The big story leading into this game was the starting quarterback. Mason Rudolph was in concussion protocol but did start limited practices. By the end of the week, it was apparent that Devlin “Duck” Hodges would be the Pittsburgh Steelers starting quarterback.
The injury report was long, but Steve Nelson was a late scratch and did not travel with the team. That meant Artie Burns would start in his place. Most of Steelers Nation wished him the best while the vocal minority on social media that sound larger than they are immediately trashed him. The defensive passing scheme was important as the Steelers were facing the greatest quarterback never to play in a Super Bowl in Philip Rivers.
The Steelers Forecast
Steelers Depot gives us specific things we should look for during the game. I always read these articles prior to kickoff:
Matthew Marczi described what we should watch for in the game against the Los Angeles Chargers. He started off with the quarterback play and whether the Duck could establish a passing game early to open up the running game. For this to happen, the offensive line would have to protect the Duck from people like Joey Bosa. With Mike Pouncey out, the obvious thing to watch was whether the Steelers defensive line & outside linebackers could take advantage of a makeshift interior line. Some players from both teams Matt directed our attention to included Donte Moncrief, Keenan Allen & Artie Burns. Finally, Matt wanted us to keep our eye on the officiating which proved decisive the last time these two teams met.
Tom Mead identified the matchups to watch this week. Tom focused our attention on Keith Butler’s defensive scheme versus Keenan Allen. He discussed assorted options the defense could take to neutralize Allen and provided some keys to limit his production. Keenan Allen ended up with two catches for 33 yards, so something worked.
Alex Kozora forecast what would happen in his Steelers versus Chargers prediction. Alex predicted a Steelers win if Duck Hodges was given the freedom to pass downfield, Keith Butler’s defensive scheme managed the Charger’s empty sets, & cornerback/return specialist Desmond King was held in check. Conversely, the Steelers would lose if the Duck could not connect with his receivers, the defense could not defend the middle of the field, & big-framed WR Mike Williams takes over and has a stat line like 8 receptions for 90 yards and 2 touchdowns (his stat line ended up 5 for 72 yards with no TD’s). Alex foresaw a 23-20 Steelers win.
Dave Bryan identified the seven keys to a Steelers victory. First, limit penalties. Against Baltimore 11 penalties for 76 yards. Last night, just six for 45 yards. Next was for Hodges to avoid throwing any wounded ducks. He did throw one interception but by that time the game was well in hand. Third, the Steelers must take advantage of the Chargers makeshift offensive line. The Steelers only sacked Rivers once but he had happy feet early in the game which may have helped lead to two interceptions. Then, Dave wanted the Steelers to run left. Melvin Ingram ended up not playing so that helped. I haven’t seen the play charts yet, but the Steelers did rush 36 times for 124 yards. The 5th key was for the offense to improve on their 28.3% third down conversion rate. Early in the game they were 5 of 6 and ended up 8/13 on third down conversions. Huge improvement. The 6th key was for the defense to neutralize Keenan Allen and force Rivers to throw to Mike Williams or other receivers. Mission accomplished. Finally, Dave said the Steelers need an “unexpected score” by the defense or special teams. I’d say Devin Bush returning a fumble recovery for the game’s first score meets that criteria.
You can compare these pregame guides to Alex Kozora’s analysis of the game’s winners and losers which came out within minutes of the final whistle. How does his analysis compare with your view of the game?
The offense had only four possessions in the first half. The first was a three and out. Devlin Hodges opened play with a deep pass attempt to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Randy Fichtner was going to let the Duck throw the ball. The Steelers started their second possession on the Chargers 40-yard line following an interception. This was the James Conner drive. The offense got to the 12-yard line following three Conner runs and three Conner pass receptions. Conner then capped the drive by running in the final 12 yards for a touchdown. The Steelers next drive was a masterpiece. Starting from their own 14-yard line, the offense had 14 plays and ate over 9 minutes from the clock – over half the 2nd quarter. Benny Snell entered the game and had some punishing runs. There were five Steeler first downs in this drive alone. Duck Hodges threw his first touchdown pass to James Conner who forced a would-be tackler to miss and waltzed into the end zone.
The final possession was one play for one yard to kill the last 32 seconds of the half with the Steelers up 21-0.
The Steeler offense received the kickoff to open the second half. The opening drive was marred by five penalties with the Chargers tempers wearing thin. The Steelers got all the way to the Chargers 2-yard line when Maurkice Pouncey had one of several bad snaps. My understanding is that he was busy talking smack and the duck called for the snap earlier than he was expecting. The key play of the drive came on a 3rd & 10. Hodges completed a 14-yard pass to Benny Snell, but JuJu was called for offensive holding. So instead of a first down, the Steelers had a 3rd & 6. The Chargers were starting to anticipate Hodge’s snap counts and Joey Bosa was caught offsides which Benny Snell then converted the 3rd & 1 into a first down with a 4-yard run. The Steelers only got a field goal, but they did eat up 6:48 of play.
