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Chargers caught injured Steelers at the right time


The Chargers survived a fourth-quarter collapse against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which often had sunk them in recent years, and are in the thick of the playoff race. The Rams were off but still lost ground in the NFC West because the Arizona Cardinals won again. Chargers beat writer Jeff Miller, NFL writer Sam Farmer and Rams beat writer Gary Klein discuss the teams’ futures in a roundtable talk moderated by Los Angeles Times NFL editor Athan Atsales.

The Chargers’ offense returned to elite status against a Steelers team that had given up 20 or fewer points in four of their previous five games. How do you explain the turnaround?

Farmer: Just look at how many players the Steelers are missing on defense, key players at all three levels — defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, linebacker T.J. Watt, cornerback Joe Haden and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Taking nothing away from the Chargers, that’s a huge factor. Never more than now, this is a week-to-week league. Ask Tennessee, which just lost to lowly Houston. So anytime you make a sweeping statement about this meaning something, or that being a sure thing, you run the risk of it blowing up in your face.

Miller: Can’t argue with Sam on this one. The Steelers were down some significant pieces on defense. The Chargers also contributed plenty with a level of execution that we hadn’t seen from them in several weeks. The guys filling in for Pittsburgh are in the NFL too, and we’ve seen plenty examples of depleted teams still winning in this league this season. So, true, the Chargers both received a big break, but they also took advantage of it.

Klein: Let’s remember something: Justin Herbert is a terrific quarterback — but he has played in only 25 NFL games. He is a young player. He has not seen everything yet. So, as good as he is, it’s not surprising to see his performance — and that of the entire offense — fluctuate.

Fans in SoCal might be aware of Austin Ekeler’s skills — and he had four touchdowns against Pittsburgh — but he might be the most unheralded running back in the NFL. What makes the undrafted running back so unexpectedly good?

Miller: He combines that strength with All-Pro levels of elusiveness. On his 17-yard third-quarter touchdown Sunday, Ekeler made three Steeler defenders miss. That was a screen pass that flew parallel to the line of scrimmage. When he caught the ball near the 20-yard line, Ekeler had no clear path to the end zone. He reached it anyway.

Chargers back Austin Ekeler (30) spikes the ball after scoring a second-half touchdown on a pass.

Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) spikes the ball after scoring a second-half touchdown on a pass. He had four scores against the Steelers, two on the ground and two via pass. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Farmer: If he’s not the strongest player in the league, pound for pound, then he’s certainly in the conversation. Just a great Swiss Army knife player who can conform to all sorts of situations. That said, the Chargers need another back to complement him.

Klein: Ekeler comes from a small town, played at a small college and made the Chargers with a huge effort in the final preseason game of his rookie year. Looks to me as if he’s never lost that prove-it mentality. He does anything and everything.

Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams had been dominant early in the season and then seemed to disappear. That was a topic of conversation this past week. That can’t be a coincidence that he became so involved, right? What adjustments were made?

Klein: Through the first third of the season, it seemed like Herbert was looking for Williams at least 10 times a game. Maybe defenses took that away. Maybe Herbert started looking for others more often. But the way I see it, the biggest difference against the Steelers was that Williams simply caught more of the passes that were thrown his way.

Miller: There’s a belief that Williams’ troublesome knee is bothering more than he lets on. Coach Brandon Staley has dismissed the knee as an issue whenever asked in recent weeks. Who knows? Maybe was feeling better Sunday. The Steelers playing man-to-man isn’t an easy assignment for anyone. Williams is 6-foot-4 and great at getting position on defenders.

Mike Williams (81) celebrates with fans after scoring the deciding 53-yard touchdown on a pass from Justin Herbert.

Mike Williams (81) celebrates with fans after scoring the deciding 53-yard touchdown on a pass from Justin Herbert. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Farmer: Yes, part of it was that the Steelers played so much man defense and they were so compromised by missing key players. The Chargers were able to exploit that, and Herbert had plenty of time to make decisions. Still, Williams and Keenan Allen have dropped more passes this season than any wide receiver combo, so let’s wait and see if this sticks.

Brandon Staley got the Chargers’ head-coaching job because of his defensive prowess. Obviously, the offense is ahead of the defense at this point. What do the Chargers lack on defense compared with the Rams under Staley last season?

Miller: The Chargers are not the equal of the 2020 Rams up front. This team lacks the power and depth necessary along the line of scrimmage to be an elite defense. That’s something that Staley certainly will want addressed in the offseason when this roster goes through its tweaking.

Klein: Well, since you teed that up … let’s start with Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. Donald won his third NFL defensive player of the year award last season, and Ramsey is making a case this season to win his first. As for the Chargers’ defense, there are plenty of talented players. Let’s wait and see how it plays down the stretch when it matters most.

Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward (97) blocks a pass thrown by Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert.

Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward (97) blocks a pass thrown by Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Farmer: Yes, the Chargers don’t have an Aaron Donald in the middle of their defense. Then again, who does? I will say, though, [the Steelers’] Cam Heyward is awfully impressive, especially the way he has collected six batted balls at the line of scrimmage. That was almost the Chargers’ undoing.

With only 17 games, every week is critical in the NFL. However, with the Rams having lost two in a row, at this point would you say their next game at Green Bay is pivotal — a tipping point? — to their season?

Klein: It’s a potential tipping point. After losing to the Titans and 49ers, the Rams had a week off to heal physically … and mentally. Now they’re traveling to Lambeau Field to play against Aaron Rodgers. Despite the back-to-back losses, the Rams can still make a run for a decent playoff seed. The Rams are 7-3, the Packers 8-3. And next, after playing the Jaguars at home, the Rams play on the road against the division-leading Cardinals.

Farmer: Key game. Key because they need to get back on track, and key because they’ve had an extra week to get Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. up to speed. NFC North refugee Matthew Stafford knows Lambeau Field well, and he needs a course correction after a couple of bad weeks. Those rapid-fire interceptions, the ones he’s had in the past two games, won’t work at all.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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