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Starting positions hurt Steelers in setback vs. Chargers

| Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, 10:28 p.m.
Christopher Horner
The Chargers' Kendall Reyes (91) and Takeo Spikes celebrate after Quentin Jammer recovered a muffed pass, ruled a lateral, in the end zone to score during the third quarter against the Steelers on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, at Heinz Field. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

No one can tell the Steelers that field position doesn't matter. And that time of possession isn't relevant.

On Sunday, the underdog San Diego Chargers dealt the Steelers a 34-24 defeat at Heinz Field, mostly because the Steelers spent much of the afternoon trying to excavate themselves from the shadows of their goal post.

The Steelers' possession chart was ugly. On average, their drives started on the 19-yard line — including drives that began at the 8, 9, 7, 11, 10, 8 and 6.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who missed three games with ribs and shoulder injuries, was put in the unenviable position of engineering long drives against a top-10 defense seemingly inspired by the inevitable dismissal of the San Diego coaching staff at season's end.

The Chargers can point to their defense for leading them to only their second win in the past nine games. But it was punter Mike Scifres who tormented the Steelers by consistently placing his kicks inside the 10.

The Steelers' offense simply couldn‘t dig itself out of the hole.

“A good offense gets a couple of first downs and can flip the field,” tight end Heath Miller said. “We had multiple chances to do that in the first half to help out our defense.”

The poor field position caught up with Steelers when a Roethlisberger fumble — an errant lateral pass to receiver Antonio Brown — was recovered in the end zone by cornerback Quentin Jammer to give San Diego a 27-3 lead late in the third quarter. That came after a Cam Heyward holding penalty pinned the Steelers at the 8-yard line.

For the Chargers, it was a welcome role reversal. In their previous four games, they gained possession on their opponents' side of the field only three times. They seized control of the game Sunday by gaining possession of the ball inside Steelers' territory four consecutive times, which included a fourth-and-1 stop of Isaac Redman at the Steelers' 47 late in the second quarter.

The Chargers capitalized when kicker Nick Novak made a 39-yard field goal for a 13-0 lead with 50 seconds left in the first half.

“It shouldn't have mattered if we started on the inch line,” running back Jonathan Dwyer said. “We didn't give the defense a break. We didn't execute when we had to.”

The Steelers' defense was under relentless fire. They were forced to defend a short field for much of the game, but San Diego's 17-play, 78-yard scoring drive that chewed up 9:32 to open the second half kept the Steelers from snatching away the momentum.

The Chargers converted on third down four times on the drive. And clutch third-down throws to receiver Danario Alexander and Michael Spurlock helped San Diego control the clock with a 13-minute advantage (36:45 to 23:14).

“That was uncharted waters for us, especially (at Heinz Field),” linebacker Larry Foote said. “We had been good against third down, but they put a butt whupping on us.”

Cornerback Keenan Lewis said the Chargers were successful because they kept it simple.

“They figured out what we like to do,” Lewis said. “Everyone talks about us not giving up the big play, but they weren't trying to attack us that way. They stuck to their game plan and didn't try to hit the home run ball.”

The Chargers chipped away at the Steelers' defense with a controlled passing game that consisted largely of quick outs and drag routes that challenged cornerbacks Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown and Lewis to concede short, third-down receptions.

“When we had an opportunity to get off the field, we didn't give the offense the ball,” defensive end Ziggy Hood said. “They didn't do anything different than what we saw on film. They just made plays.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or 412-320-7923.

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