The final score of 34-24 doesn't entirely tell the story of what the Pittsburgh Steelers did—and didn't—do against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. Of their 24 points, 21 came while already down by a significant margin, one they were unable to close after the Chargers pulled ahead 27-3 in the third quarter and 34-10 in the fourth.
A postseason berth was no guarantee for the Steelers heading into this seemingly easy home contest against the Chargers, and now it may be slipping out of their grasp. Underprepared and overconfident, the Steelers fell to the Chargers for the first time at home in the two teams' history and looked nothing like the team they were before Ben Roethlisberger was injured in Week 10 against the Kansas City Chiefs.
This was Roethlisberger's first game back since sustaining that injury, a much-criticized move considering the (assumed) nature of this week's opponent and Charlie Batch's performance in last week's win over the Baltimore Ravens. Roethlisberger showed signs of rust, and clearly the play-calling was designed to keep him in the pocket and (ostensibly) under less risk. But it was less his fault than anyone's that the Steelers couldn't beat the Chargers.
Roethlisberger completed 22-of-42 pass attempts for 285 yards, three touchdowns, an interception and a lost fumble. Most of his yards and all three of his scores came with the game well out of the Steelers' reach. He went just nine-of-20 for 105 yards in the first half, thanks to numerous drops by his receivers, Mike Wallace most notably.
In the first half, Roethlisberger was his team's leading rusher, with 13 yards on two attempts. Pittsburgh's run game never got going, with Jonathan Dwyer finishing with 32 yards on eight carries and Roethlisberger putting up the second-most Steelers rushing yards, with 31 on five scrambles.
It wasn't just a bafflingly halting offensive effort that doomed the Steelers from nearly the beginning—it was how their defense failed to respond to the Chargers' offense. Though San Diego came into the game with the league's worst pass-protecting offensive line, resulting in quarterback Philip Rivers having thrown 15 interceptions, fumbling the ball away 11 times and being sacked 36 times, Pittsburgh's defense didn't seem interested in taking advantage of the team's biggest weakness.
Rivers saw little pressure from the Steelers' defensive front—he was sacked only once, by Ziggy Hood—and as such, threw no picks and didn't fumble once. The Steelers appeared content to allow their secondary to curb San Diego's passing game, and it wasn't successful.
Though Rivers completed only 21-of-41 for 200 yards, he threw three touchdowns, including one to Danario Alexander in the fourth quarter in which he was covered by cornerback Josh Victorian, who was brought off the practice squad just this week.
Questionable decisions such as the Victorian-on-Alexander assignment (despite it being well-known that Alexander has become the most dangerous of Rivers' targets of late) doomed the Steelers. It wasn't just that they were thin in the secondary with Ike Taylor sidelined with injury and Cortez Allen in as his replacement. It was more about how they decided to defend the Chargers' passing offense that was the real problem.
Yes, tight end Antonio Gates was held to only three catches for 31 yards and Malcom Floyd to three for 10, but the Steelers failed to account for Alexander (seven catches, 88 yards, two touchdowns) and Micheal Spurlock (seven targets, seven catches, 64 yards).
And when they couldn't stop the two receivers in coverage, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau failed to adjust and dial up the pressure, despite the overwhelming evidence proving that's the way to stop the Chargers offense.
Performances like this—a too-little-too-late effort on offense, a completely baffling series of play and personnel decisions on defense—don't do much to advance the Steelers' message that they're playoff material. The loss also harms their chances of clinching one of the two AFC Wild-Card berths.
There's no margin for error in these final crucial weeks, especially against teams like the Chargers that should have been easy pickings for the Steelers.
Though it helps the Steelers somewhat that the Cincinnati Bengals (as well as the Baltimore Ravens) lost their Week 14 contest against the Dallas Cowboys, the Indianapolis Colts extended their lead over both the Bengals and Steelers, with a wild-card spot now theirs to lose.
Further, the Steelers went into the week with the tiebreaker over the Bengals but have seen that advantage slip away, having lost to a Chargers team the Bengals beat last week.
There's a lot still up for grabs in a close AFC, and the Steelers' response to this high-pressure situation was to dramatically lose a game they should have won. Now the Steelers have gone from having control over their own postseason destiny—keep winning and the wild-card spot is theirs—to needing help from the Ravens, Bengals and Colts in order to secure a spot.
The way the Steelers played on Sunday is not how a postseason-bound team should look. This loss may prove to be the tipping point that keeps them out of the playoffs. The Steelers have learned the hard way that there's no sure thing in the NFL.