The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers campaign thus far can be summarized with a single word: Inconsistency. It could not be more evident than in the 41-37 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. The most impressive offensive showing of the season began with 3 consecutive drives into the Chargers red zone and ended with a frantic 27-point 4th quarter which the Steelers take the lead with 3:29 to play.
And on the verge of the biggest 4th quarter comeback in franchise history, a horrendous defensive effort undid everything in only 3 plays, allowing a Justin Herbert to connect with wide open Mike Williams on a ludicrously easy 53-yard TD and kill the Steelers comeback. It also brings into question the coaching decision of Mike Tomlin that tried to coordinate a complicated and ill-fated slot blitz with a rookie Tre Norwood and first year starter Cam Sutton to give up the easy TD.
It was the worst performance of the season by the Steelers defense, which has been maddeningly inconsistent all season. It was also not to be completely unexpected as the unit was missing T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden. It also was far too easily exploited as the Chargers amassed over 500 yards of offense and the first time the Steelers defense has surrendered more than 30 points since Week 1 of 2019.
There was no adjustment of any kind as the Chargers ran over the left side all night and allowed Herbert 90 yards rushing and left Cam Heyward frustrated with the performance. After witnessing that weak effort, one can only wonder how much Lamar Jackson will ultimately amass. It’s not the first time the Steelers have been easily owned vs. the run this year. The defensive line has been a shambles since Tyson Alualu was lost for the season and the MIA of Stephon Tuitt (who should either retire or make a statement).
Without Watt, the Steelers couldn’t generate any consistent pass rush. Alex Highsmith was the only LB that challenged, but wasn’t making the big play. But the biggest disappointment of the front 7 was Devin Bush, who was chasing after Austin Ekeler all game. Bush was supposed to be a big play ILB but his stock has never been lower after his embarrassing performance Sunday night as Ekeler scored 4 TDs himself.
The defense did not generate a big play until the 4th quarter, when Heyward deflected a pass and Sutton snagged it out of the air. It was a momentary reminder of what the Steelers defense has done in recent seasons by generating turnovers and what it can spark for the offense. Ben Roethlisberger was able to connect on two TD passes in 31 seconds to take advantage of the opportunity.
But the defense was not alone in inconsistency. The Steelers offense joins right in as they drove down to the red zone on the first two possessions, emerging with only a FG and a failed conversion effort with 3 attempts from 2 yards out and 0 yards gained.
The offensive line has been spotty all season, and Sunday night was no exception. Despite facing the 32nd ranked rushing defense in the NFL, the OL couldn’t generate any running room for Najee Harris, who ended up with a mere 39 yards on 12 carries. The frustration was also clearly shown from Harris as the Chargers took multiple dirty and cheap shots on the explosive rookie – with no flags – and looked as much mafia paid off as when the teams last faced off in 2018.
When the Steelers did get the ball back, they had a very real chance with Roethlisberger to challenge for a game winning TD as they had a timeout and 2:09 remaining. The Chargers proved incapable of stopping Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool all game, but they never even got an opportunity. Joe Haeg capped off a perfect summation of the offensive line’s performance on the game, getting burned in surrendering back-to-back sacks and ending any spark of a final drive before it started.
At the end of the game, the Steelers showed heart, determination and grit to comeback and nearly win a game they were being destroyed in as 3 of their top 4 defensive players were out. At the same time was a painfully poor effort for 3 quarters that leave the Steelers season, that only two weeks ago appeared on the verge of taking over first place in the AFC North to start questioning where the team is headed in the 2nd half of the 2021 campaign.