There was only one big difference between the Pittsburgh Steelers team that took the field on Sunday against the San Diego Chargers and the one that defeated the Baltimore Ravens last week—the quarterback. Under center in Week 14 was Ben Roethlisberger, who had missed the previous three games after suffering rib and shoulder injuries in his team's Week 10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
But that's not the reason why the Steelers lost to the Chargers, 34-24, on Sunday. Though Roethlisberger was likely still experiencing a degree of pain and discomfort, it wasn't his limitations or any apparent rust after three weeks on the sidelines that brought the Steelers their sixth loss of the year.
No, that responsibility falls to other players on the other side of the ball. Pittsburgh's defense went into this contest as the best unit in the league, giving up fewer yards and points than any other and poised to keep the struggling Chargers at bay, but its flat performance is the No. 1 reason why the Steelers fell on Sunday. There were offensive mistakes, of course—dropped passes being the biggest—but when looking to hand out blame for this loss, it has to go squarely to the defense and its coordinator, Dick LeBeau.
The Steelers defense were handed this game on a platter, and it dropped it—and repeatedly stomped on it—instead. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers went into Week 14 having thrown 15 total interceptions, fumbling the ball 11 times and being sacked 36 times and would be playing behind an injury-ravaged offensive line that was already the worst pass-protecting unit in the league (it is now next-to-last, thanks to Sunday's contest).
At the same time, no team has had much success passing the ball against the Steelers this season, giving up the fewest passing yards per game thanks to a combination of pressure and excellent pass coverage. The Chargers haven't been too solid at running the ball, so despite Rivers' shortcomings and the offensive line being unable to protect him, San Diego was going to be forced to throw for much of this game, a fact that should have played right into the Steelers' hands.
Instead, their defense made the Chargers' passing offense look better than it has all season. Rivers had 114 passing yards and a touchdown by halftime and ended the day completing 21 of his 41 passes for 200 total yards and three touchdowns. He was sacked only once and did not turn the ball over. Pressure simply didn't get to him, and the Steelers secondary couldn't keep everyone well enough covered.
Though Chargers tight end Antonio Gates was a nonfactor, contributing only 31 yards on three catches, and aside from a touchdown, Malcom Floyd was well-contained, with three catches of his own for a mere 10 yards, their inability to shut down receiver Danario Alexander in particular hurt the Steelers the most on Sunday.
Every Steelers cornerback as well as safety Ryan Clark were tested by Alexander on Sunday, but corners Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown and Josh Victorian (yes, the Josh Victorian who was brought up from the practice squad earlier in the week) weathered the brunt of his damage. Both Allen and Brown were thrown to three times when covering Alexander, with only one of those passes—to Allen—going uncaught.
In all, Allen gave up 11 yards and 14 yards after the catch to Alexander, Brown 54 yards, 12 yards after the catch and a touchdown and Victorian (who had no business being on the field matched up with Alexander, especially in the end zone) one 15-yard touchdown catch. While Alexander presented a height mismatch for every member of the Steelers secondary—he's 6'5"—the Steelers haven't had trouble in the past shutting down passing games (they did so masterfully against the New York Giants, Washington Redskins and the Ravens in the previous week), regardless of how tall the targets are.
It was a failure of execution—it was as though the Steelers believed that Rivers could not possibly connect with Alexander or anyone else because of some inherent flaw in Rivers' passing, and not because of the problems he's had getting the ball out while under constant duress.
And that constant duress? It was nowhere to be found on Sunday. The Steelers seemed content to leave Rivers relatively unpressured—and when they did try to get at him, it was primarily via the blitz. And though the Chargers picked it up relatively well, Pittsburgh still didn't abandon it, going with blitz on 21 of Rivers' 43 dropbacks.
The result was nearly ideal in that he completed only half of his passes when blitzed, for a mere 79 yards, but it also resulted in two touchdowns, no sacks and no turnovers. Only traditional, non-blitz pressure seemed to have an effect on Rivers—those 13 pressured dropbacks yielded 11 pass attempts, only three completions and the lone sack on the day.
More traditional pass rushing rather than blitzing would have resulted in better results and not allowed all those touchdown passes—it's how the Bengals gave up over 100 receiving yards to Alexander in Week 13, but no Chargers offensive touchdowns. They simply brought unrelenting pressure any time it seemed like the Chargers were getting too close to their end zone. The Steelers did not mimic this approach, and they paid for it.
It's been a tough year for the Steelers when it comes to pressuring quarterbacks, with the team having just 26 sacks on the season, and as such, it's needed to rely on its secondary to shut down passing games rather than its defensive front.
But when the secondary falls flat, there seems to be no backup plan for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau—he only dials up more blitzes rather than trying to find other ways to bring pressure. It shouldn't have been all that difficult this week, considering the porous Chargers offensive line, but the Steelers didn't really try.
Quarterbacks take their fair share of both blame and credit when their teams lose and win, but in this particular loss, Roethlisberger was not the problem. The defense had a ready-made strategy for winning spelled out clearly for it, but completely failed to execute it, and the result was a shocking home loss. If the Steelers truly want to prove they are playoff contenders, then they have to put up wins—against the best and worst teams in the league. After this defensive nightmare, they clearly have more work to do.