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Chargers seek improved play, execution against Steelers

Sputtering some and searching even more, the Chargers would benefit Sunday if someone could carry their offense.

Then again, given the way things are going, the guy might drop it.

In losing three of their last four games, the Chargers have been unable to sustain offensive rhythm, with poor execution too often short-circuiting the best of their plans.

As a snapshot of those struggles, consider that Mike Williams and Keenan Allen have combined to drop 13 passes. No wide receiver pair in the NFL this season has more.

In a 27-20 loss last weekend to Minnesota, the Chargers had four glaring drops, one by Williams, who probably would have scored on the play.

“You ever take a drink of water and swallow it wrong and all of a sudden you’re coughing?” offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi asked. “How many reps do you have taking a drink of water? You can still mess it up. … Great players sometimes, you know, the water goes down the wrong pipe.”

That was Lombardi’s way of expressing his belief that the numbers will eventually even out. He might be right. Last year, Williams had only three drops on 81 targets and Allen just two on 138, according to Pro Football Focus.

Trying to hold on is what the Chargers as a group are doing entering their game Sunday night against Pittsburgh at SoFi Stadium. They are 5-4 and straining to remain on pace for a playoff berth.

After opening the season 4-1, the Chargers have had a difficult time maintaining their production on offense as their defense appears to be evolving into something closer to what coach Brandon Staley envisioned back in August.

They’ve had three three-and-outs in each of their last three defeats. Compare that to how the Chargers started the season, when they had three three-and-outs total entering Week 4.

Though their plays per series have remained steady, they’ve had only three drives of 10 or more plays in losses to Baltimore, New England and Minnesota. In their first five games, the Chargers produced 17 such possessions.

“Definitely frustration because you want to be successful,” Allen said. “We’re so used to being successful [that] when it doesn’t happen it’s like, ‘Damn, what’s going on?’ So, yeah, we do feel frustrated.”

After the offense generated only 253 total yards in losing to the Vikings, quarterback Justin Herbert suggested the issue could be growing pains as the players continue to adjust to a new coaching staff and a different scheme.

Running back Austin Ekeler said expanding the playbook from what the Chargers had coming out of training camp has led to confused moments that can kill drives.

Center Corey Linsley explained that the only solution he knows is continuing to push through the struggles by becoming more familiar with the new offense via repetition.

“It’s not an excuse at all,” Linsley said. “It’s just an acknowledgement to know that we are in the first year of the system. We have that attitude of no excuses. … As long as we acknowledge that and know that these things are going to come up, we don’t freak out and try to blame” each other.

Thanks to their fast start, the Chargers’ 2021 numbers remain impressive. They are still a top-10 offense in total yards and passing yards.

As for extending drives, the Chargers are seventh best in the NFL on third down, converting 43.9% of their chances. But their success rate was 48.5% through five games and only 37% since.

After converting its first seven fourth-down plays, the offense is four for its last nine.

“I like the way we’ve moved the football,” Staley said. “From my vantage point, we need to score the ball better. I think that that’s where my energy is after that last ballgame.”

The offense skidded off course in Week 6, when the Chargers managed just a single touchdown and a season-low 208 yards in a 34-6 loss at Baltimore. Afterward, Herbert talked about being perplexed at times by the Ravens’ scheme.

He and his teammates have looked similarly out of sorts the last few weeks. Other than a very good performance in a victory over Philadelphia in Week 9, the Chargers have been unable to recapture what they had early on.

“I think there is always that discovery process that I’ve talked about,” Staley said. “I think there is that continuity and that chemistry that is real. Sometimes, it happens really fast … and sometimes you kind of fight to find it.”

The fight continues for the Chargers against a Steelers team that overwhelmed them at Dignity Health Sports Park during Pittsburgh’s most recent visit to Southern California.

In October 2019, the Steelers took a 24-0 lead into the fourth quarter before winning 24-17 to the delight of thousands of their towel-waving fans who invaded the Chargers’ former home stadium.

Sunday night could look similar in the stands. Yet down on the field, the Chargers can significantly rewrite the story by finding their offensive rhythm, returning to their productive ways and then, well, holding on to everything else.

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