Chargers vs. Steelers: Defense, Alexander Keep Slim Playoff Hope Alive

Christopher HansenNFL AnalystDecember 9, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 9:  Danario Alexander #84 of the San Diego Chargers celebrates after catching a 15 yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game on December 9, 2012 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Chargers defeated the Steelers 34-24.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Here come the San Diego Chargers. It’s become almost predictable for the Chargers start playing well once they are dangerously close to being eliminated from the playoffs. The Chargers snapped a four-game skid on Sunday with a 34-24 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was their first win against a team other than the Kansas City Chiefs since Week 2.

The Chargers moved to 5-8 and are still not technically eliminated from the playoffs. The road to the playoffs for the Chargers is still extremely difficult, as they need a dizzying combination of wins and losses by other teams, as well as to win every remaining game themselves.

It’s becoming a tradition for the Chargers to make a late-season run and come up short. Last season, the Chargers' midseason addition of Jared Gaither coincided with the turnaround, and on Sunday, it was in-season additions Danario Alexander and Micheal Spurlock that propelled the Chargers to victory.

Philip Rivers completed just 51 percent of his passes, but he managed to get seven to Alexander for 88 yards and two touchdowns. Spurlock added seven catches for 64 yards, which included six first downs and five third-down conversions. Spurlock was released by the Chargers after four games, spent seven games with the Jaguars and was picked back up by the Chargers two weeks ago.  

No one could have predicted that Alexander and Spurlock would be leading the Chargers to a road victory over the Steelers in Week 14, but that’s the NFL. Things change quickly, and teams have to be willing to adapt on the fly.

San Diego’s defense has been unable to adapt to changing game conditions in 2012, but as it has many times this season, it kept the Chargers in the game while the offense was figuring things out. It wasn’t until the Steelers' eighth possession of the game that they finally put points on the board, and it was a 49-yard field goal as time expired in the first half.

The Chargers held a 10-point lead at halftime and took the first drive of the second half 78 yards for a touchdown and a 20-3 lead. The defense recovered Ben Roethlisberger lateral in the end zone moments later to put the Chargers up 27-3 and a give them a seemingly insurmountable lead, but the Chargers allowed the Broncos to come back from a 24-point deficient in Week 6.

In almost predictable fashion the Chargers allowed Roethlisberger to hit Mike Wallace for a 40-yard touchdown just a few minutes later to cut the lead to 27-10, and the offense was forced to punt on the following possession. This time, the Chargers stopped the bleeding by intercepting Roethlisberger, and two plays later, Alexander scored his second touchdown with a leaping grab in the end zone.

Roethlisberger would come back and throw two more touchdowns, but it was far too late for the Steelers to come back from a 34-10 deficit. The defense still had trouble protecting a lead with a lackluster pass rush and holes in the secondary, but it made plays when it counted. The offense did its part in the second half by turning those mistakes into points.

The win was Norv Turner’s first win as Chargers head coach in Pittsburgh, as he had previously been 0-14 in the Steel City, according to the CBS broadcast. Describing Turner’s grip on his job as tenuous would be an overstatement, but he pulled out all the stops on Sunday.

Turner uncharacteristically called for a fake punt at the end of the third quarter that resulted in the Chargers being able take over five minutes off the clock. Turner de-emphasized the highly-paid Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd, and he gave Ryan Mathews 25 carries. Turner coached like a man with nothing to lose because he truly has nothing to lose.

The Chargers were able to get things going through the air thanks to improved protection, and the makeshift offensive line allowed just one sack. Rivers also didn’t turn the ball over, nor did any of his teammates, which made it more difficult on the Steelers to come back once they were down by two scores.

For Turner and the Chargers, the effort is just too little, too late to do anything for their 2012 season, but it may have an impact on the direction the team goes in 2013.

Alexander has proven worthy of keeping around, but he’s not the first receiver to produce good numbers in while playing in Turner’s offense. Alexander is absolutely worth keeping around, but at what cost if the team doesn’t decide to stay with an Air Coryell-inspired offense? Those are questions a new general manager and a new head coach will need to ask themselves upon taking over.

San Diego’s defense looks young and strong and just needs to add a pass-rusher and another playmaker in the secondary to fix its vulnerability to the pass. The defense is stocked full of young players still trying to learn, which gives a new general manager a foundation. The pieces in place will limit the Chargers to playing a 3-4 going forward, but that hardly seems like a big issue at this point.