, and he bit on his hitch-and-go that went for a 39-yard touchdown with 3:48 to go in the second quarter. Allen struggled with slot WR Michael Spurlock who got the best of him for three third-down conversions on the day. Overall, it was not a poor effort for the Pittsburgh defense, but they certainly appeared to miss starting CB Ike Taylor.
Left Guard Issues
It was not a good day for Pittsburgh left guards, as starter Willie Colon went down after only 24 snaps and center Pouncey was forced to move into his spot. Despite the early exit, Colon had an eventful day that included giving up a hit, hurry and committing a penalty. He graded at just -3.4 for the day. Pouncey didn’t fare much better as he surrendered a sack, hit and three hurries on his 51 pass block attempts between both positions. He also added a low shotgun snap, early in the game, that nearly got Roethlisberger crushed by multiple Chargers defenders.
Strong on the Inside
Coming off his worst game since we started grading in 2008, linebacker Lawrence Timmons bounced back nicely by making plays all over the field. He graded at +2.5 for the game, while fellow inside linebacker Larry Foote graded at +3.3. Seven of Timmons’ 11 tackles were stops and Foote added three of his own. The pair led the charge in shutting down the San Diego running game. Foote also did a nice job as part of Pittsburgh blitz packages. He knocked Rivers down twice, while picking up another hurry on his 16 blitzes.
– The Chargers pressured Roethlisberger on half of his 48 drop-backs, but they blitzed only 11 times.
-Pittsburgh CB Keenan Lewis allowed 3 of 9 passes to be completed his way for only 10 yards, though he did surrender a touchdown.
-Chargers LB Bront Bird played his first 19 snaps of the season and picked up four tackles and an interception.
PFF Game Ball
Despite playing only 26 snaps, Cam Thomas made the most of them picking up five pressures and two stops. It was his bull rush that led to Roethlisberger’s interception and crushed any chance the Steelers had of coming back in the game.
Follow Steve on Twitter: @PFF_Steve