It's the toughest opponent in the NFL. It might not come out on top every time, but the havoc it wreaks is always significant, often capable of bringing teams with rosters that at one time were talented and deep to their knees suddenly and with cold efficiency. It is a force to be reckoned with. Every. Single. Year.
Its name is attrition, and attrition, with an assist from the Los Angeles Chargers, combined to defeat the Steelers on Sunday night at Sofi Stadium, 41-37.
The most recent additions to Team Attrition here were T.J. Watt, Joe Haden, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Kevin Dotson, and Isaiahh Loudermilk. Ben Roethlisberger was released from a similar obligation when he tested negative for COVID early Saturday morning, which allowed him to rejoin the Steelers and start against the Chargers.
The defense had been the Steelers' pride and joy since the start of the 2019 season, and it's fair to point to the unit as the main reason the team was in the playoff chase right up to the start of the regular season finale that year despite having to play without Roethlisberger for all but six quarters of that 16-game slate. In fact, the last time the Steelers had traveled to California for a do-si-do with the Chargers they had arrived with Devlin Hodges as the starting quarterback and left with a 24-17 victory.
The Steelers accomplished that remarkable feat with a defense that stuffed the Chargers running attack, recorded three takeaways and a sack, turned Philip Rivers into a dink-and-dunk machine, and raced to a 24-0 lead they took into the fourth quarter.
Attrition wasn't to be fooled similarly again, and so it took bites out of the same defensive unit that had helped the Steelers escape with a victory the last time. Without Haden and Watt and Fitzpatrick, plus already being without Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt, and having lost Melvin Ingram at the trading deadline or risk having him undermine things from within, the defense was toothless against Justin Herbert, who today is a more formidable opponent than the 37-year-old Rivers was back then.
Herbert, the sixth overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, completed 73.1 percent of his 41 pass attempts for 382 yards, with three touchdowns, and the Chargers added another 159 yards rushing – 90 of which Herbert was personally responsible for on nine scrambles – to average 6.1 yards per attempt and added two rushing touchdowns by Austin Ekeler to Herbert's three passing touchdowns.
For the whole game, the Steelers defense allowed 33 first downs, 533 total net yards, 7.7 average yards per each of the Chargers 69 offensive plays, while forcing just one punt. And in the 10 offensive possessions the Chargers had before lining up in victory formation, they scored on seven of those.
"It was (about) us today," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "It was about what we did or did not do. No disrespect to those guys and what they did. They played well and won the football game. That's always our general approach and attitude. We didn't rush (Herbert) well enough. We didn't keep him in the pocket, and we were not tight enough in coverage."
Especially damaging were the occasions when Herbert converted third downs – and kept scoring drives alive – with his running. He escaped for 18 yards on a third-and-6; for another 18 yards to the Steelers 24-yard line on the same possession; for 13 yards on a third-and-5; for 15 yards on a third-and-3; for 36 yards on a third-and-13; and for 11 yards on a third-and-5.
Who specifically was responsible for allowing Herbert to escape is something for Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler to identify, but without Watt and with Ingram now in Kansas City having his usual game (one tackle, no sacks, no pressures in 44 defensive snaps) the guys responsible for the flanks in Los Angeles were Taco Charlton, Derrek Tuszka, and Delontae Scott, and to be fair to those players there were occasions when Herbert found equally open spaces right up the middle of the field.
Whether Herbert was escaping out one of the side doors or out the front, he was gashing the Steelers defense for hunks of yards and doing it on possession downs that soon thereafter resulted in the Chargers ringing up the scoreboard. Again.
"We just weren't effective at keeping him in the pocket," said Tomlin. "We talked Tuesday about his mobility and what a factor it was. It wasn't a surprise to us. We just didn't perform well enough against it."
Clearly, a reality of the NFL is that not all next men up are created equal.
That factoid not only applies to candidates for Defensive Player of the Year, but also to first-team All-Pro safeties. While Fitzpatrick has been criticized for a lack of interceptions only to have Tomlin point to his "communication" skills in keeping the back end of the defense on the same page, what happened on the game-deciding 53-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams was evidence supporting Tomlin's viewpoint.
Maybe looking for an interception, maybe confused by the Chargers bunch formation, or maybe just generally confused about how to execute the defensive play-call, two Steelers committed to one of the Chargers eligibles only to leave Williams unattended as he turned up the left sideline and began to separate. By the time rookie Tre Norwood recognized the gaffe, and that took maybe one second in real time, Herbert had delivered the ball and the Chargers soon would take their final lead of the game.
The loss dropped the Steelers to 5-4-1, which puts them in third place in the AFC North and not currently among the top seven teams in the AFC that would qualify for the playoffs. Their next two games are at Cincinnati to be followed by the first of the annual home-and-home bar brawls with Baltimore, with the Dec. 5 edition currently scheduled for a 4:25 p.m. kickoff at Heinz Field.
And their chances to win those games and thrust themselves back into the playoff chase will be better if they're only tasked with facing the Bengals and the Ravens, and not attrition as well.