Chargers' ugly start hits new low in loss to ailing Steelers

This is not how the Los Angeles Chargers’ season was supposed to start.

Fresh off a 12-4 2018 outing under rookie head coach Anthony Lynn, there was hope in L.A. that the Chargers would challenge the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC West.

After Sunday’s ugly home loss to a Pittsburgh Steelers team led by an undrafted rookie quarterback, that hope looks like a pipe dream.

Devlin Hodges, Steelers sink Chargers to new low

Leaning on an aggressive defense and an offense focused on running backs James Conner and Benny Snell Jr., the Steelers held on for a 24-17 road win over the Chargers in their makeshift soccer stadium filled with black-and-gold clad fans waving Terrible Towels.

They did so behind emergency quarterback Devlin Hodges, who played admirably in place of backup Mason Rudolph, who watched from the sideline while suffering the effects of a concussion suffered last week against the Baltimore Ravens.

While Hodges limited his mistakes in a gameplan built to that effect, Philip Rivers and the Chargers made plenty in a game they were expected to win handily against an ailing opponent playing 2,500 miles from home.

Oct 13, 2019; Carson, CA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) celebrates with wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) his touchdown scored against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first half at Dignity Health Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Early Rivers mistakes doom Chargers

Rivers got the ball rolling on the loss on the Chargers’ second possession, throwing a backward pass over the head of running back Melvin Gordon that Steelers linebacker Devin Bush scooped up at the 13-yard line and ran in for a touchdown.

On Los Angeles’ next possession, Rivers couldn’t get a pass beyond the outstretched right hand of Steelers defensive end Tyson Alualu, who batted the ball up for grabs. Bush obliged with his second turnover in as many possessions, intercepting the errant pass in Chargers territory to set the Steelers up for an eventual Conner touchdown run.

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When Chase McLaughlin clanged a 43-yard field goal off the left upright as halftime approached, the game felt lost for the Chargers.

Chargers rally falls short

But the Chargers finally found a rhythm in the fourth quarter to make things close after being shut out through three quarters. Rivers found tight end Hunter Henry for a pair of late touchdowns, and the Chargers ended up with the ball on their own 1-yard line trailing by seven with 1:03 remaining.

But Rivers’ desperation heave down the sideline ended up in the hands of Steelers cornerback Cameron Sutton, who put an end to the game with the interception.

