Despite injuries, the Chargers are optimistic going into Sunday night game against Steelers

Chargers defensive back Desmond King (20) scores on a 68-yard punt return during third quarter against the Denver Broncos at Dignity Health Sports Park on Oct. 6.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Chargers have underachieved, failed to make enough plays and lost three of their past four games.

They enter their Week 6 matchup expecting, because of injury, to be without five players who have made the Pro Bowl.

Still, their veteran quarterback has been around long enough to appreciate an opportunity that’s golden even in a season that has started out more beige.


“If you had a chance to play on ‘Sunday Night Football’ at 37 years old,” Philip Rivers began, “you wouldn’t say, ‘Hold on, what’s our record? I’ll tell you if I’ll play or not,’ or, ‘What struggles or injuries do we have?’ You would say, ‘Sign me up.’ ”

So the Chargers will indeed meet Pittsburgh at Dignity Health Sports Park for a game that will be televised nationally despite an appeal that would seem to be limited to two specific markets.

Along with the Chargers’ woes, the Steelers enter with a 1-4 record and third-string quarterback, one known right now mostly for his championship abilities as a duck caller.

Devlin Hodges, an undrafted rookie, will make his first career start opposite Rivers, who will be starting for the 214th time. Both are from small towns in Alabama.

Serious injuries to the Chargers’ Mike Pouncey and Broncos’ De’Vante Bausby remind players of their tenuous livelihood in the NFL.

Oct. 11, 2019

“He grew up about an hour from where I did, 16 years younger or whatever,” Rivers said of Hodges, who is 14 years his junior. “It is cool. It just puts in perspective, again, how thankful I should be that I’m still able to be out there.”


Thankful also could describe the Chargers’ view of where they are at the moment. Thankful, in that there’s still enough season left to salvage things. But time most certainly is ticking.

And now they’re without center Mike Pouncey, the leader vocally and otherwise along the offensive line. He has been lost for the year because of a neck injury that required surgery and has cast doubt on the reminder of his career.

Dan Feeney will move to center against Pittsburgh, with Forrest Lamp, a 2017 second-round pick, scheduled to make his first career start, at left guard.

The interior adjustments come one week after the Chargers’ offense sputtered so badly that the home fans booed toward the end of a 20-13 loss to Denver.

“It was pretty vanilla as far as plays being made,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “If you made a highlight video of that game for us, there wouldn’t be many clips on there, at least on offense.”

The Chargers’ two longest gains from scrimmage came on pass-interference calls drawn by Andre Patton, a player who began the season on the practice squad and was appearing in only his third NFL game.

Denver had two longer plays in the first minute than the Chargers would have over the next 59 minutes.

In Melvin Gordon’s celebrated return, they rushed for only 35 yards, the franchise’s lowest output on the ground during the regular season since Dec. 24, 2016, the day the San Diego Chargers lost to a Cleveland team that was 0-14.

“We just got to be physical,” said Gordon, who missed the first four games because of a contract dispute. “Pittsburgh’s known for being physical and nasty and grinding and playing hard. We just have to match that intensity.”

The Chargers’ longest gain on the ground a week ago netted just seven yards. Of their 19 first downs, none were achieved via the run.

Entering the game, Ekeler was the team’s leading rusher for the season. He finished with seven yards on three carries, the same totals as Joe Flacco, Denver’s 35-yard-old quarterback.

“Last week, we just weren’t balanced,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “The rushing game let us down a little bit. We have to be able to run the football and make people defend the run so that we can throw the ball better.”

The Broncos devised a defensive scheme that took away big plays. They freely permitted Rivers to throw short to his running backs, explaining why Ekeler finished with 15 receptions.

But only one of those catches produced a gain of more than 12 yards, Ekeler explaining that Denver funneled him toward the middle of the field and didn’t allow him to break outside.

Almost a week later, he was still lamenting one play in particular when linebacker Todd Davis lured him into the trap.

With defensive lapses to start the first or second half, the 2-3 Chargers need to find consistency with the Steelers coming to town.

Oct. 10, 2019

“He just soft-played me,” Ekeler said. “He let me run inside and didn’t bite at all. He basically made me run right back into him. He made me look terrible. Well played by him.”

In 48 attempts, Rivers finished with 32 completions for only 211 yards, totals that he characterized as “a bad day.” The offense has gone 13 possessions without a touchdown.

Against the Steelers, the Chargers will limp in as a team hurting but convinced it can prove that healthier days are coming. Their veteran quarterback has been around long enough to appreciate that opportunity too.

“In the past, we’ve been at our best when it’s been that way,” Rivers said, “when it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, it’s the same old deal. The Chargers are hurt. They’re injured and they’ll mess it up somehow.’

“We’ve been better when it’s been that way. We’ll see. I think we’ll find out if this group is that way. There is still just so much football left.”


Patton, who has been bothered by a quadriceps problem, was downgraded to doubtful for the game Sunday. Wide receiver Jason Moore was promoted from the practice squad and tight end Stephen Anderson was waived.