CARSON, Calif. – Just when it looked like the Pittsburgh Steelers were having a quarterback crisis – they were down to a game of Duck Duck Goose with rookie Devlin Hodges – they picked the perfect time to re-establish their identity.
Dominate on defense, run the ball on offense.
Just like old times.
This was hardly the setting for a Steelers throwback: Playing football on the pitch of a soccer stadium before a capacity crowd of 25,425 at Dignity Health Sports Park, the majority of which was rooting for the visitors, gave a national television audience the impression of a gimmick game for a gadget offense.
Instead, the Steelers turned to their defense. Mike Tomlin told his team that it needed to turn turnovers into touchdowns, and rookie inside linebacker Devin Bush delivered a pair that led to 14 points. Bush’s return of a 9-yard fumble recovery did so directly, while his interception led to a tone-setting scoring drive.
That’s when the Steelers rediscovered their running game, as important of a development they could have asked for in this unpredictable season. The Steelers alleviated the pressure from Hodges by riding James Conner and Benny Snell to a 24-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday night.
“We had James Conner going crazy and Mr. Benny Snell Football pounding the rock,” Steelers inside linebacker Vince Williams said, smiling while sitting on a stool in the visiting locker room. “That’s Steelers football right there: Great defense, pounding the rock and ball control. I loved watching it.”
The Steelers loved playing it, too, from the offensive linemen who were blocking to the backs who gashed the Chargers defense to their coach. Tomlin called establishing the run a “significant component of the storyline.”
Not by chance but rather by having no other choice.
“Man, we didn’t have a lot of other options,” Tomlin said. “Sometimes, that’s life, when you’re backed up against it. We needed that, and they delivered.”
Conner and Snell delivered in a big way, combining for 116 rushing yards and 208 yards total offense. But it was Bush who got the Steelers started, showing acute awareness by picking up a loose football after Philip Rivers tossed an attempted lateral over the head of running back Melvin Gordon.
“Devin’s amazing,” Williams said of Bush, who finished with a team-high seven tackles, an interception and a pass breakup. “He was all over the field. The man’s amazing. He’s looking like a top-10 pick.”
Reminded that Bush was a top-10 pick, Williams laughed.
“And he’s looking like one!”
It couldn’t have come at a better time for the Steelers, with Williams recently returning from a hamstring injury and Mark Barron out with one. Tomlin told the defense that it needed to be the catalyst, and it did just that – for the first half, anyway.
But the Steelers haven’t been converting turnovers into touchdowns, not until after Bush picked off a Rivers pass at the Chargers’ 40. That’s when the Steelers fed Conner on seven consecutive plays, four runs and three passes. He converted a pair of third-and-4s before charging 12 yards into the end zone for a 14-0 lead that put the Steelers in position to dictate play.
“Having that 14-point lead as an offense gives the offensive coordinator some ability to stick with those runs, grind the clock out and control the game,” Steelers right guard David DeCastro said. “That was the recipe.”
A steady dose of Conner and Snell served the Steelers well. Conner accounted for 119 yards (41 rushing and 78 receiving and two touchdowns) while Snell carried the load much of the second half, rushing for 55 of his career-high 75 yards.
“You love that as an o-line,” DeCastro said. “You know the defense is going to be ready for it, so it’s hard-fought, just bashing heads and trying to get those yards.”
If that doesn’t sound like Steelers football, I don’t know what does. Ben Roethlisberger passing for the most yards in the NFL last season didn’t get them into the playoffs. Running the wildcat with Jaylen Samuels was a new wrinkle in the victory over Cincinnati.
With Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Samuels out, the Steelers were forced to return to their roots. They ran with conviction, as Conner and Snell provided a powerful one-two punch for the team’s first 100-yard rushing performance. And the Steelers took advantage by converting 8 of 13 third downs.
Like Conner, the Steelers had to show that they’re built for this. Ultimately, injuries to Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden, T.J. Watt and Conner tested their resolve as the Chargers rallied in a 17-point fourth quarter that fell short in the final minute.
“I’m not going to go for 100 yards and two touchdowns every game,” Conner said. “That’s why you cancel out the noise when you’re not having big numbers on the ground. It takes patience. It’s a long season. If I have patience with it, we’ll have these big games.”
The Steelers (2-4) can afford to be patient. Their bye is coming at the perfect time. They have a chance to heal, work on their weaknesses and realize they have rediscovered their identity.
The Steelers finally found the right recipe. If they can play defense and run the ball, they can win. That’s Steelers football right there. It’s a significant storyline that’s worth watching.
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Devin Bush celebrates a touchdown after picking up a backward pass by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner runs in for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)