Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said his team needs to improve its running game and run defense, and suggested the earlier use of a no-huddle offense after it was shut out in the first half for the second consecutive game in a 24-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday evening.
“We have to do a better job running the football and we have to stop the other team from running the football,” Lynn said after his team’s fourth loss in five games. “We’ve got to open up more running lanes.”
The Chargers running game was held to just 32 yards on 14 carries Sunday, a week after running for 35 yards on 16 carries in last Sunday’s 20-13 loss to the previously winless Denver Broncos. They rushed for 125 yards and 94 in their first two games, but have not run for more than 73 since then.
“Austin (Ekeler) and I can’t get things rolling, but right now, the passing game looks like its working, so we’re going to have to use the pass to open up the run,” said running back Melvin Gordon, who ran for 18 yards on eight carries, a week after running for 31 yards on 12 carries in his season debut after not reporting to the team as he sought a contract extension.
The dropoff in the past two games coincides with both large first-half deficits that forced the Chargers to pass more.
Another factor Sunday was the absence of center Mike Pouncey, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, who was placed on reserve/injured Wednesday because of a neck injury that required surgery and will sideline him for the rest of the season.
Lynn called Pouncey’s absence “huge.”
Dan Feeney replaced Pouncey at center after starting the past 30 regular-season games at left guard. Forrest Lamp started at left guard in place of Feeney, making the first start of his injury-riddled three-season NFL career.
The Steelers ran for a season-high 124 yards on 36 carries. Their previous high was 81.
“We did a good job converting on third down,” Pittsburgh running back James Conner said. The Steelers ran for first downs on third down four times, part of converting eight of 13 third downs, 61.5%. The Chargers converted seven of 12, 58.3%.
The Chargers second-half success with the no-huddle offense prompted Lynn to say “maybe we have to change the tempo up earlier.”
The Chargers (2-4) were outgained 348 yards to 256, and 34:05-25:55 in time of possession, but led 23-18 in first downs, including an 11-3 advantage in the fourth quarter. They allowed the first 24 points before a decidedly pro-Pittsburgh crowd announced at 25,425 at Dignity Health Sports Park.
Quarterback Philip Rivers committed two first-quarter turnovers, which the Steelers converted into touchdowns before throwing 5- and 11-yard touchdown passes to Hunter Henry in the fourth quarter, when the Chargers scored all their points.
The Chargers’ hopes of completing the comeback ended when Rivers’ hurried pass from inside their own end zone was intercepted by Cameron Sutton at their 34-yard line with less than a minute to play.
“We got going, it’s just too late,” Rivers said. “They played with more urgency early. There’s no excuse for that.”
Rivers completed 26 of 43 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions. Despite being pressured all night, he was sacked only once.
The 26 completions gave Rivers 4,677 for his career, seventh on the all-time list. He entered the game tied with injured Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
In his first NFL start, undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges completed 15 of 20 passes for 132 yards and one touchdown, with one interception as the Steelers (2-4) avoided their first 1-5 start since 1988.
“He did a great job,” said Pittsburgh receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, the former USC and Long Beach Poly High standout. “He made sure the open guy got the ball and made some plays.”
Smith-Schuster was a target of four passes from Hodges. His lone reception, for seven yards, came in the fourth quarter.
Hodges started because Mason Rudolph, the starter the past three games, could not play because of a concussion suffered in last Sunday’s 26-23 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Rudolph replaced Roethlisberger, who suffered a season-ending injury to his right elbow in the 28-26 loss to the Seattle Seahawks Sept. 15 that required surgery.
Hodges made his NFL debut last Sunday, completing seven of nine passes for 68 yards. The Steelers drove 87 yards for a touchdown on 10 plays on his first drive.
The Samford University alumnus began the regular season on the practice squad, then was promoted to the 53-man roster following Roethlisberger’s injury.
Hodges is the career Football Championship Subdivision passage yardage leader with 14,584, breaking the previous record of 14,496 held by Steve McNair. Hodges received the 2018 Walter Payton Award as the top FCS offensive player.
Pittsburgh’s only previous victory this season was over the winless Cincinnati Bengals. Three of its losses were by four points or less. Two of the losses came to the league’s only undefeated teams, the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers.
In their first game in the Los Angeles area since Nov. 27, 1994, when they defeated the Los Angeles Raiders 21-3 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Steelers opened the scoring 4:09 into the game when rookie linebacker Devin Bush picked up what became a backward pass Rivers tried to lateral to Melvin Gordon and ran 9 yards into the end zone.
“They brought pressure and you had to throw it hot,” Rivers said. “I knew when I let it go it was probably backwards but obviously I would make a better throw. It was too bad.”
Pittsburgh then scored on back-to-back possessions to increase its lead to 21-0.
Conner ran 12 yards for a touchdown with 4:29 left in the first quarter, seven plays after Bush intercepted a Rivers pass and returned it 6 yards to the Chargers 40-yard line.
Conner caught a short pass from Hodges, broke out of an attempted tackle by linebacker Jatavis Brown and ran into the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown 6:34 before halftime to complete a 14-play, 86-yard drive that consumed 9:09.
The Chargers crossed midfield just once in the first half when they advanced to the Pittsburgh’s 26-yard line on their fifth and final possession of the half. Chase McLaughlin’s 43-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright.
Chris Boswell kicked a 20-yard field goal with 8:12 left in the third quarter for the Steelers only second-half points. McLaughlin kicked a 38-yard field goal with 14:00 to play for the Chargers first points.
Henry caught eight passes for 100 yards, both game and career highs, including a 19-yard reception on the game’s first play, in his first action since suffering a knee injury in the season-opening 30-24 overtime victory over the Indianapolis Colts Sept. 8.
“His production really was unbelievable in his first game back,” Rivers said. “He probably played more plays than anybody anticipated, but it was the way the game went. Hunter’s impact was felt first snap. It’ll be good to have him healthy moving forward.”