Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Chargers Over Steelers

Any Given Sunday: Chargers Over Steelers
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

The San Diego Chargers, freed from their expectations of winning the Super Bowl, winning the AFC West, and just plain winning, managed to stymie the Pittsburgh Steelers by a score of 34-24. Despite the 34 points, most of the Steelers defense actually played rather well: Philip Rivers notched just 4.9 yards per attempt, and Ryan Mathews and the non-franchise running game garnered only 2.6 yards per rush. The Steelers outgained the Chargers despite the passing game -- Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace in particular -- getting off to a slow start in Ben Roethlisberger's return.

One of the reasons that defensive performance wasn't as good as it seemed was context. As J.J. Cooper noted both in Audibles and in Under Pressure last week, the Chargers were starting a pair of tackles with zero starts this season. Kevin Haslem, in fact, was making his first start ever. On the right side, former guard Reggie Wells, who wasn't on an NFL roster last season, started in place of Jeromey Clary. At one point, Nick Hardwick made his way to the sideline with an ankle injury, and the Chargers were left with just one lineman who started the opener: right guard Louis Vasquez.

Despite this stunning lack of talent, the Steelers managed just one sack and Rivers was relatively clean on most of his dropbacks. Pittsburgh has hit the point where without LaMarr Woodley, they can't count on any of their linebackers to consistently generate pressure. James Harrison is getting long in the tooth, and Jason Worilds and Chris Carter have not developed into contributors yet. Rivers still struggled a bit, because the Steelers covered well outside of a few notable busts, but even a mediocre quarterback (as Rivers has been most of this season) can beat you with enough time.

Another reason was the butt-pass. A wideout screen from the Pittsburgh 8 aimed at Brown was deflected off the bum of reserve tight end David Paulson after he was shoved back at the line, and the football bounced into the end zone. Brown tried to pick it up, but left it on the turf rather than kicking it away for a safety. Finally, Chargers cornerback Quentin Jammer landed on it in the end zone, gifting San Diego seven points. That was some ass luck for the Steelers.

Finally, part of what explained the butt-pass in the first place was the terrible starting field position. The Chargers were gifted the ball in Steelers territory five times in this game, including four straight times in the second quarter. They scored just 17 points on those five possessions. The Steelers started just one drive in San Diego territory, and started ten separate drives at or behind their own 20-yard line. On a day where neither offense really played well at all, special teams and field position were able to deliver an edge to the Chargers.

The good news for A.J. Smith is that the special teams are finally fixed, two years later. The bad news is that he probably won't be around to reap the benefits of it.

By the VOA

Another virtual tie. As I just pointed out, special teams were the big difference maker for San Diego.

Norv's Last Hurrah
SD -2.5% 7.0% 19.6% 10.1%
PIT -8.1% -7.0% 8.9% 7.8%

DVOA regresses both offenses and defenses below average. Watching the first half of this game, I can't tell you how right that feels.

Call of the Game

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One of the keys to completing an unlikely comeback is managing the little things correctly. While it turned out to be irrelevant in the grand scheme of the game, Mike Tomlin's decision to go for one after a score that cut San Diego's lead to 34-16 with six minutes left was incredibly stupid.

To put it simply: football is measured in possessions. Each possession nets you a chance to score, at most, eight points. In this case, had the Steelers notched eight points, they would have been within 16 of tying the game. Or, you know, two possessions. Given how poorly San Diego's offense had played for much of the game, it was far from inconceivable that the Steelers would get the ball back again. Getting it back twice would probably require an onside kick. Getting it back three times was probably going to require a big San Diego blunder.

Tomlin kicked the extra point, meaning the Steelers were three possessions away from continuing the game instead of two. Had Pittsburgh successfully converted an onside kick they got a crack at with 58 seconds left, and completed a pair of two-point conversions along the way, they would have been driving to tie the game. Instead, they were just running out the clock.

Spotlight on: The Drive

No, not that drive. Man, that would be a fun change of pace from this game. Can I write about that instead, Aaron? Aaron is saying no.

Anyway, the Chargers had one offensive drive of overwhelming competence: a 17-play barnburner that started the second half. It ran 9:27 off the clock and involved the patented "death by a thousand paper cuts" strategy: the Chargers had just one play that gained more than nine yards on the drive. According to the CBS crew, it was the second-longest drive of the season. So let's take a play-by-play look at it.

First-and-10 from the San Diego 22, 14:55 in the third quarter, Ryan Mathews rushed for a one-yard gain.

