Chargers' ugly start hits new low in loss to ailing Steelers

This is not how the Los Angeles Chargers’ season was supposed to start.

Fresh off a 12-4 2018 outing under rookie head coach Anthony Lynn, there was hope in L.A. that the Chargers would challenge the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC West.

After Sunday’s ugly home loss to a Pittsburgh Steelers team led by an undrafted rookie quarterback, that hope looks like a pipe dream.

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Devlin Hodges, Steelers sink Chargers to new low

Leaning on an aggressive defense and an offense focused on running backs James Conner and Benny Snell Jr., the Steelers held on for a 24-17 road win over the Chargers in their makeshift soccer stadium filled with black-and-gold clad fans waving Terrible Towels.

They did so behind emergency quarterback Devlin Hodges, who played admirably in place of backup Mason Rudolph, who watched from the sideline while suffering the effects of a concussion suffered last week against the Baltimore Ravens.

While Hodges limited his mistakes in a gameplan built to that effect, Philip Rivers and the Chargers made plenty in a game they were expected to win handily against an ailing opponent playing 2,500 miles from home.

Oct 13, 2019; Carson, CA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) celebrates with wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) his touchdown scored against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first half at Dignity Health Sports Park. (USA TODAY Sports)
Oct 13, 2019; Carson, CA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) celebrates with wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) his touchdown scored against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first half at Dignity Health Sports Park. (USA TODAY Sports)

Early Rivers mistakes doom Chargers

Rivers got the ball rolling on the loss on the Chargers’ second possession, throwing a backward pass over the head of running back Melvin Gordon that Steelers linebacker Devin Bush scooped up at the 13-yard line and ran in for a touchdown.

On Los Angeles’ next possession, Rivers couldn’t get a pass beyond the outstretched right hand of Steelers defensive end Tyson Alualu, who batted the ball up for grabs. Bush obliged with his second turnover in as many possessions, intercepting the errant pass in Chargers territory to set the Steelers up for an eventual Conner touchdown run.

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When Chase McLaughlin clanged a 43-yard field goal off the left upright as halftime approached, the game felt lost for the Chargers.

Chargers rally falls short

But the Chargers finally found a rhythm in the fourth quarter to make things close after being shut out through three quarters. Rivers found tight end Hunter Henry for a pair of late touchdowns, and the Chargers ended up with the ball on their own 1-yard line trailing by seven with 1:03 remaining.

But Rivers’ desperation heave down the sideline ended up in the hands of Steelers cornerback Cameron Sutton, who put an end to the game with the interception.

Hodges outplays Rivers

Hodges finished the night hitting 15-of-20 pass attempts for 132 yards and a touchdown. His only mistake was a forced deep pass on first down in the fourth quarter that safety Rayshawn Jenkins intercepted to set up Los Angeles for its second and final touchdown. Conner tallied 41 yards on the ground and 78 through the air with a pair of touchdowns, whiled Snell ran for 75 yards, helping the Steelers milk clock in the second half.

Rivers finished hitting 26-of-44 pass attempts for 320 yards and two touchdowns. His fumble and pair of interceptions ultimately doomed the Chargers. Meanwhile, the touted running duo of Gordon and Austin Ekeler tallied a total of 32 yards on the ground on 13 attempts as Los Angeles was forced to abandon its running game early.

What now for Chargers?

It’s another tough loss for the Chargers, who fall into a last-place tie with the Denver Broncos in the AFC West, two games behind the Chiefs. They needed overtime to beat the Indianapolis Colts in Week 1 and beat the inept Miami Dolphins in Week 4. And that’s it. They’ve now lost to the Steelers, Broncos, Houston Texans and Detroit Lions.

Two games out of first place is far from an insurmountable deficit after Week 6. But the Chargers looked little like a team that can dig out of that hole in losing to a team picking up just its second win of the season on Sunday.

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