PITTSBURGH – Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler was officially hired as the new head football coach at the University of Texas-El Paso Monday, a day after his unit played perhaps its worst game of the season in a 34-24 loss to the San Diego Chargers at Heinz Field.
News of Kugler’s hiring broke over the weekend and might have been a distraction for a group that had been playing well this season – until Sunday.
Though none of the offensive linemen would use the eventual loss of Kugler – who will finish out the season with the Steelers - as an excuse, the results from Sunday’s defeat, which dropped Pittsburgh to 7-6, are hard to deny.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, making a return from a three-game absence because of shoulder and rib injuries, was pressured, hit or sacked on 19 of 48 passing plays. Taking out the five Roethlisberger scrambles for 31 yards, the running game produced 38 yards on 12 carries. The Steelers scored just three points in the first 40 minutes before producing three touchdowns after the game’s outcome had been decided.
“Hat’s off to (the Chargers),” said Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey. “They were bringing a lot of different looks at us, and we didn’t do a good job of blocking it.”
Things won’t get easier.
Already missing right tackles Marcus Gilbert, who was placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury; and Mike Adams, who sat out his second consecutive game with an ankle injury; the Steelers lost left guard Willie Colon to a major knee injury in the first half.
Colon, who will likely be placed on season-ending injured reserve, had missed the previous two games with a knee injury and was attempting to come back from that against the Chargers when he went down again.
It marks a continuing trend for Colon, who missed all but one game in the previous two seasons with an Achilles’ tendon injury and torn biceps.
“It’s terrible for him,” Pouncey said. “For him to be dealing with that for the last couple of years, and now we don’t know how this thing is going to turn out ... I feel terrible for him.”
With Colon out, the Steelers slid Pouncey to left guard and inserted Doug Legursky at center, just as they did two weeks ago in a 23-20 win at Baltimore.
Moving forward, however, the Steelers could try to insert first-round draft pick David DeCastro into the starting lineup.
DeCastro, who was activated from injured reserve Nov. 26 after suffering a preseason knee injury, did not play against the Ravens, but saw action on special teams against the Chargers as the Steelers ease him back into the lineup.
That plan could now be accelerated with Colon out, though DeCastro was used strictly at right guard in the preseason.
Ramon Foster was inserted into the starting lineup at right guard when DeCastro was injured in the third preseason game and has played well, but the Steelers could put Foster or DeCastro at left guard in an effort to put their best five linemen on the field.
Whatever alignment the Steelers decide upon, they know they must play better on the offensive front if they are going to make the playoffs.
The Steelers currently hold the sixth, and final, playoff spot in the AFC, but need two wins in their final three games – including one over Cincinnati in two weeks – to assure a spot in the postseason.
“We are in control, but we can’t go out there and play like we did (Sunday) in the last three games,” said Pouncey. “That can’t happen if we want to be where we want to be at the end of the season. I think we did a poor job, but we have to go back to work and turn this thing around.”
Odds and end zones
The NFL announced it is moving the San Francisco-Seattle rematch in Week 16 to prime time. That means the Steelers’ game at Heinz Field that weekend against Cincinnati will remain at 1 p.m.