Winners and losers from the Pittsburgh Steelers 41-37 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers Sunday night.
Diontae Johnson: Johnson was definitely a winner tonight, making a couple of A+ grabs. A fade down the right sideline he seemingly caught through the defender topped by his 18-yard touchdown, a beautiful sluggo to the corner, tracking the ball and getting a foot and a knee inbounds. Johnson has had a strong season and been the team’s best and most consistent receiver. He went over 100 yards for just the second time this season.
Alex Highsmith: The pass rush tonight was predictably lackluster, but Highsmith came on strong with 1.5 sacks tonight, including a great spin move sack late in the game. He also had at least one good run stuff as well, and compared to the rest of the depleted EDGE rushers, Highsmith was impressive.
Miles Killebrew: Killebrew gave the Steelers signs of life in the fourth quarter with his second punt block of the season after notching his first in Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills. The ball unfortunately spun out of bounds, but the Steelers scored on their drive (though it took a lot of effort). Great scheme by Danny Smith and execution by Killebrew to confused the line and upback.
Ben Roethlisberger: Roethlisberger did badly underthrow a should-be touchdown to Chase Claypool on a drive where the Steelers turned the ball over on downs. But beyond that, Roethlisberger did play well, especially considering he didn’t practice at all this week. On a day where the Steelers did little running the ball, he moved the offense time and time again. His TD to Johnson was one of his most accurate throws of the year. Crucially, he didn’t turn the ball over, something this team could ill-afford considering the state of their defense. I’ve been critical of Roethlisberger this year, but tonight was one of his better performances.
Cam Heyward: No Minkah. No Haden. No Watt. No…anybody. Except for Cam Heyward. And often tonight, a very angry Cam Heyward. He put the team on his back when they needed a stop, batting his seventh pass of the season late in the fourth quarter, leading to Cam Sutton’s INT and Pat Freiermuth’s game-trying touchdown. That will be #1 on the highlight reel, but his best play was tracking Justin Herbert downfield on a 36-yard, third-down run. The Chargers still found the end zone, but it shows the heart, effort, and the leader he is (though the cheap shot on Herbert after the fact was uncalled for). Still, Heyward willed this defense in those moments on a night where they gave up 41 points.
Defense (The First Three Quarters): Just putting a big black and gold blanket over this unit tonight. And it’s hard to blame them. Facing an offense full of weapons, the Steelers’ group was something resembling a preseason squad, not a unit ready for Sunday Night Football. They simply couldn’t get a stop, especially on third down. No pass rush, no run defense, rarely contesting any throws downfield. Tackling was better but not good enough, highlighted on Austin Ekeler’s second receiving score. A poor showing across the board, allowing 41 points in all and ended by Mike Williams’ long 53-yard TD to win the game.
Defensive Coaching Staff (The First Three Quarters): No doubt the coaching staff, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler in particular, were in a tough spot tonight. But Tomlin has said in the past coaches earn their money by overcoming adversity in these situations where they’re outmanned. That’s when scheme really becomes important. Expecting this defense to be great or even good tonight was foolish, but this group was as bad as it gets, allowing three touchdowns and two field goals on the Chargers’ first five drives before finally forcing their first punt.
Run Game: Pittsburgh came into this game facing the 32nd-ranked run defense. And their run game was extremely quiet, slogging along to 3.5 yards per carry. They finished at 3.1. Losing Najee Harris didn’t help, but the run game did little with him in the game. Perhaps some technically successful runs, but nothing exciting and below expectations overall. Disappointing.
QB Contain: Really bad Sunday night, even in a game where Pittsburgh sent more pressure and on paper, should’ve been able to contain better. Justin Herbert’s 93 rushing yards tonight came on QB scrambles, not designed runs, and he routinely beat the Steelers with his legs on third down facing a defense that was consistently in man coverage with its back to the football.
Tre Norwood: Norwood had big shoes to fill in for Minkah Fitzpatrick, and for most of tonight, he seemed to play reasonably well. Nothing egregious…until Mike Williams’ 53-yard TD. We’ll have to look at it again but it sure seemed like Norwood had deep 1/2 responsibility on the play but bit underneath, giving Williams space down the left sideline. That one hurt. A lot. Miscommunication was one of the top things you worry about in a situation like this and it cost them late.