SAN DIEGO -- They are the type of momentum-swinging plays in a game that create a knot deep in a defender’s stomach or a lump in their throat that won’t go away.
At times, the San Diego Chargers contained two of the top playmakers in the game in Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown.
But when it mattered most, those two came through for the Steelers.
“For a majority of the game we played well,” Chargers inside linebacker Manti Te’o said. “There were just a few mistakes here or there. You can’t give a good team like that those opportunities.”
Leading 20-17 with 2:38 on the clock, San Diego’s defense simply needed to keep Pittsburgh off of the scoreboard. Instead, backup quarterback Mike Vick engineered a 12-play, 80-yard drive that Bell capped by plunging into the end zone for the winning score.
Inches away from the end zone on the final play, the Steelers called what had been effective for them all game. Pittsburgh split Vick and Darrius Heyward-Bey wide right, but Bell took the direct snap and ran left.
Chargers inside linebacker Donald Butler read the play and scraped through the line of scrimmage, but he couldn’t keep Bell from stretching for the goal line and getting in by the nose of the football.
“I had to squeeze through,” Butler said. “Coming from the backside, that’s hard to get in there, but they had been running that power all game. So it was just a matter of him doing what he does best, staying behind his blocks and squeezing in there.”
So was Butler surprised Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin didn’t opt to go for the tie and kick the field goal in that situation?
“No, not with that coach,” Butler said.
With no Ben Roethlisberger available to lead his offense, Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley dialed up chunk plays to keep his team close and put points on the board.
The Steelers finished with six plays of 20-plus yards against the Chargers. Pittsburgh leaned on Bell and he delivered, finishing with 111 rushing yards on 21 carries for a 5.1 per carry average.
Through five games, the Chargers have given up a league-leading eight runs of 20-plus yards.
“We had the game won, but there were a lot of missed opportunities in the back end,” cornerback Jason Verrett said. “I dropped an interception. Jimmy [Wilson] dropped one, and there were a few plays where I didn’t leverage the ball and that kind of led to Le’Veon Bell getting an extra 15-20 yards.”
The backbreaker for the Chargers was a 72-yard touchdown reception by Markus Wheaton from Vick with 7:42 left. The Chargers had just taken a 17-10 led on Antonio Gates’ second touchdown catch and appeared in control of the game.
But cornerback Brandon Flowers allowed Wheaton to shake loose down the sideline and Vick proved that he still has the arm strength and accuracy to deliver a strike deep down the field.
“I gave up a big play,” Flowers said. “That can’t happen -- that’s scoring too quick for the opposing team.”
The Chargers don’t have much time to think about the loss. They have a short week to get ready for perhaps the best quarterback in the game in Aaron Rodgers, as they hit the road to face the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.
One of the most accurate passers in the NFL, Rodgers’ specialty is creating big plays.
“He’s one of the best in the league, if not the best,” safety Jahleel Addae said. “So you know it’s going to be a tough task for us. So we’ve got to get in, watch film, see their tendencies and get moving. We can’t mope. We can’t let the Steelers beat us twice.”