PITTSBURGH – With quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returning to the lineup, and playing a 4-8 football team that was down three starting offensive linemen, the Steelers were supposed to dominate the San Diego Chargers.
Somebody forgot to let the Chargers in on that little secret.
The Chargers stifled Roethlisberger and company for most of three quarters and controlled the clock against the league’s top-ranked defense, handing the Steelers a 34-24 defeat Sunday at Heinz Field.
The victory, the first for the Chargers in a regular-season game in Pittsburgh in 15 tries, improves San Diego to 5-8.
Making things even more painful for the Steelers (7-6), AFC North rivals Cincinnati (7-6) and Baltimore (9-4) also lost.
Though the Steelers still control their own playoff destiny, they could have taken a big step toward securing a postseason spot by beating the Chargers.
“It was a humbling performance for myself and the offense,” said Steelers receiver Antonio Brown.
The offense wasn’t alone in taking the blame.
“It was a good, old-fashioned, take-them-out-back butt-whooping from the defensive side,” said linebacker Larry Foote.
The Steelers managed just two first downs on their first seven possessions before finally putting together a field-goal drive at the end of the first half to cut the Chargers’ lead to 13-3.
The offense can’t shoulder all of the blame as the defense allowed the Chargers to open the second half with a 17-play, 78-yard touchdown drive that took nearly 10 minutes.
“That was ugly,” said Foote. “That was uncharted waters, especially here. We just kept trying to fight. But you saw it, third downs. We’ve been getting strong the last month, but we gave it up today.”
San Diego picked on second-year cornerback Curtis Brown – who was playing on passing downs because of an injury to starter Ike Taylor – to the point that head coach Mike Tomlin pulled him from the game in the third quarter, inserting Josh Victorian, a player who was activated off the practice squad Saturday.
“They were attacking Curtis some, particularly on third downs,” said Tomlin. “He wasn’t being successful enough. We gave Josh an opportunity.”
The Chargers converted 12-of-22 third downs, including all five attempts during their third-quarter drive, which culminated with Philip Rivers tossing a 3-yard touchdown pass to Malcom Floyd to put the Chargers ahead 20-3.
Rivers completed 21 of 42 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns, becoming the first player to pass for 200 yards against the Steelers in eight games.
“This isn’t necessarily the team we thought we’d have on the field in December, but this is the type of performance we thought we’d put together,” Rivers said.
Roethlisberger, who was returning after missing three games with shoulder and rib injuries, was rusty early, looking tentative until tossing an 18-yard completion over the middle to Plaxico Burress late in the first quarter.
The Pittsburgh receivers also struggled, as Mike Wallace and Brown each dropped deep passes at midfield that would have given the Steelers a boost.
“I didn’t get it to the receivers or right guy. I didn’t give them a good ball to run and catch with,” said Roethlisberger, who was 22 for 42 for 285 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. “I’ll take the first half on me.”
On the first play after Rivers’ TD pass to Floyd, Roethlisberger attempted a screen pass to Brown, but rookie tight end David Paulsen was driven backwards at the snap and the ball hit him in the back and caromed into the end zone.
Brown could have fallen on the ball or kicked it out of the end zone, but instead San Diego’s Quentin Jammer fell on it for a touchdown and a 27-3 lead.
“I thought I heard the whistle blow,” said Brown. “But I learned a lesson. We would rather give up two than seven in that situation.”
Roethlisberger responded with a 40-yard touchdown pass to Wallace but threw an interception to linebacker Bront Bird while escaping pressure on Pittsburgh’s next possession. Rivers then tossed his second touchdown pass of the game to Danario Alexander to make it 34-10.
Two late Roethlisberger touchdowns – a second to Wallace and one to Brown - made the game appear closer than it actually was.
“An unfortunate, poor performance by us, and by that, I mean all of us,” said Tomlin. “We coached poorly, we played poorly. It’s a shame, given the opportunity that was in front of us.”
Odds and end zones
Guard Willie Colon, who missed the past two games, returned but left in the first half after aggravating a knee injury. ... Rookie Drew Butler had a 79-yard punt in the second half that was the second-longest in team history, behind an 82-yard kick by Joe Geri in 1949. ... San Diego held a 36:45-23:14 edge in time of possession. ... Lawrence Timmons led the Steelers with 11 tackles. Defensive end Ziggy Hood had eight tackles and the team’s lone sack.