San Diego comes out in a bunch formation, motioning a tight end to the right. Pittsburgh is in base 3-4 personnel. Vasquez cannot keep Ziggy Hood from getting past his face, and the angle that Mathews is forced to take allows Lawrence Timmons to get past Wells and make the tackle relatively quickly.

Second-and-9 from the San Diego 23, 14:16 in the third quarter, Philip Rivers passed to Danario Alexander for an eight-yard gain.

San Diego has three receivers wide, with a tight end in motion to the right. Pittsburgh stays in their base defense, with a safety cheated up slightly on the side where San Diego has two receivers wide. Pittsburgh brings five. Rivers throws a screen to Alexander. He cuts it up the middle because Haslem couldn't get the outside edge on the safety, and Alexander settles for eight.

Third-and-1 from the San Diego 31, 13:33 in the third quarter, Philip Rivers passed to Danario Alexander for another eight-yard gain.

Three receivers again this time from San Diego. They have a flexed Antonio Gates on the right, so it's trips on that side. Pittsburgh counters with a nickel package that has just one down lineman. They show man across the board on everyone but Gates, who is covered by the standup outside linebacker, Worilds. Both middle linebackers (Harrison and Larry Foote) cheat to the line, Harrison coming late in the cadence. They both come, and Worilds stays in coverage while Pittsburgh drops seven. Rivers hits Alexander on a quick slant after he clears safety Ryan Clark, who was headed towards Ronnie Brown in the flat.

First-and-10 from the San Diego 39, 12:52 in the third quarter, Philip Rivers passed incomplete to the left.

San Diego comes out with three tight ends to the right, Pittsburgh in base personnel with both safeties deep. It's a play-action shot, but Brett Keisel comes unblocked into Rivers' face. It looked like there was some confusion on the line as guard Rex Hadnot turned backwards at the snap, leaving the path clear for Keisel. Haslem tried to get there, leaving the outside man behind, but he had too much ground to cover to catch Keisel. Rivers threw it wildly in the direction of his checkdown, Dante Rosario.

Second-and-10 from the San Diego 39, 12:48 in the third quarter, Ryan Mathews rushed for a seven-yard gain.

I-Formation for San Diego, with both receivers to the right. Pittsburgh is in base personnel, with Worilds over the slot receiver and the cornerback on the (offense's) left tight to the line of scrimmage. Every Chargers lineman gets a hat on somebody, but fullback Le'Ron McClain has to aim for right tackle Wells' man, because he couldn't move fast enough to seal him. Mathews was not touched until he hit the 45.

Third-and-3 from the San Diego 46, 12:02 in the third quarter, Philip Rivers passed to Michael Spurlock for a five-yard gain.

Another nickel versus three wide and a flexed Gates battle. The Steelers have two down linemen this time, and show man-to-man with just one safety deep at the Pittsburgh 40. I have no idea why Rivers didn't snap it early to take advantage of how late Curtis Brown was running across the field to take the lone receiver on the right.

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Foote cheats up to the line again, but drops this time. The Steelers again have seven in coverage. Rivers was locked in on Spurlock the entire way after he motioned in, and then out, with Cortez Allen closely following. It was a very simple throw-and-catch. Zero pressure.

First-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 49, 11:25 in the third quarter, Jackie Battle rushed for a two-yard gain.

Offset I-Formation, twins right for San Diego. Base 3-4 for Pittsburgh. This time they did not cover the slot receiver. McClain had to dive inside to help Wells deal with Worilds. The center Hardwick was screened by Hood and was late getting to Foote, so by the time Battle got the ball, both the inside and outside holes on this run were filled. He picked the outside, and Timmons had an easy tackle.

Second-and-8 from the Pittsburgh 47, 10:41 in the third quarter, Ryan Mathews rushed for a nine-yard gain.

This time, the Chargers run an offset I-Formation with two tight ends, and their only receiver is barely outside the hashmarks. Pittsburgh is in base and Troy Polamalu is quickly in the box, leaving Ryan Clark alone at about the Pittsburgh 30. San Diego ran a counter and got Mathews outside with good seals by Vasquez and Gates. Mathews ran laterally past linebacker Foote, and was untouched until left cornerback Allen nudged him on the outside.

First-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 38, 10:08 in the third quarter, Philip Rivers passed incomplete to the left

Offset I-Formation gets another whirl, but San Diego has two receivers outside this time. The Steelers are again in base 3-4 personnel. The Chargers play-fake a swing pass to the left, and try to enact a screen to the right, but defensive end Hood sniffs it out and sits right on top of the fullback McClain. Give credit to the Steelers: they were all over the Chargers' screen attempts in this game. San Diego had just one completion to a running back on six passes.

