Going into the Pittsburgh game this past Monday with the knowledge that wide receiver Stevie Johnson was going to be out for a while, and future Hall-of-Fame tight end Antonio Gates was coming back to the active roster off of suspension with hopefully fresh legs, I began to think to myself on possible ways the Chargers could attack the Pittsburgh defense in order to get a much-needed win.
The first thing that came to mind was how well Ladarius Green had played during Gates’ absence. The second thing that came to mind was, despite how much I really like Dontrelle Inman as a player, I‘ve always felt he was ill-suited to play in the slot.
To me, the obvious conclusion was to play as much 12 personnel (2 Tight Ends and 1 Running Back) as possible. To go a little further, I figured ideally they would play Green in the slot and flex (line up 3-5 yards outside the tackle) Gates. This would serve a couple of purposes.
First and foremost it would get what I feel is the best 11 players available on the field at once. Secondly, given the unique physical skills the Chargers have in their two tight ends, my guess was Pittsburgh would have to deploy their nickel group. This would be ideal, as I still like the Chargers’ matchups across the field against the Steelers nickel secondary in the pass game, and this would essentially guarantee the Chargers would have the numbers advantage in the box which would hopefully help jump-start what has been at best an inconsistent running game.
Fast forward to Monday night. After a punt on the Steelers’ initial possession, the Chargers indeed came out in their 12 personnel and, lo and behold, they lined up Green in the slot with Gates flexed. First play was an 11-yard pass to Gates for a first down. On their next play, they ran the same play to the opposite side of the field for a 12-yard completion and a first down. Three plays later out of this same configuration, Gates beats Steelers’ safety Will Allen on a shallow corner to the front pylon for his 100th career touchdown. As the extra point flew between the uprights, I thought the Chargers were in business as they had run three plays from this set and the results were two first downs and a touchdown. The Steelers didn’t appear to have a solution, and Will Allen was clearly not capable of staying with Gates.
Apparently Chargers offensive coordinator Frank Reich and head coach Mike McCoy didn’t share my feelings. After the Gates’ touchdown, the Chargers ran 24 more offensive plays from scrimmage in the first half. Of those 24 plays, three were run from 12 personnel. The San Diego offense seemed to stagnate, as they crossed the 50-yard line only once, and never got past the Steelers’ 40-yard line on their next five possessions.
The second half was more of the same. The Chargers opened the second half with their 12 group for five straight plays, quickly driving the ball to the 50. A Melvin Gordon fumble on third-and-1 killed the drive and apparently killed the Chargers coaching staff’s desire to stick with this look. They went to this group only three times from midway through the third quarter until the end of the game, with all three plays resulting in first downs, including a 26-yard completion to Green.
This is where my post-game aggravation kicks in. I thought the Chargers had what was clearly a strategy that was working, and the Steelers never really adjusted to it. Yet, McCoy and the staff got away from it, and really showed no desire to return to it. This obviously was not why the Chargers lost this game, but it was another frustrating element to what was one of the most frustrating games I can remember in recent times.