The next four drives were disappointing.
The Steelers offense expended all of their ammunition earlier. Three punts and an interception gave the Chargers an opportunity to make this a close game. The second drive did have Donte Moncrief catching an 11-yard pass for a first down. But then the referees caught too many Steelers on the field for a dumb 5-yard penalty. Conner gained 12 of 13 yards needed for a first down forcing a punt. Chargers get a field goal to break the shutout. Hodges truncated the next Steelers drive with his longest pass of the night. On 1st & 10 from midfield, the duck threw the ball 28 yards intending to target Johnny Holton, it was intercepted instead. The Chargers respond with a touchdown. The next Steelers drive started with three straight Benny Snell runs. The first was for 20 yards. The next two netted three. On 3rd & 7, Ryan Switzer caught Hodges pass for a two-yard loss forcing another punt. The Chargers responded with a touchdown.
The penultimate Steelers possession consisted of two Snell runs and a Hodges scramble that resulted in a 4th & 1. However, it did force the Chargers to use all three of their time outs. The Steelers punt, intercept Rivers and then the Duck takes a final snap to end the game in the duck, or victory formation.
The Steelers defense played like it was 1976 in the first half. Five Chargers drives. One ends with a punt. Then a fumble that Devin Bush returns to score the first points of the game. Another drive ended by a Devin Bush Interception. Fourth drive and the Chargers running game goes nowhere forcing another punt. The Chargers finally put together a sustained drive near the end of the 2nd quarter. The 73 yards gained in that drive exceeded the total yardage of the Chargers first 4 drives. The Steelers pass rush wasn’t sacking Rivers, but he was dancing an Irish jig on a lot of his throws. Big Dan McCullers burst through the line untouched – how is that possible? – forcing Rivers to intentionally ground the ball or be ground into dust. The field goal clanked off the upright and the Steelers defense had shut the Chargers out in the first half. Stephon Tuitt had been dominating but injured his pectoral muscle early in the first quarter and did not return to the game. A dominant performance by the defense.
The defense started and ended the 2nd half very well. The Chargers were able to score on the middle three drives which made this a one score game. The key play in the first drive came on 3rd & 2 when TJ Watt defended a pass intended for Melvin Gordon forcing a punt. Other than the opening drive which ate time & added 3 points, the Steelers offense didn’t really help. They could not sustain drives and turned over the ball once. The Chargers second drive finally got them on the scoreboard early in the 4th quarter. The Chargers reached the 16-yard line but TJ Watt sacked Rivers. Joe Haden defended a Rivers pass on 3rd & 14 and the Steelers declined a holding penalty. Chargers score a field goal to make it 24-3. Devin Bush had to leave the game to get his ankle taped up. During his absence, the Chargers receivers started to get wide open. Not sure if this was a coincidence or a causal factor. Rivers completed 6 of 10 passes. An eleventh play was negated by an Artie Burns penalty for illegal use of hands. Hunter Henry scores and it is 24-10.
The next Chargers drive were all passes too. Rivers completed six of eight of them. Officials negated one play by calling Dan McCullers for illegal use of hands. Bush was back in the game by this point. Cam Sutton was in for Joe Haden who was hurt. The defense failed to hold on two 3rd down plays. Hunter Henry scores again to make it 24-17. The only positive in those three scoring drives was there were only two explosive plays, one for 21 yards the other for 32 which required the Chargers to snap the ball 32 times and expend 10 minutes off the clock. The Chargers did get the ball back with 1:03 left but no time outs.
Cam Sutton effectively ended the game by intercepting Rivers pass intended for Mike Williams. Not a great half but the defense came up with enough plays to preserve the win.
Special teams play can be broken down into six phases: Kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, punt returns, field goals & blocking field goals (I’m not counting extra point plays).
Chris Boswell converted his only field goal attempt. Chase McLaughlin was 1/2. I’m not sure if the Steelers helped cause the first miss that hit the upright. Will have to check out the replay.
Jordan Berry punted 4 times averaging 46.3 yards per punt. Ty Long punted 3 times to average 42.7 yards a punt. 1 of Long’s 3 punts resulted in the Steelers starting behind the 20. Although Berry’s first punt was fair caught at the Charger 21-yard line, it was a 59-yard punt that flipped the field position early in the game. His second punt was fair caught at the 9-yard line. The 3rd was returned 7 yards but had the Chargers starting at their own 21. His last punt was only 35 yards, but Johnny Holton downed it at the 1-yard line forcing Rivers to pass from his own end zone.
