CARSON, Ca. – This Steelers defense is the real deal, and it supported the case for itself by adding two more elements to its resume. Scoring touchdowns and closing out a victory with a stop against a top-caliber quarterback in the game's final minute.
The Steelers defeated the Los Angeles Chargers, 24-17, Sunday night at a quaint soccer field known as Dignity Health Sports Park, and they are 2-4 going into their bye largely as a result of how their defense began the game and then finished it off.
With Mason Rudolph having been concussed the previous Sunday at Heinz Field, the Steelers pretty much knew for certain that they would be starting their third different quarterback vs. the Chargers. And despite the excitement for the debut of the man they call "Duck," Devlin Hodges would be the most inexperienced guy under center for the Steelers since, well, since Rudolph got his first professional start less than a month ago.
Since the Steelers seem to be in the business this season of devising ways to support a green quarterback, the basic plan from Rudolph's debut in San Francisco figured to be dusted off and implemented to some degree against the Chargers. Run the ball, control the clock, convert third downs, avoid turnovers – none of that is exactly groundbreaking but all of it is tried and true when it comes to winning games in the NFL.
The Steelers did all of those rudimentary things to varying degrees of success, but then they supplemented it with a defense that's getting better each and every week, that's evolving from complementary to a force in and of itself.
Expecting Hodges to hit the ground running and direct scoring drives soon after the opening kickoff wasn't realistic, and so it made sense for the Steelers to ease him into his first NFL start, because allowing him to warm to the task made much more sense than exposing him in ways where he could make some critical mistakes to dig a hole for the entire team.
So as Hodges began as a manager of the game, the defense took over and made the kinds of plays that allowed him and the offense the comfort of playing with an early lead.
The Chargers ran four plays and made one first down on the game's opening possession, and the Steelers went three-and-out the first time they had the football. On the second play after Jordan Berry's 59-yard punt, Philip Rivers threw an incomplete lateral to Melvin Gordon, and Devin Bush was one of the few players in the immediate area to recognize the ball sitting on the grass all by itself was live. He scooped it up, and 9 yards later he was celebrating his first NFL touchdown.
Just in case a 7-0 lead didn't calm the jitters, Bush was back at it on the very next series. After Rivers converted a third-and-4 with a 13-yard completion to tight end Hunter Henry, he was looking for more on the next play. But Tyson Alualu worked himself close to the release point and batted the ball in the air, which then turned into an interception when Bush got himself into position and made the catch. At that point, the Steelers had 14 takeaways on the season, and their rookie inside linebacker had a hand in six of them.
Staked to good field position at the Chargers 40-yard line and fueled by the momentum of a second takeaway in such a short period, the offense came onto the field and got the ball to James Conner either on handoffs or short passes to eat up that yardage and make it 14-0 when Conner covered the last dozen on a run around the left end.
The outcome by no means had been sealed, but the Steelers had created for themselves an advantage of playing from ahead with their rookie quarterback, and that allowed them to manage the next two-and-a-half quarters and get themselves into the final seven minutes with a three-touchdown lead.
Rivers being the player he is and the Chargers having the offensive weapons they do, there was some unnecessary excitement from there to the end of the game, and Hodges contributed to that with an ill-advised throw down the field that turned into an interception when Johnny Holton didn't do enough to work back to the football to help his quarterback.
But two wrongs don't make a right, and the Chargers converted the turnover into their first touchdown of the night, and that served to energize them. A Steelers defense that entered the game without starting inside linebacker Mark Barron and starting cornerback Steven Nelson, a defense that at the time also was playing without in-game casualties Stephon Tuitt and Joe Haden started to leak oil. In the past, this would have signaled an impending collapse, but it didn't turn out that way.
After a couple of near misses on interceptions that would've iced the outcome, Cam Sutton intercepted Rivers with the Steelers protecting their one-score lead in the game's final minute to allow Hodges to take his first NFL snap in victory formation.
"What Coach Tomlin talked about this week was engineering a win," said Bush. "Our plan was to set up a short game for Devlin, keep things simple for him, not make things erratic for him, put points up on the board early. But I think there are some things we need to clean up at the end of the game to make sure there is no doubt."
Bush is right, and there's plenty of season left to add that to the resume as well.