Second-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 38, 10:02 in the third quarter, Philip Rivers rushed for a five-yard gain.

The Chargers come out with a basic single-back, two-tight end set. The Steelers again use their base 3-4. Rivers drops right back, the Chargers have six blockers and the Steelers only rush four. By my count, Rivers has two open receivers when he is forced to run, but he locked in on Gates, who fell down on his route. Harrison beat Haslem when the offensive tackle's push to bring him wide barely did so at all. Rivers ran forward meekly before deciding not to throw the ball across his body.

Third-and-5 from the Pittsburgh 33, 9:35 in the third quarter, Philip Rivers passed to Danario Alexander for a seven-yard gain.

A flexed Gates with trips to the right for the Chargers, and the Steelers had just one down lineman again, with six bodies around the first few yards of the line of scrimmage. They rushed five, with Worilds dropping late. That left two unblocked rushers. Ronnie Brown held the blitzing linebacker Foote at bay with a nice block, and the late rusher Harrison had an alley towards Rivers, but was running in quicksand. Rivers made a back-shoulder throw to Alexander and Curtis Brown couldn't adjust quickly enough to harass the ball at all.

First-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 26, 8:47 in the third quarter, Ryan Mathews rushed for a two-yard gain.

The Chargers come out in an offset I-Formation, with two tight ends to the right side of the line including a flexed Gates. The Steelers move Polamalu into the box over Gates, and have Harris as the lone deep safety at about the Pittsburgh 9.

They run away from the tight ends, and Mathews sheds Timmons with a stiff arm to the helmet that gets him back past the line of scrimmage on the stretch play. McClain was no help as he wasn't quick enough to get outside and banged into Haslem's man.

Is it just me, or is Mathews the only player doing anything special on this drive so far? Alexander has done alright feasting on Curtis Brown, but most of what they've done so far seems to be the work of the scheme more than anything. Rivers hasn't attempted one tough throw.

Second-and-8 from the Pittsburgh 26, 8:14 in the third quarter, San Diego committed a five-yard penalty.

Delay of game, on the offense.

Second-and-13 from the Pittsburgh 29, 7:48 in the third quarter, Philip Rivers passed incomplete to the left.

The Chargers show four receivers split evenly wide of the line, including a flexed Gates. The Steelers have two corners and Polamalu about 10 yards downfield on their men, Clark roaming at about the Pittsburgh 10, and a linebacker about five yards downfield over Gates. They don't have a single defender down at the snap, just six men in the box and four near the line. Five of them come, the protection is very good (another good Brown blitz pickup) and Rivers is unharassed. The throw leaves a lot to be desired, as Malcom Floyd had a step on Keenan Lewis to the outside, but Rivers threw it out of bounds.

Third-and-13 from the Pittsburgh 29, 7:43 in the third quarter, Ronnie Brown rushed for a 17-yard gain.

Gates starts out behind the line this time, The Steelers are in a Cover-2 shell with corners over every wideout. Clark and Polamalu are at about the Pittsburgh 15. The Steelers have two down linemen and six in the box. The blocking on the give-up draw play is flawless, and Brown skips right past Clark before Polamalu tackles him at the 12 to save the touchdown.

First-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 12, 7:00 in the third quarter, Ryan Mathews rushed for a two-yard gain.

Single-back, two receivers wide with Gates flexed in the left slot for San Diego. The Steelers are in base 3-4 personnel with their corners giving about six yards off the line. It looks like Randy McMichael is helping on an end rather than taking care of his responsibility, Foote, who finds an easy path to Mathews for the stuff just past the line of scrimmage.

Second-and-8 from the Pittsburgh 10, 6:17 in the third quarter, Ryan Mathews rushed for a seven-yard gain.

The draw worked so well two downs ago that San Diego decided to try it again. They came out with three receivers, including a slot wideout to the left. The Steelers indicated some kind of hybrid coverage with their two corners tight to the line on the left and Alexander left more open on the right side. Spurlock motioned in behind the slot receiver, leading Curtis Brown with him. The Steelers had just one down lineman with their typical six in the box. Clark is at the 2, Polamalu is in the end zone to the left. Good blocking lets Mathews get head on with Polamalu at the 3.

Third-and-1 from the Pittsburgh 3, 5:28 in the third quarter, Philip Rivers passed to Malcom Floyd for a three-yard touchdown.

Let's not overcomplicate this: Rivers turns to play-fake to nobody, then finds Floyd on a short out over Keenan Lewis. No other portions of the play were actually relevant.

