The Chargers are keenly familiar with misfortune. Miscues and mishaps characterized a recent era of Chargers football. Eleven weeks into his tenure, coach Brandon Staley has displayed the aptitude needed to flip that narrative, but recent home defeats to the Patriots and Vikings served as stark reminders that the Chargers’ demons of self-sabotage aren’t so easily exorcised. And despite a strong start Sunday night against the Steelers, L.A. appeared on the verge of continuing that trend in the fourth quarter.
Through 45 minutes of prime-time football, the Chargers looked every bit the playoff contender many consider them to be, dominating the Steelers behind the stellar play of their young superstar quarterback, Justin Herbert. Yet, it was how Los Angeles handled an adverse final 15 minutes inside SoFi Stadium that might be more revelatory of where the Chargers stand as a team.
The Chargers entered the fourth quarter holding a 17-point lead. Eleven minutes of game time later, that lead had completely evaporated.
Early in the fourth, a Chris Boswell field goal trimmed L.A.’s advantage to 14, then the Chargers offense stalled and went three-and-out, punting for the first time. Ty Long’s first punt, a 50-yarder, was called back due to offsetting penalties. His second attempt was blocked by safety Miles Killebrew, setting up Pittsburgh inside L.A.’s 5-yard line.
Momentarily, the Chargers defense looked as though it had rescued momentum when safety Nasir Adderley picked off a Ben Roethlisberger pass on fourth-and-goal, but a pass interference call reset Pittsburgh’s downs. Najee Harris plunged into the end zone from 1 yard out to pull the Steelers within seven with 11:35 remaining. The Chargers responded with a touchdown, but the Steelers answered with a score to Eric Ebron with 4:49 left that narrowed the L.A. lead to seven, 34-27. Two plays later, a Herbert pass was batted into the air, hanging up so long that it felt like it dropped in slow motion into the arms of Pittsburgh’s Cameron Sutton. Another two plays later, Roethlisberger threw a game-tying touchdown to Pat Freiermuth. Terrible Towels twirled throughout the arena’s stands.
After failing to convert on fourth-and-1 from their own 34-yard line and another Boswell field goal, L.A. trailed by three with three minutes remaining. The Steelers scored 27 points in the fourth quarter, and the “Same Old Chargers” narrative flooded social media feeds. Along L.A.’s sideline, however, nerves stayed calm.
“We were ready for it,” Staley said of the Steelers’ comeback, “because we played nine games before today where we’ve been preparing for a fourth quarter like that. When the fourth quarter happened the way it did, our guys stayed connected. We played our best at the end. We finished the game on our terms.”
In Sunday’s most pivotal moments, these Chargers backed up their belief that this is a new era for the franchise. First, with over two minutes left, Herbert fielded a snap on the right hash, and—within 2.5 seconds—uncorked a rope to Mike Williams down the left sideline. The wideout outraced defensive back Tre Norwood—a fill-in for All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (COVID-19 protocols)—to score a go-ahead, 53-yard touchdown.
“That throw,” said Staley, in admiration, following the game. “The recognition on that throw—they’re playing trap [coverage] where the corner is baiting him into throwing it to Keenan [Allen] in the flat. He’s probably going to wait on it to steal it for a touchdown. Justin knew that he was waiting on him, and he ripped it for Mike in the turkey-hole shot to close it out. That’s real quarterbacking stuff.”
L.A. defensive linemen Kyler Fackrell and Joey Bosa then sent the Steelers packing with back-to-back sacks on the ensuing drive. Pittsburgh turned it over on downs, which secured a 41-37 victory for the Chargers, who snapped a two-game home losing streak to improve to 6-4.
“[Pittsburgh] battled back,” safety Derwin James said. “They got some momentum, and we put a fire out. We got the job done. We got the win.”
The chaos of the fourth quarter overshadowed the Chargers’ dominance throughout the first three frames. Herbert was efficient, taking advantage of a Steelers defense missing Fitzpatrick and star pass rusher T.J. Watt. The Chargers signal-caller went 30-for-41 with 382 yards, three TDs, and one pick, behind an offensive line that posted ESPN’s highest pass-block win rate of the week through Sunday.
