The San Diego Chargers pulled off an upset win in a most unlikely setting after an upsetting week. The Bolts 34-24 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers was as big a stunner as the NFL has seen in awhile — maybe as surprising as last weekend’s Kansas City win over Carolina, hours after the murder-suicide of Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher.
Forty-eight hours after it was reported that Chargers ownership would fire Coach Norv Turner and General Manager A.J. Smith at the end of the season, days after the team patched together an offensive line with three street free agents and hours after deciding they would play two unwanted wide receivers, the Chargers went onto the Heinz Field turf and beat the Steelers’ brains out.
San Diego, 0-14 in regular season games in Pittsburgh, pounded out the victory, beating the Steelers at their own game.
San Diego’s defense mugged the Steelers’ offensive front. They chased, harassed, and roughed up Ben Roethlisberger. The Bolts played ball control with running back Ryan Mathews and hit a few big plays down the stretch, to grind out the ugliest win you could imagine.
Whereas the San Diego season has been defined by the gruesome 35 points in a row they gave up to Denver, or the fateful fourth and 29 play they allowed Baltimore to complete that led to the Ravens victory — it was a similar big play or two that fueled this Chargers win.
Pick any of the following and you could circle it as the reason the Chargers won – a physical defensive stop, holding the Steelers on 4th and 1 near halftime, stuffing a drive that could have put Pittsburgh back in the game.
Or maybe it was the test of manhood drive to start the second half, when San Diego went 77 yards and ate up 9:22 of the clock to take a secure lead.
It could have been the Eric Weddle fourth down fake punt run late in the third quarter, when the Steelers still had a chance to climb back in the game. The run got them a first down and allowed Turner’s team to chew up 6:30 off the clock, denying Pittsburgh the ball.
There was Quentin Jammer jumping on a loose football after no whistle blew on a backward screen pass that wound up in the end zone, or a huge Ronnie Brown third and 13 run in the fourth stanza that netted another first down.
The Chargers were relentless in playing for a head coach no one any longer respects. They played hard for defensive coordinator John Pagano, who kept sending people after Roethlisberger. It was a day for booming punts from Mike Scifres, that kept Pittsburgh’s offense backed up into the parking lot, putting them on longer and longer fields.
The San Diego victory came hours after Turner told CBS-TV, he knew how the final outcome of the coaching story would work out — he expected to be fired. He lamented to them, how hurt he was that someone in his own building would leak a story to the media outside.
But as bad as the atmosphere is around Chargers football now, this (5-8) record, and a third straight non-playoff season, you cannot take away from the 60-minute performance on the cold-wet soggy turf in Pittsburgh.
Turner emptied his playbook, spreading the ball around to everyone. The refugee offensive line allowed Philip Rivers to make enough plays to overcome a horrible 10-25 first half. The defense unleashed a furious rush, dialing up 24-blitzes, flushing Roethlisberger from the pocket 11 times, sacking him twice, and picking off one pass.
And the kicking game made Pittsburgh start drives at their 6-7-8-9-10 and 11-yard lines. The Steelers, besieged by their own injury problems on their offensive line, dropped too many passes too early and never made enough plays to stay in the game.
San Diego, winning the battle of field position, had four drives start in Pittsburgh territory. And the strangest stat of all, the Chargers ran off a 79-61 advantage in snaps, unheard of in all the years the Chargers have been beaten in Pittsburgh.
Their own season is a wreck, but for one day, the Chargers wrecked somebody else’s season. It was the first time in months I have seen Turner smile on the sidelines during a game. I have never seen him give a fist pump to a fellow coach or a player, but he did Sunday.
You can measure size and strength, tabulate first downs and touchdowns, but you cannot measure heart and tenacity. For a weird three hours on Sunday, the San Diego Chargers played a complete game. For the first time in months they finished off an opponent, rather than letting them back into the game.
For the first time in a long time, they lived up to my favorite phrase “the way you play the day you play.” On this day, San Diego made it happen. It does not wash away the failure of the organization nor the coaching staff to rebuild a franchise.
But for hard working players, who obviously have never quit on their coach, it was a tribute to professionalism.
Where did this come from? How did this happen? It came from their heart, inside their gut, and the brain power and intelligence of a coaching staff to devise a game plan, to knock out the Steelers in their own yard.
They deserved the win.