Chargers melt down when home field turns into Steeler mill
The goal, for visiting teams, typically is to take the home crowd out of the game.
But these are the Chargers and this is Dignity Health Sports Park, where the typical often has been turned on its head.
And so, with their stadium being dominated by fans of the opposing team, the Chargers had to do something Sunday night to get the home crowd into the game.
Instead, they immediately fell behind by two touchdowns for the second consecutive week, were still scoreless into the fourth quarter and ran out of time in trying to come back in a 24-17 loss to Pittsburgh.
The Steelers came to Carson with only one win but earned a second while using their third-string quarterback. The Chargers fell to 2-4 as they again looked disjointed on offense and struggled to tackle.
“You can’t get much of a worse start than that,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “I don’t know. We had a lot of new guys playing. We just have to get everyone on board with what’s going on.”
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner proved to be elusive and a menace to the Chargers’ defense during their 24-17 loss on Sunday.
Because of injuries, the Chargers were without six starters, five of whom have made at least one Pro Bowl. Sunday was their first game without veteran center Mike Pouncey, who had season-ending neck surgery Friday.
They struggled again to move the ball on the ground, gaining only 32 yards in 14 carries. Melvin Gordon, in his second game back after ending his contract holdout, finished with 18 yards in eight carries.
“We’re missing some leaders up there [on the offensive line] — not to discredit anybody,” Gordon said. “We’ve got to make it happen too. I slipped on one play. ... But we’ve got to make it happen.
“You can’t just point fingers. I’m not really into that. That’s not going to do anything but break us apart. I don’t want to say that they’re not opening this up. Maybe I should be running better.”
All of the negativity unfolded on a night when Dignity Health Sports Park was packed with noisy Steelers fans waving yellow towels and chanting for “DEE-fence!”
The Chargers have struggled to establish themselves in Los Angeles since moving here from San Diego before the 2017 season. But the atmosphere for this game was about as inhospitable to the Chargers as any home game yet.
“This is pretty bad,” Gordon said. “We know they travel well. We kind of expected that. ... You could see from pregame what kind of game it was going to be, just flooded with their fans. ... Usually, it’s more blue. Today it was more black than anything with yellow towels.”
The good news? The Chargers now go on the road for their next two games and play only once in Carson until mid-December. That Nov. 3 game is against Green Bay, another opponent with feverish fans who could take over the stadium.
The passion for the Steelers was on full display despite the team’s 1-4 record and the fact undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges was starting at quarterback. Hodges, who was playing at Samford a year ago, made his first NFL start a memorable and victorious one.
He finished 15 for 20 for 132 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. Pittsburgh controlled the pace by rushing 36 times for 124 yards.
“They chewed up a lot of clock,” Ekeler said. “Because of that, we might be throwing more than we’re running, just trying to get down the field and move the ball fast. I think it was the opposite of what we were trying to do.”
The Chargers’ first possession ended when Travis Benjamin failed to hold on to a Philip Rivers pass that could have converted a third-and-nine. That drop, it would turn out for the offense, was an early highlight.
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That’s because the Chargers’ next two possessions resulted in turnovers that permitted the Steelers to score the first two touchdowns.
Rivers, who took a hard hit on the Benjamin drop, was rushed again and threw backward and too high while attempting to get the ball to Gordon. The errant pass was recovered by Pittsburgh linebacker Devin Bush, who returned it nine yards for a touchdown.
Bush followed that up by intercepting a Rivers pass on the Chargers’ next series. The ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage by defensive end Tyson Alualu and popped conveniently into Bush’s hands.
Seven plays and 40 yards later, the Steelers were back in the end zone on a 12-yard run by James Conner and it was 14-0. The game was barely 10 minutes old.
Pittsburgh made it 21-0 at halftime when Hodges guided them on a 14-play, 86-yard drive that consumed 9 minutes 9 seconds.
After wins over sub-.500 Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, many wondered if unbeaten 49ers were for real, until their 20-7 win over Rams.
On third and eight, Hodges passed into the right flat to Conner, who turned the short toss into a 26-yard touchdown when linebacker Jatavis Brown missed the tackle.
The Chargers fell behind 24-0 before Chase McLaughlin kicked a 38-yard field goal one minute into the fourth quarter.
They pulled to within two touchdowns when Rivers hit tight end Hunter Henry for a five-yard score with 7:13 to go. Rivers and Henry, back after missing four games with a knee fracture, hooked up again for an 11-yard touchdown with 1:29 remaining.
The Chargers had one final possession, one last chance, but it began at their own one-yard line with 63 seconds remaining. On the second play, Rivers’ pass was intercepted again on a deep and desperate ball.
“Everybody’s pressing a little bit because we all are anxious,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “We all want to turn this around.”
On this raucous night, the home team’s final gasp was more of a whimper.
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