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Steelers almost complete comeback against the Chargers, but almost doesn’t count

Almost may count in horseshoes, but it certainly doesn’t count in the NFL, even when a team is compromised due to injuries and COVID-19.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Los Angeles Chargers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

It’s funny, one of the first things I read on Twitter on Monday morning, just hours after I witnessed the Steelers close-but-no-cigar 41-37 loss to the Chargers at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, on Sunday Night Football was that Pittsburgh needed to “rework” its defense for 2022.

Are you kidding me? Rework the defense? What the Steelers needed to do was work a miracle that would have allowed T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden, Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu to all play in Los Angeles. That’s right, in case you forgot, the Steelers were missing not just three, but five core players from their defense on Sunday night (it’s easy to forget how vitally important both Tuitt and Alualu are to this unit). And if you want to rank those five individuals in terms of importance, after rating the healthy Cam Heyward second or third, you would likely take up the first six slots on Keith Butler’s side of the ball.

That’s a lot of lost talent to try and overcome, which may explain why Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert mostly had his way against Pittsburgh’s defense, completing 30 of 41 passes for 382 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, while also effortlessly tallying 90 rushing yards on nine carries.

Having said all of that, the Steelers showed great heart in rallying back in the fourth quarter and turning a 27-10 deficit into a 37-34 lead with three minutes and change remaining in regulation. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, returning after a week-long absence due to COVID-19, looked as good as he has all season, completing 28 of 44 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns.

Receiver Diontae Johnson may have had his best game as a Steeler, pulling in seven catches for 101 yards and a touchdown, while Chase Claypool, returning from a toe injury, showed everyone why he’s such a dangerous weapon in the passing game.

Back to Pittsburgh’s defense; it may have been compromised due to injuries and COVID (Fitzpatrick), but gosh golly, it sure made some huge plays at key moments, including a Cam Sutton interception off of a Heyward deflection that paved the way for the game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter. And what about that stop on fourth and short just moments later that proved to be the catalyst for Chris Boswell’s go-ahead field goal?

And how about that Miles Killebrew, huh? Perhaps more than anyone else, he jump-started things in the fourth quarter by blocking a punt and setting the offense up inside the five-yard line.

Yes, sir, you gotta love these fighting Steelers and their valiant effort on Sunday night...

Bullpucky. You don’t gotta love any of that. To quote a certain super genius, the standings don’t care about injuries, COVID and valiant efforts. The standings only care about math, and right now, the math says that Pittsburgh is 5-4-1 and a game and a half back of the Ravens, a team that was without Lamar Jackson but still found a way to make key plays at key moments in a 16-13 victory over the Bears on Sunday afternoon.

The Browns and Bengals also won on Sunday, and Pittsburgh is now in third place in the AFC North.

As I’ve been saying since the end of the 2020 campaign, the 2021 Steelers are a team that is made up of a roster that, depending on how a few key moments over the course of the season pan out, will finish anywhere between 7-10 and 10-7. True, the tie against Detroit changes the math, but it doesn’t change the narrative. The Steelers found a way to make the key plays in exciting victories over the Broncos, Seahawks, Browns and Bears during their four-game winning streak. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to make critical plays in the 16-16 tie with the Lions on November 14. The same can be said for the loss to the Chargers on Sunday Night Football.

Yes, Roethlisberger played great, but if he had a little more spice on his 37 yard hookup with Claypool early in the second quarter, instead of first and goal from the five, it’s a 42-yard touchdown and a 10-7 lead. The Steelers ultimately had to settle for zero points after failing to convert on fourth and goal.

As for that injury-depleted defense, all it had to do was come up with one final stop after Boswell’s field goal, and the Steelers likely win.

Instead, the unit played like it was injury-depleted and offered little resistance, as Herbert and Co. marched 75 yards in 75 seconds for the game-winning score.

There are no moral victories, not even for an injury-depleted football team that wasn’t expected to be much more than mediocre even before its currently compromised roster.

Injuries or not, the Steelers have been playing on the edge the entire 2021 regular season. The question isn’t do they still have a chance to make some noise in the AFC playoff race over the final seven games. The math says they absolutely do. The actual question is this: will the Steelers, even when totally healthy, ever find a way to play with some consistency in 2021? If the answer is “no,” well, then they better find a way to come out on the positive end of most of the key moments they will surely find themselves in over the next two months.

That will ultimately be the difference between a playoff spot and a spot on the couch.