What Was Learned in the Steelers Heartbreaking Loss to the Los Angeles Chargers

(Curt Popejoy/USA Today)

The Pittsburgh Steelers took to primetime television last night, where they were defeated by the Los Angeles Chargers 41-37.  The game was full of ups and downs, a true rollercoaster ride of emotions from the start.  While the result may not have been the one we were looking for, I feel like we learned a lot about this team and the role its key players have on it.  The story of this game had a lot to do with those players that returned and those that were missing.

The Return of Big Ben

A week following a hard-fought tie against the lowly Detroit Lions, the Steelers returned quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after his one-game absence for testing positive for COVID-19.  The Mason Rudolph experiment did not fare too well last week against arguably the worst team in the National Football League so hopes were increased with the return of Big Ben against a much stiffer opponent.  

While he has not had all that great of a season thus far, Ben returned to some of his old ways on Sunday Night Football, finishing with a stat line of 28/44 for 273 yards and 3 touchdown passes.  It was his best game of the season, especially when you consider he'd just returned to the team after more than a week of not practicing.  Was every throw crisp and right on the money? No.  But that's not going to be the case at this stage of his career.  

What I was most impressed by was his command of the offense, especially through the air.  As the season has gone along, this offense has become more reliant on running back Najee Harris.  Whether through the run game or on short passes, Harris has become the focal point of the offense.  And rightly so.  You don't spend your first round pick on a guy that you're not going to utilize.  

However, the offense yesterday had a feel to it of the Steelers teams of old, where the passing game reigned supreme and any pass downfield could lead to an explosive play.  In a game that turned into a shootout, it felt good knowing that we were able to keep up and I put a lot of that on Ben's return to the lineup by spreading the ball all around the field.

Defensive Woes

For as good as the offense looked, the defense looked quite the opposite and a lot of that had to do with the players missing from the starting lineup.  Linebacker T.J. Watt (hip/knee), cornerback Joe Haden (foot) and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (COVID-19) all did not play Sunday and their absence was greatly felt.  Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert was able to do anything he wanted, having loads of time in the pocket to complete passes.  

Watt missing from the pass rush was a huge factor in this game.  It felt like any time Herbert dropped back, he had all day to throw with few defenders to evade.  And whenever the Steelers did manage to get to him, he would easily scramble out of the pocket and pick up chunks of yards on the ground.  Herbert finished the game with 382 passing yards and 90 rushing yards, both substantial figures, especially when you consider that Herbert is not known for being a running quarterback. 

The losses weren't just felt on the defensive line.  The secondary could've really used Haden and Fitzpatrick with how explosive the Chargers passing game can be.  Charger receivers were open downfield all night long, most notably so on the 53-yard touchdown reception by Mike Williams with 2:09 left in the game that sealed the win for the Chargers.  It was a tough night all around for the defense and if we learned anything from it, it's how important the core players of this defense are to its ability to limit the big plays. 

Concluding Thoughts

All in all, it was a valiant effort from an under-manned team to even still be in the game at the end, let alone leading it.  The Steelers trailed by 17 points heading into the fourth quarter.  This team could've easily rolled over and shifted its focus to their big matchup next week but they didn't quit.  The special teams provided a key blocked punt to keep them in the game and shift the momentum back in their favor.  You live to see this no-quite mentality from all areas of the team, regardless of the score.

One thing I've harped on all season is the defense setting the tone for this team and the absences of Watt, Haden and Fitzpatrick really hindered their ability to do so.  Once this team is able to return all of their key pieces, I'm confident they will continue to be competitive against these upper-echelon teams, such as the Chargers.  It remains to be seen who all will be able to return next week, but with AFC North foe Cincinnati Bengals up next, we'll need all hands on deck to pick up an important victory within the division.