CARSON, Calif. (AP)Philip Rivers will be making his 214th straight start when the Los Angeles Chargers host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night.
On the opposite sideline, Devlin Hodges will make his first.
By all appearances that matchup has all the appearances of a mismatch, but Chargers coach Anthony Lynn knows that looks can be deceiving, especially after his squad played one of the worst games of his three-year tenure last week in a 20-13 loss to previously winless Denver.
”I know you are what your record says you are, but I don’t see the Steelers as a 1-4 team,” he said. ”I thought Hodges was outstanding. The first thing he did was take them straight down the field and scored. He knew exactly what he was doing. He was well-prepared. This is not too big for him.”
Hodges completed 7 of 9 passes for 68 yards during last Sunday’s 26-23 overtime loss to Baltimore after Mason Rudolph was knocked out by a concussion. Rudolph returned to practice on Wednesday but was limited.
Rudolph made his first NFL start in Week 3 after Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending elbow injury in a loss to Seattle on Sept. 15. It will be only the third time since the merger and first since Dallas in 1989 that a pair of quarterbacks have made their first NFL start for a team by Week 6 or earlier.
Hodges – who is the all-time leader in passing yards in Football Championship Subdivision history (14,584) – said he felt confident going into the game last week after not getting any reps with the first team, but that things are different this week.
”Having the chance to prepare with the ones and just be in the huddle, it is kind of just confidence,” he said. ”To me, I am getting comfortable being in the huddle with a group of guys that potentially could be there Sunday.”
While Hodges is looking to get acclimated to becoming the starter, Rivers is seeking to bounce back from one of the worst games of his career. He was 32 of 48 for 211 yards and a pair of interceptions against the Broncos. Last week marked the first time in 56 games that Rivers did not direct a touchdown drive and only the eight time it has happened. The 4.4 yards per completion were the fourth fewest of his career.
The Chargers had two turnovers inside the Denver 5 last week and have five drives this season where they have come away with no points in the red zone.
”We’ve moved the ball and been efficient in a lot of ways. Last week, we weren’t,” Rivers said. ”We’ve done some really good things offensively, but the most important, which is to score points.”
Here are some other things to watch as the 1-4 Steelers go west for the second time this season to face the 2-3 Chargers:
READY TO RUN?
The Steelers began the season talking about the need to find offensive balance. They have yet to find it, even with the carousel at quarterback. Pittsburgh ranks 29th in yards rushing so far, continuing a trend that began during the team’s second-half collapse in 2018. The Steelers have gone over 100 yards on the ground just once in their past 12 games. Pittsburgh is 4-8 during that span.
Getting back on track in Los Angeles might be difficult. Defenses loaded the line of scrimmage against Mason Rudolph, daring the second-year quarterback to beat them with his arm. That doesn’t figure to change no matter who is at quarterback on Sunday, be it Rudolph or Hodges. Making matters worse for Pittsburgh? Jaylen Samuels is out at least a month after recovering from a sprained left knee, leaving rookie Benny Snell Jr. as the top option behind starter James Conner.
GETTING GORDON IN GEAR
Melvin Gordon played less than half the snaps last week in his first action of the season. The Chargers running back had only 38 scrimmage yards and averaged only 2.6 yards per carry, but he’s hoping that the more practice snaps he got this week will have him better prepared for Sunday.
”We have to be physical, come out and be hungry. There are still a lot more reps I need to get. I just have to find that rhythm,” he said.
Fellow running back Austin Ekeler leads the AFC in receptions with 39.
Pittsburgh receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster had six catches against the Chargers in last year’s game, but only went for 49 yards. The 8.2 average yards per reception were the fifth-fewest he has had in a game in his three-year career.
”We have a lot of respect for him as a route-runner. They have a wide combination of what he is doing,” Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said.
Pittsburgh spent the entire offseason talking about the need to become more aggressive on defense after managing just 15 takeaways in 2018. So far, so very good. The Steelers have already produced a dozen turnovers through five weeks, one of the main reasons they’ve been competitive despite the numerous issues on offense.
”It’s just guys being in the right position, guys knowing what they’re supposed to do and being more ball aware,” cornerback Mike Hilton said. ”Last year, we were in position a lot of the time, but we just weren’t making the plays. And now it seems like we’re making them when we need them.”
The next step: turning those turnovers into touchdowns. Pittsburgh has reached the end zone just three times after generating a takeaway.
KEEP AN EYE ON
Chargers center Dan Feeney, who takes over after Mike Pouncey was placed on injured reserve because of a neck injury. Four of the five starters on the offensive line have three years or less of experience.
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