Herbert also took advantage of Pittsburgh’s two-man under looks, rushing nine times for a career-high 90 yards. Despite the Steelers discouraging the deep ball (Herbert posted a 5.3-yard average depth of target, according to RBSDM.com), he capitalized in the quick game, and he occasionally relied on his thunderbolt arm strength to fit remarkable completions between defenders, targeting Allen (nine catches, 112 yards) and Williams (five catches, 97 yards, one TD) downfield.
if an S-tier throw happens and no one talks about it. Did it ever happen? pic.twitter.com/vOPNUDKmsh— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) November 22, 2021
This is just utterly stupid pic.twitter.com/58FsRfoIX1— Kaelen Jones (@kaelenjones) November 22, 2021
Running back Austin Ekeler thrived as a safety valve in the receiving game (six catches, 65 yards, two TDs) and a playmaker in the run game (11 carries, 50 yards, two TDs). The epic performance helped his team and his fantasy squad alike.
“[Fantasy managers] cannot be complaining tonight, you know?” Ekeler joked.
Neither could the Chargers, who enjoyed a dreamlike start Sunday; each of their first five drives produced points, resulting in a 27-10 lead. But that dream turned into a familiar nightmare late in the contest, with yet another home crowd favoring the visiting side, rallying behind a tough opponent as it gained momentum.
“That environment was really, really challenging for us,” Staley said. “We stayed together the whole game. We played with tremendous energy tonight.”
The Chargers of old would have faltered given such an inexplicable and stunning turnaround. Out of frustration a few weeks ago following a defeat to the Patriots, Allen told reporters, “It’s the same thing, every year. Beating ourselves, same thing over and over.”
The difference: This season, amid the stress, the Chargers don’t quit searching for ways to win. In Sunday’s contest, they identified them. Herbert’s legs forced Pittsburgh to tweak its defensive approach, though Mike Tomlin’s side never really found a solution. Despite Roethlisberger defying Father Time and targeting the intermediate areas of the field with early success, the Chargers’ pass rush made an impact late. L.A. sported the NFL’s worst run defense (entered Week 11 last in rush EPA allowed), yet held Pittsburgh to 55 total rush yards and 3.1 yards per carry.
Finally, the most notable adjustments came on the game-winning score. Herbert had told Williams on the sideline to be prepared for the ball on that specific play after spotting the defense’s tendencies on similar variations of the call earlier in the game. Ekeler delivered a key block on a blitzing slot corner, enabling Herbert to get the ball to Williams.
Asked what the difference between last season and this season is, Herbert noted the trust permeating the locker room. “I think it’s the mentality heading into the game and knowing that you have the right guys, that you’ve been through it in practice and you’ve experienced it,” Herbert said. “We’ve gone through a couple games so far this year, putting away games. I felt like we could’ve done a better job out there tonight, but to be able to come back, bounce back after a couple of close losses, I think it’s huge for us.”
The Chargers have played the most difficult schedule so far based on DVOA, according to Football Outsiders. Staley and his players are probably tired of hearing questions about the Same Old Chargers every week, but they’ve played in so many close games (5-3 in one-possession games), that it’s understandable why the narrative keeps getting brought up. (Those demons are said to come in sevens, after all.) Regardless, it only reaffirms a foremost goal for the Chargers this season, one that coaches and players are indirectly trying to achieve: Shed the narrative of past teams, and lay a foundation for a winning culture.
“I feel like we’ve shown real stuff through 10 games,” Staley said. “I’m really proud of this group. This game was one of my favorites, for sure.”
With the second-easiest future schedule remaining, the Chargers are in position to usher in their new era on an emphatic note. They are still in contention for the AFC West crown behind the re-energized Chiefs, and should factor into the conference playoff picture otherwise as the season enters the homestretch. Maybe by its conclusion, “Same Old Chargers” will bear a different meaning.