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Chargers Can’t Cut Off Steelers at Pass : Pro football: Two defensive mistakes prove costly to the Chargers in their 26-20 loss to Pittsburgh.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The stumbling, bumbling Pittsburgh Steelers were too much Sunday for the Chargers. So what does that tell you about the Chargers?

The Chargers’ hopes for a fast start in 1991 fell flat after the defense blew pass coverage twice, allowing the Steelers to escape with a 26-20 victory in front of 55,848 at Three Rivers Stadium.

“I don’t think it was a tremendously well-played game,” Charger Coach Dan Henning said. “But they played sounder than we did.”

Sounder? The Steelers had two passes intercepted, three times they fumbled and they replaced their injured starting quarterback with a guy who never had played in the NFL before. The Steelers’ inept offense forced kicker Gary Anderson, who suffered a painful back injury in Saturday’s practice, to save the day with field goals of 38, 29, 31 and 39 yards.

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The Chargers were betrayed by a defense that has been commissioned to give this team a fighting chance for respectability.

“This is as crushing defeat as I can remember,” said Ron Lynn, Charger defensive coordinator. “Because we had a chance at the end to make one play and give our offense a chance to win the game.”

Count how many times this has happened before: The defense broke down in the closing moments of the first half and allowed the Steelers to score, and then faltered again with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. The final results: The Chargers are 4-15 in games decided by seven or fewer points during Henning’s three-year tenure in San Diego.

“Mental errors,” Henning said. “If we have to line them up in one defense, then we’ll do that. We’re not going to continue to have mental errors. If you had one down to work as a (defensive) coach, it would be third and 10. Right now we’re (messing) it up.”

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Bubby Brister, booed repeatedly by the hometown fans, found Chris Calloway wide open for a 33-yard touchdown on third and seven with 1:53 left in the first half to snap a 3-3 tie.

Brister left the game with a concussion in the fourth quarter after being sandwiched between Charger defenders Leslie O’Neal and George Hinkle, but the Steelers had extended their lead to 19-3.

The Chargers rallied, however, and trailed 19-13 with Pittsburgh trapped at its own 11-yard line on third and 19 and backup quarterback Neil O’Donnell making his NFL debut.

A safety blitz failed to reach O’Donnell, and he kept his wits and found Dwight Stone open. Stone, who has scored three touchdowns in his first four years with the Steelers, went 89 yards down the sideline to bolster Pittsburgh’s lead to 26-13 with 1:30 to play.

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Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll’s explanation:

“They were blitzing like crazy and it makes your offense look terrible when people are coming. It also makes them vulnerable. You can live by the blitz and you can die by it. That’s what happened.”

Henning’s explanation:

“He (the defender) should have been right with him (Stone); if a man comes out you got to cover him,” Henning said. “I’m not sure exactly who the guy (defender) was.”

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Charger coaches said they did not know who was at fault, but television replays indicated rookie Stanley Richard was the nearest defender.

Said Henning: “I think better things are ahead for this group, but we sure have to make sure they are capable of doing the things they’re doing. And anybody that doesn’t get it right, can’t play.”

Donald Frank got it wrong on the Steelers’ first touchdown when he failed to stay with Calloway. As a result there wasn’t an athlete in a Charger uniform close enough to yell “boo” at Calloway, let alone touch him.

Frank also botched the Chargers’ traditional opening-game attempt to fake a punt. Late in the third quarter, punter John Kidd was supposed to fake the punt and pass the ball to Frank, but Frank was running down the field to cover Kidd’s punt.

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“He didn’t hear the call,” Kidd said.

Last year’s misplayed fake punt figured prominently in the Chargers’ 17-14 opening-day defeat at Dallas. This year’s effort had no effect on the outcome but contributed to the day’s overall poor play.

“They put the ball on the ground a lot and threw some interceptions, and I don’t think what we faced is the best performance the Steelers can put on,” said Joe Phillips, Charger nose tackle. “But then again I don’t think the Steelers faced the best performance we can put on.”

The first time the Chargers had the ball, they went nowhere. Rod Bernstine opened with a six-yard gain, but then left tackle Harry Swayne was penalized for a false start. Quarterback John Friesz completed an eight-yard pass to Anthony Miller, but on third and one, Friesz fumbled and linebacker Greg Lloyd recovered.

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Lloyd fired the ball into the stands, and for a while it would stand as the Steelers’ best pass of the game.

Friesz’s fumble gave the Steelers the ball on the Charger 27, but Pittsburgh has had problems on offense. The Steelers’ first offensive unit had scored one touchdown in four exhibition games. Brister had failed to throw a touchdown pass; he had been intercepted five times.

And so it continued. Pittsburgh had to settle for Anderson’s 38-yard field goal, and a 3-0 lead.

On Pittsburgh’s next two possessions, cornerback Gill Byrd intercepted Brister passes intended for wide receiver Louis Lipps. The Chargers took possession at their 42, and at the Steeler 29. On each occasion they came away without points.

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“When they gave us an opportunity to take the game away, we weren’t playing well,” Henning said. “After we had those interceptions, that was the time to do it.”

John Carney missed a 36-yard field goal after Byrd’s second interception, but he came back in the second quarter to connect from 48 yards for a 3-3 tie. It was the longest field goal in Carney’s career, and his 20th in 23 tries since joining the Chargers last year.

“With all the things we did wrong today,” said David Richards, Charger right guard, “we still had a chance to win.”

The Steelers inability to put the ball in the end zone kept the Chargers within striking distance. Pittsburgh made it to the Charger 12 on its first possession of the second half, but left with a 29-yard Anderson field goal and a 13-3 lead. They nudged the ball to the Charger 14 on their next possession, and this time settled for a 31-yard field goal.

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They kept plugging. On their third try they got as far as the Charger 22 before taking a 19-3 lead on Anderson’s 39-yard field goal.

“You got to look for positives somewhere,” said Ted Tollner, Charger offensive coordinator, “and the way John Friesz finished was a positive note.”

After Pittsburgh established a 19-3 lead, the fans started to leave and the Chargers made a move for the goal line. On second and nine from the Steeler 11, Friesz handed the ball to Bernstine who went running right. At the same time wide receiver Nate Lewis made like Marlon Brando and acted like he was going to block the cornerback to free Bernstine on his run.

Bernstine, however, pulled up and Lewis took off running. Bernstine passed the ball, and although it looked like the kind of pass that sent Billy Joe Tolliver packing to Atlanta, it landed in the hands of Lewis for a touchdown.

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“One day it looked great in practice and one day we had it intercepted,” Tollner said. “The ball seemed like it was in the air forever.”

On the Chargers’ next possession, Friesz tried to beat the NFL’s No. 1 pass defense in the league with a bomb to rookie Shawn Jefferson. “If I had thrown a spiral we would have had a 50-yard completion,” Friesz said, “but the ball fluttered.”

The ball also landed in the arms of Steeler cornerback David Johnson for an interception.

Friesz put Carney in position to hit a 35-yard field goal with 2:14 to play to bring the Chargers within a touchdown of upsetting the Steelers, but defensive woes on third down sabotaged any attempt at a last-minute comeback.

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The Chargers closed out the scoring on a five-yard touchdown pass from Friesz to rookie Shawn Jefferson.


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