It seems unfair to laugh at a Pittsburgh team that roared back from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter of a game to take a three-point lead with just over three minutes left to go. That’s an incredible achievement, and one that should have led to an all-important win in the push for the playoff spots in the AFC. Regardless, I am here to laugh at the Steelers’ complete ineptitude in the final three minutes of Sunday night’s fireworks showcase against the Chargers, because they choked hard enough to offset a nearly total collapse from the home team.
After Chris Boswell made the game 37-34 for Pittsburgh with 3:24 left in the game, the Chargers took over from their own 25 and promptly moved to midfield, thanks to Austin Ekeler busting out a nifty 17-yard catch. With the ball at their own 47, Los Angeles sent Mike Williams on a go route down the left side and … no one picked him up.
It looked like there was a blown coverage decision between Cameron Sutton and Tre Norwood, because Sutton simply left Williams with acres of space to make the catch. At that point, Norwood put in a gentleman’s effort to try to stop Williams, with predictable results. The Chargers would hit the extra point and go up 41-37, though that lead didn’t feel safe after Los Angeles gave up a whopping 27 points in the final frame. In fact, I was fully expecting Pittsburgh to march right back down the field. That is not what happened.
On first down of the ensuing drive, Ben Roethlisberger took an eight-yard sack courtesy of Kyler Fackrell. Not a great start, but not dooming, at least not in the way that the next play surely was. Joey Bosa may not be most people’s shining example of a good human, but he’s a frightening pass rusher who bullied his way through the Steelers’ offensive line on second down, blasting by and just rocking Roethlisberger’s shit for 11 more yards. There aren’t many plays in the playbook for third-and-29, and a delay of game on fourth down didn’t help matters for Pittsburgh, who tried what looked to be some form of hook-and-lateral action from its own three-yard line. It went incomplete, and the Chargers avoided the ignominy of giving Pittsburgh its first 17-point fourth-quarter comeback in 231 tries.
It should have really never gotten to that point. The Steelers defense wasn’t just ass on the Williams touchdown above, but rather for most of the game. Los Angeles moved at will for three quarters, with Justin Herbert easily finding his loaded receiver core, as well as Ekeler, who finished with 115 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns on the day. The Chargers defense was also holding mostly steady, limiting Roethlisberger and co. to just 10 points in the first 45 minutes. A Sunday night blowout is disappointing, though, so bless the Chargers for completely falling apart in the fourth.
Suddenly, every Pittsburgh drive ended in points: Two field goals bookended a string of three straight touchdowns, a blistering sequence of action that included a three-yard touchdown drive that followed a blocked punt, an interception returned to the 11-yard line, and a turnover on downs when Los Angeles boldly and commendably went for it on fourth-and-1 from its own 34, rather than punt away.
That’s what led to Boswell’s field goal and the chain of events that eventually ended the game at 41-37, so the risk didn’t end up costing the Chargers. It very nearly could have, though. If Pittsburgh had just not left Williams wide open on what turned out to be the game-deciding play, or if the Steelers’ offensive line didn’t give up two of its three sacks on the final drive, perhaps this blog would be about a monumental, season-defining collapse from the boys in powder blue. Instead, Herbert picked the exact right time to find an easy target, Williams out-raced Norwood to the end zone, and the Chargers went to bed knowing that they didn’t blow it quite as hard as Pittsburgh did. Sometimes, that’s enough for a good night’s sleep.