Is the fact that the Chargers had a 17-play drive a badge of honor, or is it the reason they've had such problems scoring in the first place? I'm not completely sure. But as long as Rivers is unable to really work the intermediate or deep routes without manipulation, it's going to be hard to sustain a drive. It's going to take things like zero pass rush and converted third-and-long draws. San Diego has a lot of decisions to make this offseason, but the most important one is figuring out the answer to these two questions:

Can Rivers bounce back?

If so, how much?


8 comments, Last at 13 Dec 2012, 5:23pm

1 Re: Any Given Sunday: Chargers Over Steelers

This is a game where I'd really love to see it the subject of a Word of Muth column: SD's starting a bunch of flotsam and jetsam scooped up in the nets, playing against a pretty solid defense, and yet come out with the W. Special teams and butt-passes aside, it'd be nice to learn if guys like Haslem and Wells actually rose to the occasion or if there was scheme help and smart play-calling to minimize exposure to disaster or if the perception of SD competence was really...well, just the effect of good special teams and a tight end mistaking what the name of his position means.

2 Re: Any Given Sunday: Chargers Over Steelers

Did not see the game, but just reading about it the field position battle will remiond Colts fans of the infamous Mike Scifres playoff game (or Charger fans of the famous Mike Scifres playoff game)((and Dwight Freeney of Marcus McNeil's hands inside his facemask a half dozen times, but I digress)). Key to victory: start at or beyond your 40 roughly six times and have your opponent's average starting LOS be around their own 15. That, my friends, is a stacked deck.

6 Re: Any Given Sunday: Chargers Over Steelers

Good game. Clark was effective in the first half, then the Chargers put Weddle on him man to man and he disappeared. Punts downed inside the 5 yard line, and backup qb's with screen passes to Sproles for the victory.

How far the Charger's offense has declined -- especially on the offensive line and RB depth.

4 Re: Any Given Sunday: Chargers Over Steelers

Is it just me, or is Mathews the only player doing anything special on this drive so far?

Its not just you. I know this will sound like heresy for many, but Mathews actually does have some talent for running fast with a football. Unfortunately it has come out only rarely, due to a combination of factors. Some are in his control (fumbling and pass pro issues) some are out of his control (injuries, a ghastly O-line situation consisting of far too many UDFA's and castoffs). Its frustrating to watch because you can see glimpses of it even in a seemingly pedestrian effort like Sunday. He'll turn a what should be 2 yard loss into a 1 yard gain, or a 2 yard gain into 5 yard gain. It doesn't look pretty in the box score but watching the tape you can tell that he's stealing yards that a replacement level back wouldn't be able to get.

Can Rivers bounce back?


If so, how much?

I think the answer to that is directly related to the investment San Diego is willing to make in its offensive line in the offseason.

7 Re: Any Given Sunday: Chargers Over Steelers

I agree. One of the comments in the article was " I have no idea why Rivers didn't snap it early to take advantage of how late Curtis Brown was running across the field to take the lone receiver on the right."

I do, he probably doesn't trust his O-line to execute.

5 Re: Any Given Sunday: Chargers Over Steelers

It says a lot about AJ Smith that the Chargers' "best" receiver this year is a street free agent with a history of injury problems. The pieces SD has for the passing game are not now suited to the roles they play in Turner's offense: Gates hasn't made enough plays against single-coverage; Floyd's main skill is making tough catches when he fails to get open; Turner's offense has never made much use of slot receivers, making the Royal signing a mystery; and Meachem has failed to replace Jackson's deep game. Vincent Brown's ankle injury deprived the team of its best pass-catcher.

Rivers has no time to throw, and no one to throw to when he has time. He's made better decisions in this offense when he had better personnel; and I think he'd make better decisions in a spread offense which put less premium on the individual talent of the WR/TE corps.

What do the rest of you think?

8 Re: Any Given Sunday: Chargers Over Steelers

Rivers did excellent in 2010 passing to 17 different receivers with Jackson out most of the year and Gates injured most of it. Guys off the street were starting at WR. One of these guys caught his first NFL pass and put the ball on the ground before being touched by a defender in a shootout game with NE.

The biggest differences in offensive talent then versus now are:

* Two pro bowl offensive linemen on the left side and O-line chemistry throughout the year.
* Darren Sproles

The combination of the two above also makes a strong screen passing game which can help open up other opportunities.

Yes, better talent at WR this year would help; but the experience in 2010 tells me that a good O-line is far, far more important than good WRs.