The Steelers still appear weak on kickoffs and kickoff returns. McLaughlin kicked off 4 times. Twice the Steelers were content to take touchbacks. Then the Chargers tried a short kick that Ryan Switzer fielded at the 10-yard line. He could only gain 9 yards before being brought down forcing the Steelers to start at their 19-yard line. The Chargers attempted an onside kick near the end of the game. Cam Sutton extended himself and came down with the ball. Excellent job! Meanwhile, Chris Boswell kicked off five times. The Chargers returned 4 of the 5 kicks. The Chargers were penalized once on one kick putting them back on their 14-yard line after a 19-yard return. Their other returns had then starting at the 25, 24 & then the 30 after a 29-yard return. On the positive side, I don’t believe the Steeler were penalized on any of the kicking plays.
Still looking for that long Steelers punt or kick return. Other teams are managing to do it. Come on Danny Smith, make it happen.
Your Hot Takes During the Game
First Half Reader Comments
Steelers Depot readers commented 983 times on the game’s first half Live Update and Discussion Thread. Just below the standard but as a respondent pointed out, there is no reason to comment when the Steelers are playing well.
Troy Toe Tap had the “best” comment with, “ALUALU HAVING A NICE Game.” The 6 Ring Circus replied, “That was a great extension. Who knew we’d have so many injuries.”
Jsteeler also had a much-liked comment with, “2018 Steelers turnovers = 15. 2019 in 5 games 13. Wow.”
Steeldog22 noted that “Bush the only one with the sense to pick it up.” Glad he did!
Nelsonator762 thinks someone has to go on a diet. “Put in Finney I’m tired of Foster. Too fat to move.”
Steely McBeam liked Conner’s ball protection. “Connor is using both hands to wrap the ball up. I think he learned.”
After a dominant first half, let’s see how Steelers Depot respondents liked the second half.
Second Half Reader Comments
A strong showing of 1306 comments in the 2nd half live discussion. But you know what that means.
The Intense Camel had the most liked comment of the half: “Trade Artie for a working injury cart.” He was awarded a game ball, so apparently the Steelers organization does not agree. Let’s see what the tape shows.
Ddrews 1914 gave credit to the officiating: “For the sake of the game that was a Good reversal. Good Job refs.” Greg Payne reluctantly agreed, “Aww, okay, a grudging upvote.”
Don2727 echoed previous comments about Tyson Alualu in the first half: “Gotta say, Alualu is having the game of his life! Where has he been?”
Kyle Colbert was upset with one of the missed interceptions: “Edmunds gotta pick that” Chris92021 saw the defense getting greedy: “Bush trying to get knockout blows instead of wrapping up. Come on, rookie!!”
Meanwhile, Matt liked the Duck’s situational awareness following a bad snap: “Some qbs would have fallen on it. I like this guy’s head and thinking.” While Jeff Papiernik identified the culprit: “Losers: Pouncey’s snaps.”
Finally, many would agree with Mr. KnowItAll who stated, “GIVE CAM SUTTON GAMEBALL!!” After recovering the onside kick by extending himself and then intercepting Rivers in the final drive who disagrees?
We got us a convoy. Most pundits picked the Chargers to win this game. Most seeing Philip Rivers stacked up against the pride of Samford University in his first NFL start. Tony Dungy being one of the few who picked the Steelers. Perhaps recalling his time with the Pittsburgh when he came in as an emergency quarterback back in 1977. But this was not a throwing contest. Twenty other players were on the field.
The defense played like an all-time great defense in the first half giving the Steelers a lead early in the game. The offense mixed up runs with short high percentage passes to move the ball. A nine-minute drive is excellent. The Steelers flirted with disaster in the 2nd half. The offense could not move the ball after the opening drive. The defense hampered by injuries could not stop the Chargers passing attack. However, they prevented quick scoring plays which put the clock in the Steelers favor after building a 24-0 lead. Cam Sutton subbing in for an injured Joe Haden made two huge plays – one the onside kick recovery then the final interception. James Conner ran with determination as did Benny Snell. This helped improve the third down conversion rate which was crucial. Tyson Alualu played a lot and very effectively after Stephon Tuitt was injured.
The bye is coming at the right time. The Steelers had 6 players on the inactive list due to injuries. Plus, they added injuries to Tuitt, Haden, Watt & Conner. Bush dinged his ankle too.
Mason Rudolph likely will be the starter versus the Miami Dolphins on a Monday night but Devlin “Duck” Hodges” proved he can be effective on an NFL field. I must say the coaching staff put together good game plans on both sides of the ball. Kudos to Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler and Randy Fichtner for planning to the player’s strengths and shielding their weaknesses. Here we go!