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Philip Rivers through the years
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Philip Rivers through the years
Photographers surround Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) as he leaves the field after defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers 33-30 in an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Quarterback Philip Rivers holds up his San Diego Chargers jersey at a news conference at the Chargers' facility in San Diego Sunday, April 25, 2004. The Chargers traded No. 1 draft pick Eli Manning to the New York Giants for Rivers and future draft picks. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
San Diego Chargers rookie quarterback Philip Rivers, making his first appearance of the preseason, fires a pass to Kevin Dyson for a 19-yard gain in the second quarter against the Seattle Seahawks on Friday, Aug. 27, 2004, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers stretches at the close of football practice at the Chargers' training camp Wednesday July 26, 2006 in San Diego. Rivers, who the Chargers are hoping will emerge as their replacement for Drew Brees, did not participate in the one-on-one drills in the afternoon practice. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
San Diego Chargers' quarterbacks Philip Rivers (17) and Charlie Whitehurst (6) joke during the fourth quarter of their NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders on Monday, Sept. 11, 2006 in Oakland, Calif. The Chargers won 27-0. (AP Photo/Benjamin Sklar)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers throws against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first half of their NFL football game in San Diego, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2006. (AP Photo/Jack Smith)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers calls out at the line of scrimmage during a football game against the Seattle Seahawks in Seattle, Sunday, Dec. 25, 2006. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers pleads for official Jeff Lamberth (103) to check the stadium replay as he argues to get his goal-line fumble reversed during the third quarter of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears in San Diego, Sunday, Sept. 9, 2007. The Bears recovered the fumble and the original ruling stood. San Diego won 14-3. (AP Photo/Jack Smith)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) gets up slowly after being hit by the Tennessee Titans in the second quarter of an NFL football game in Nashville, Tenn., Sunday, Dec. 9, 2007. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
San Diego Charger quarterback Philip Rivers celebrates after a fourth-quarter touchdown during an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos Sunday, Dec. 28, 2008 in San Diego. The Chargers won 52-21. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) acknowledges teammates after a third-quarter touchdown against the New York Giants during an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2009, in East Rutherford, N.J. The Chargers won 21-20. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) passes to wide receiver Malcom Floyd, not seen, in the third quarter of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2009, in Cleveland. Rivers passed for 373 yards and two touchdowns in the Chargers' 30-23 win. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers celebrates a 52-yard yard game winning field goal giving the Chargers a 27-24 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in an NFL football game Sunday Dec. 20, 2009 in San Diego. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, left, throws under pressure from Jacksonville Jaguars Derrick Harvey during the third quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 19, 2010. The Chargers won 38-13. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) loses the football when he is hit by Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Terrance Knighton (96) during the second quarter of an NFL football game Monday, Dec. 5, 2011, in Jacksonville, Fla. The pass was ruled incomplete. (AP Photo/Stephen Morton)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) is embraced by teammate Malcom Floyd after an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011, in San Diego. The Chargers won 37-10. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) and wide receiver Danario Alexander (84) celebrate after Alexander caught a pass from Rivers for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, in Pittsburgh. The Chargers won 34-24. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, right, throws under pressure from Houston Texans outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, center, grimaces as he is caught between Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Jason Babin, left, and defensive end Andre Branch (90) after throwing a pass in the first half of an NFL football game in Jacksonville, Fla., Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013.(AP Photo/Stephen Morton)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers celebrates after the Chargers made the playoffs with a 27-24 overtime victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi )
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) kneels on the field after the Chargers defeated the Oakland Raiders 31-28 in an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers reacts after wide receiver Eddie Royal scored a touchdown in the second half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014, in Baltimore. San Diego won 34-33. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers reacts after throwing a inception against the Denver Broncos during the first half in an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford (55) pats San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) on the helmet after sacking him during the second half of an NFL football game in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015. The Chiefs won 10-3. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)
San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers yells to referee after not getting a call during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Aaron Josefczyk)
FILE - In a Sunday Dec. 11, 2016 file photo, San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers (17) looks to pass against the Carolina Panthers in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C. It could be a remarkable scene Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016 when the Oakland Raiders, closing in on their first playoff berth since their Super Bowl season of 2002, face a fading Chargers franchise that could be in the death throes of its 56-season run in San Diego.(AP Photo/Bob Leverone, File)
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers throws a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers throws a pass to wide receiver Tyrell Williams for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers smiles on the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong )
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) calls signals as he plays against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, in Pittsburgh. The Chargers beat the Steelers 33-30. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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Hodges outplays Rivers

Hodges finished the night hitting 15-of-20 pass attempts for 132 yards and a touchdown. His only mistake was a forced deep pass on first down in the fourth quarter that safety Rayshawn Jenkins intercepted to set up Los Angeles for its second and final touchdown. Conner tallied 41 yards on the ground and 78 through the air with a pair of touchdowns, whiled Snell ran for 75 yards, helping the Steelers milk clock in the second half.

Rivers finished hitting 26-of-44 pass attempts for 320 yards and two touchdowns. His fumble and pair of interceptions ultimately doomed the Chargers. Meanwhile, the touted running duo of Gordon and Austin Ekeler tallied a total of 32 yards on the ground on 13 attempts as Los Angeles was forced to abandon its running game early.

What now for Chargers?

It’s another tough loss for the Chargers, who fall into a last-place tie with the Denver Broncos in the AFC West, two games behind the Chiefs. They needed overtime to beat the Indianapolis Colts in Week 1 and beat the inept Miami Dolphins in Week 4. And that’s it. They’ve now lost to the Steelers, Broncos, Houston Texans and Detroit Lions.

Two games out of first place is far from an insurmountable deficit after Week 6. But the Chargers looked little like a team that can dig out of that hole in losing to a team picking up just its second win of the season on Sunday.

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