CARSON, Calif. — The biggest storyline for the Pittsburgh Steelers all week was the debut of “Duck,” as undrafted rookie free agent and national champion duck caller Devlin Hodges was set to start at quarterback.
Turns out, we were focusing on the wrong rookie.
And we were focusing on the wrong side of the ball.
Devin Bush set the tone for the Steelers to storm out to a three-touchdown halftime lead on their way to a 24-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday night at Dignity Health Sports Park.
Bush gave the Steelers a scare when he was rolling on the ground, clutching his leg in the second quarter. He limped off before returning. The Steelers lost defensive end Stephon Tuitt (pectoral) and cornerback Joe Haden (groin) to injuries, and it showed when the Chargers scored 17 second-half points.
By then, the damage was done.
The Steelers needed a pair of special-teams plays to seal it. Cameron Sutton leaped high to catch an onside kick and secure possession after the Chargers closed within 24-17. Four plays later, Johnny Holton downed Jordan Berry’s pooch punt at the 1. The Chargers were forced to throw out of their own end zone, and Sutton sealed it with an interception in the final minute.
1. Scoop and score
Bush made big plays on back-to-back drives in the first quarter, the first of which came on a play that showed his awareness and football IQ.
When Philip Rivers threw a lateral over the outstretched arms of Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, the ball bounced onto the turf untouched.
Vince Williams and Tyson Alualu watched as Bush alertly picked up the ball and dashed toward the end zone, diving across the goal line for the inside linebacker’s first career NFL touchdown and a 7-0 lead at 10:51 of the first quarter.
It was the kind of play that reminded you Bush isn’t your average rookie but rather the son of a former NFL first-round pick, godson of Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks and a player the Steelers traded up 10 spots to draft.
It was Bush’s fourth fumble recovery of the season, and he only was getting started in padding his stat sheet.
One play after Rivers completed a 13-yard pass to tight end Hunter Henry on third-and-4, the Chargers quarterback had his pass deflected at the line of scrimmage by Alualu and into the hands of a Steelers defender.
That it was Bush shouldn’t be a surprise.
His interception might have come on a tipped pass, but Bush is showing a knack for being in the right position to make plays. You have to love his instincts.
The Steelers certainly loved their field position.
The best bet to take pressure off Hodges was to get James Conner involved, and the Steelers did a good job of getting him the ball in the run and pass games.
Never was that more on display than their seven-play, 40-yard scoring drive. Conner touched the ball on every play, gaining 20 yards on three receptions and 20 yards on four runs, including a 12-yard touchdown for a 14-0 lead.
It was the kind of drive the Steelers need to do more regularly, riding Conner the way they once did Le’Veon Bell. On the next drive, Conner proved he can be as dangerous.
But this one belonged to Duck.
4. Duck call
Hodges spent as much of the first quarter handing the ball off as he did throwing it, completing 4 of 5 passes for 25 yards as Conner ran six times for 30 yards.
The Steelers rotated Conner and Benny Snell in the second quarter, riding their legs for a 14-play, 86-yard scoring drive. What stood out is how the Steelers converted three third downs on the drive, including a pair of third-and-4s.
On the second, Hodges found Conner on a middle screen, then watched as he fought through linebacker Emeke Egbule and safety Jaylen Watkins for a 5-yard gain.
The final third-down conversion of the drive was the most impressive, a pass to Conner near the Steelers sideline that saw him bounce off the shoulder of linebacker Jatavis Brown and race to the end zone for a 21-0 lead with 6:34 to play in the first half.
More notably, it was Hodges’ first NFL touchdown pass.
5. Steelers Country
There was a capacity crowd of 25,425 at the converted soccer stadium, a temporary home for the Chargers that was decidedly pro-Steelers.
That gave the visitors home-field advantage, which was evident from the pre-game warm-ups. Never was it louder than at 2:59 of the third quarter, when the Steelers pinned the Chargers deep in their own territory with a punt.
Initially, it appeared that Desmond King fumbled his fair catch and the ball was recovered by Justin Layne. As the play went to review, the fans chanted “Here we go, Steelers” over and over during the delay.
Officials eventually ruled it a fair catch, giving the Chargers the ball at their 9 without calling a penalty.
The weirdest part came in the fourth quarter, after the Chargers scored a touchdown on a Rivers pass to Henry for a toe-tap catch in the back of the end zone. As the teams lined up for the ensuing kickoff, the stadium scoreboard operator played the opening to “Renegade,” a Steelers staple at Heinz Field.
The Steelers flew across the country to play a home game.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .