The Steelers are desperate for a win tonight against the Los Angeles Chargers, especially in light of another Ravens win, bringing them to 4-2 on the season. Pittsburgh would be happy to be 2-4, tied with the Browns.
The story of the game, of course, is Devlin Hodges making his first career start. The 6’1″ undrafted rookie out of an FCS school, Hodges has not once appeared to be in over his head physically or mentally through the process since last week’s game.
There are no surprises for the inactive list, which is made up almost entirely of injured players. They are Mason Rudolph, Jaylen Samuels, James Washington, Roosevelt Nix, Mark Barron, and Steven Nelson. Joining them is healthy scratch rookie defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs.
The Steelers won the coin toss and deferred, forcing a punt after just two minutes. Bud Dupree and Stephon Tuitt put a hit on Philip Rivers on the third-and-nine play that had him hobbling off the field.
Taking over at the 21, Hodges’ first snap in his first start was a deep pass that he threw behind JuJu Smith-Schuster, incomplete. James Conner was dropped for a loss on second down. On third and 11, he threw short to Vance McDonald, complete but nowhere near a first down. Jordan Berry got off a good punt, fair caught at about the 20.
Off play action, Dupree and Tuitt got to Rivers again, forcing him to throw it into the dirt. Again the pressure forced an early throw, this a backward pass, incomplete. Devin Bush carefully scooped it up, his fourth fumble recovery in six games, and dove into the end zone. The Steelers are up 7-0, their 13th takeaway and the first defensive score.
Austin Ekeler was stuffed for no gain on the Chargers’ next snap, tackled by T.J. Watt. Melvin Gordon made a nice cut to pick up about seven, Bush on the tackle again. Now third and four, Rivers found Hunter Henry for his second catch, again for a first down. A big play to stave off a momentum purge. Now at the 44, Rivers had his pass batted at the line by Tyson Alualu, where it was intercepted by Bush, his second interception and sixth takeaway.
After a short run and completion to Conner, he got a second catch in a row for the conversion inside the 25-yard line. In 13 personnel, Conner got to the edge, but could only get two yards. He picked up another three yards up the middle to set up a third and four, their first play of the day in the red zone. Hodges once again found Conner, who broke a tackle but came up just short of the first down, I thought. The officials gave him a good spot, however, to convert.
At the 17, it was Conner again, who wouldn’t be stopped until he hit the end zone, McDonald throwing a key block, to put the Steelers up 14-0, with 14 points off of turnovers.
Stephon Tuitt suffered a pectoral injury and is questionable to return.
After a short gain on the ground on first down, Rivers found Keenan Allen for the first time for a first down. Another short gain from Gordon was met by a stuff for no gain on second down by Vince Williams to set up a third and long. A flat pass to Ekeler was held for little gain, forcing a punt.
Conner continued to pick up where he left off on the previous drive, getting 11 yards on first down from the 14. Now Diontae Johnson got a sweep run, picking up about seven yards on first down. Benny Snell was stuffed on second down for maybe one yard, setting up third and two. On the short-yardage snap, Conner got the ball out of the pistol and got the first.
He escaped one tackle in the backfield but still only got two yards. Hodges found Johnson for the first down, making a nice catch, near midfield. On third and four, Conner once again broke tackles, this time to convert. A great effort from the third-year back.
At the Chargers’ 42, Snell was able to find a hole for about seven out of 13 personnel, Zach Banner in. On second and three, from the same set, he found another gap for about six, getting toward field goal range. Hodges threw his first touchdown of his NFL career on third and eight, finding Conner in the right flat. He broke a tackle not far from the line of scrimmage and was able to just walk into the end zone, shaking Jatavis Brown. The Steelers now lead 21-0.
Anthony Chickillo very nearly had an interception two plays into the Chargers’ next drive in short range, but couldn’t coral it. Ekeler was dropped for a loss on second down by Alualu. Rivers did find Mike Williams just across the sticks on third and 13, however. It’s 21-0, but you still won’t want to give up those extra-long third downs.
At the 38, Ekeler again was tackled for maybe half a yard, Dupree chasing him down from behind. Bush was down injured after the next play, but he did get up and walk off under his own power. It appears to be an ankle injury.
Williams dropped a long pass on second and nine right after that, having beaten the coverage, the defense getting a break. Minkah Fitzpatrick was the closest defender. On third and nine, he did come back and make a nice snag to move the chains around midfield. Williams again, wide open, for 20 with Joe Haden on that side. The Steelers played a screen.
Now at the 29, Gordon was stopped after about two yards to hit the two-minute warning. On second and seven, Rivers threw the ball away after feeling the pressure from Daniel McCullers. Rivers was flagged for intentional grounding, however. That makes it third and 19 from the 38. He dumped it off to Gordon for about 13 yards, the Chargers electing to get points on the board. A field goal made it 21-3 in the final minute of the first half. Or it would have, had the ball not gone off the left upright. So Los Angeles is still scoreless.