Chargers Shock Steelers In Sunday Night Thriller
With the prime-time lights glaring, the Los Angeles Chargers withstood a late rally to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers 41-37 on Sunday Night Football.
Although the game was decided by one score, Los Angeles dominated for much of the night. The Bolts turned in their most explosive offensive performance of the season, dismantling the Pittsburgh defense for 533 total yards. The Steelers only managed 300 yards of total offense themselves. If it weren’t for three opportunistic fourth quarter touchdowns from Pittsburgh, this game could have been an easy blowout win for the Chargers.
A big reason for LA’s success on Sunday must be attributed to the resurging play of quarterback Justin Herbert. The sophomore signal caller had been struggling a bit in recent weeks but quieted his doubters with a masterful showing. He completed 30 of his 41 attempts for a 73% completion percentage, his second-highest output of the season. Herbert burnt the Steelers secondary for 382 yards and three touchdowns including the game-winner to receiver Mike Williams.
Looking at those numbers its easy to see why Herbert is considered one of the most talented throwers of the football in the entire NFL. Interestingly enough, it was Herbert’s ability to run the ball that proved to be the difference maker. The Steelers defense showed a blatant disrespect for his athleticism and Herbert made them pay, showing the league that he’s a legit dual-threat quarterback.
When pressured and provided run lanes, Herbert gladly took what was in front of him. The Steelers pass rush tried their best to disrupt his pass timing, but in turn, allowed huge running lane which Herbert exploited. The former Oregon product finished with nine carries and a game-high 90 rushing yards. Who would have thought? In a game featuring two the NFL’s best running backs in Austin Ekeler and Najee Harris, Herbert finished as the game’s leading rusher. Historic Herbert becomes the first player in NFL history to toss for 350+ passing yards and rush for 90 yards in a single game.
With Herbert setting up the Steeler defense with light jab after light jab, it was Ekeler and his ability to find the endzone that served as the knockout blow. Ekeler had an amazing game as he danced around defenders in the open field and aggressively ran through feeble arm tackles. He rarely went down on first contact with his strength and balance on full display. The former undrafted free agent tallied 115 all-purpose yards and scored four touchdowns, two on the ground and two through the air.
The Chargers’ offense is at its best when its unpredictable. Having a dynamic playmaker like Ekeler makes accomplishing this much easier. Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi did a fantastic job in this game scheming plays for his best offensive weapons. Ekeler finished with 11 carries and seven targets in the passing game, a brilliant use of his skillset.
Lombardi’s creativity didn’t end with his use of Ekeler. Los Angeles used different formations and varying personnel groupings all night to keep Pittsburgh off balance and it worked extremely well. The Bolts even tried some trickery with a reverse to receiver Jalen Guyton and a jet sweep to return specialist Andre Roberts. Neither of those plays resulted in big gains but they show Lombardi’s willingness to mix things up. Overall, the Bolts offense was as unpredictable as ever with seven different Chargers earning at least one rush attempt and nine different Chargers garnering at least one target.
Entering the weekend, teams facing the Los Angeles defense have dialed up run plays on nearly 50 percent of their offensive snaps, and for good reason. The Bolts rank dead last in the league in rushing yards per game and yards per carry. With Los Angeles fielding the worst run defense in the NFL and playing without their best run defender in nose tackle Linval Joseph, the Chargers knew they would be in for a big day slowing down the Steelers run game.
In a collective effort the Bolts defense came together and held the run-heavy Pittsburgh offense to just 55 rushing yards. Harris, who missed much of the fourth quarter while being evaluated for a concussion, had one of his least productive outings of his rookie year. He was held to just 39 rushing yards on 12 carries and though he added two catches for 20 yards, he was mostly a non-factor.
A big reason for the Steelers lack of production on the ground had to do with the scoreboard. The Chargers were able to get off to a very hot start and establish a big lead early, something they have failed to do in recent weeks. With the Steelers playing catchup for most of the night, they were forced to pass the ball and abandon the run game out of fear that the deficit would grow too large to overcome.
Both teams managed to drive the ball into the redzone on their first two possessions of the night. The offenses put long, grueling drives together that chewed up clock and tired out the opposing defenses. Though both teams’ drives looked similar at the start, the way they finished had very different results.
The Steelers managed only three points on their first two trips to the redzone. Pittsburgh settled for a Chris Boswell field goal the first drive and turned the ball over on downs on the Los Angeles two-yard line their next time out.
The Bolts on the other hand had tremendous success to begin the ball game. Both of their opening drives went for more than 70 yards and resulted in two touchdowns and 14 points. The Chargers first score was the first opening drive touchdown surrendered by the Pittsburgh defense all season. Los Angeles actually came away with points in each of its first five possessions, holding onto a commanding 27-10 lead midway through the third quarter.
It’s good the Chargers had such a successful start to this game because they needed every point to fend off the scary fourth quarter comeback attempt from the Steelers. The momentum started to swing back into Pittsburgh’s favor after a three-and-out forced the Chargers to punt for the first time in the game. Safety Miles Killebrew came unblocked up the middle and blocked Ty Long’s punt. Killebrew almost returned it for six points but the ball spiraled out of bounds at the Los Angeles three-yard line. Harris finished the drive off with a one-yard touchdown run a few plays later.
The Bolts promptly responded with a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to put them back up by two scores but the Steelers kept fighting. Pittsburgh instantly responded with another touchdown themselves. The next drive, Herbert’s pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage before being intercepted by Cameron Sutton. A touchdown from Pat Freiermuth gave Pittsburgh fans hope once again, tying the score 34-34.
With the Chargers offense beginning to sputter and the Steelers surging back into contention, Head Coach Brandon Staley was forced into a tough decision. On the next possession, Staley elected to go for it on 4th-and-1 from his own 34-yard line. Ekeler carried the ball up the middle but was met by the entire Pittsburgh defense and dropped for no gain. The Chargers defense came up big and forced another Boswell field goal, but the Steelers allowed too much time on the clock.
With 2:09 left in regulation the Steelers dialed up a slot corner blitz. Herbert diagnosed the pressure perfectly and found his outlet in Williams along the left sideline. Both corners bit on the inside crossing route which left Williams in a footrace with the free safety. Williams was able to hurdle the weak tackle attempt and galloped into the endzone for the game winning score.
Though it was far from perfect, longtime Chargers fans know how important a win like this is. Lesser teams could have easily given up after that blocked punt. Chargers teams of the past would have found 15 different ways to lose that game but the 2021 Chargers are built different. No football game goes exactly as planned and for the teams that hope to make long playoff runs, you need a team that is resilient. That’s what the Bolts showed on Sunday night. They are a resilient bunch that will fight you every step of the way. With Staley and Herbert leading the way, as long as there is time on the clock the Chargers have a chance to win regardless of how the game is going.