Chargers Still in Fight for Playoff Berth : Three-Game Slide in Mind, Quieter, More Determined Team Prepares for Steelers

Times Staff Writer

Let's see, they've tried smugness (Seattle then smashed them), anger (Denver then walloped them) and must-win-this-game-or-die inspiration (Houston then embarrassed them).

Having covered the gamut of pregame emotional states, and having gone from one of the NFL's best to the brink of blowing everything, the Chargers have chosen to enter today's 1 p.m. game with Pittsburgh feeling something different.

Feeling nothing.

Suddenly, there is no more pontificating, nor bragging, nor promises from veterans, nor cuteness from replacement players.

After all, the last three weeks, the Chargers have come out fired-up and played flat. This week, they are trying it the other way around. In second place in the AFC West at 8-4, they have returned to basics and cliches and, shoot, come 1 p.m. at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, they may even come out running the football.

"It seems like we had been going through the same thing every week, talking about it, hoping for it, and not realizing we have to just do it," nose tackle Mike Charles said in unusually somber tones. "We've decided to lead each other by example, not by ya-hooing. Because ya-hooing just don't get it.

"Some people think the noisiest team in the locker room is always going to win. That's not true."

The Chargers' game plan will mirror that image and, in fact, mirror the Steelers, who are 7-5 and fighting for what could be the same wild-card playoff berth. It will be an afternoon of little flash and much bash.

"We have to just block and tackle, run and catch," said Charger Coach Al Saunders, who has armored himself in phrases like that.

Saunders will take the focus away from struggling quarterback Dan Fouts (39 of 73 passing the last two weeks) and put it on power running backs Tim Spencer and Curtis Adams and the offensive line. He will place the burden of stopping Pittsburgh directly on the Charger defense, which has allowed 592 rushing yards in three weeks.

The Steelers, meanwhile, will do what they have been doing since Franco Harris was a youngster: running the ball into the line. Said Charger inside linebacker Gary Plummer: "We're preparing for the kind of game where you'll be sore for an extra day afterward."

"Basically," said Spencer, "we feel like this week, we have to fight."

We'll be polite and start by describing the Steelers. After all, they were the ones who last week beat the Seattle Seahawks, one of the chief reasons the Chargers are not yet at the end of the plank.

Today's visitors are ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing with 1,769 yards, 147 per game, which is more than the Chargers have gained in the last three weeks combined (126).

Returning after missing most of the last four games with a rib injury, former Charger Earnest Jackson (580 yards in five games) joins Frank Pollard (106 yards in last week's victory over the Seahawks) and Walter Abercrombie. It is a backfield that is surpassed in heartiness only by its offensive line.

"They have been running for so long, their offensive line has become quite good at it," Saunders said. "They trap very well, they work well together, they are very tenacious."

Their quarterback, Mark Malone, incidentally, is ranked last in the NFL's most major statistical passing categories.

So you know they will run.

"They aren't as balanced as Seattle or Denver," Charles said. "We know if we have to stop one thing to be successful, it's their run."

Now, for the Chargers, who even in normal years are known as much for their ability to run as Fouts is known for his legs.

In total rushing yardage this season, they are nearly seven football fields behind the Steelers, with 1,092 yards, bad enough for 25th in the 28-team league.

Some say it's because Adams (3.9 yards per carry) and Spencer (3.0) aren't capable, and because pseudo-running back Gary Anderson (3.4) is a better wide receiver.

To which they respond, "Give us a chance."

In the past three losses, the Chargers have run the ball less than one-third as much as they have passed it (113 passes to 34 runs). In the second half against Denver, they ran it four times. In the second half against Houston, they ran it twice.

In the second half against Seattle, they didn't run the ball once.

"There's no doubt we need a more balanced offense. We need to control the ball more and keep the defense fresher," Saunders said. "Even though we have an outstanding quarterback, to throw the ball when everybody knows it goes against everything I believe."

So you know that they, too, will run.

"The running backs just have to keep doing what we have been doing," Spencer said. "We just have to do it better."

That's where this game's final cog fit, with the Charger offensive line.

"Because our offensive line has blocked for a pass-oriented system for so long, it takes time to get adjusted to blocking for a running game," Saunders said. "But they will do that. And how they do will be very important."

"Sure, it's a lot different," said tackle Jim Lachey. "It's back-pedaling as opposed to lining up and kicking their butt. But we like that.

"We have known all week that this game could be dependent on how our line plays, and that's the way we want it."

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