Chargers rushing attack shows promise in opener: What it means for Justin Herbert

The Los Angeles Chargers’ loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday falls squarely on the shoulders of the defense, and the pass defense particularly.

The Dolphins’ aerial attack thoroughly dominated the game. Tua Tagovailoa threw for 466 yards. The Chargers quite literally could not cover Tyreek Hill, who caught 11 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns. The Dolphins had the better players, the better performance, the better coaching, the better scheme, the better play calling. Brandon Staley bested Mike McDaniel when the two coaches met in Week 14 last season. Sunday was the exact opposite.


Chargers defense implodes against Dolphins: ‘Definitely a humbling loss’

The Chargers were also, rather surprisingly, in this game until the very end. And that is because Kellen Moore’s offense was stellar in the offensive coordinator’s Chargers debut. As the dust settles from Sunday’s loss, the biggest takeaway is that the pass defense must significantly improve if the Chargers have any chance of contending for the playoffs. The silver lining is that Moore’s offense was good enough to make this a competitive game. If the offense kept the Chargers in this game, it will be able to keep them in any game. Defensively, it does not get worse than what the Chargers put on tape against the Dolphins.

The most encouraging development for the Chargers offensively against the Dolphins was the running game. This was a huge point of emphasis for Staley this offseason, especially with how things ended in Jacksonville. Staley believed Moore could elevate the Chargers’ ground game with a more streamlined, defined and downhill rushing philosophy. And that vision came to life Sunday against Miami.

The Chargers finished the game with 243 rushing yards on 40 carries. Austin Ekeler had 117 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, including a 55-yard explosion in the first half, before leaving the game with an ankle injury late in the fourth. Joshua Kelley had 91 rushing yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. The Chargers finished the game averaging 0.31 expected points added per designed rush, according to TruMedia. To put that number in perspective, no other team was above 0.07 EPA/designed rush in Week 1, before Monday night. That rushing EPA output was better than all but one game under Joe Lombardi — Week 8 against the New England Patriots in 2021, when the Chargers rushed for 163 yards on 20 carries.

Players, from running backs to offensive linemen, spoke often in the spring and summer about how they felt more comfortable and confident in Moore’s rushing scheme. And we saw that confidence expressed in how the offensive linemen dominated the point of attack and how decisive Ekeler and Kelley were in attacking the holes and tracks.

“That was our biggest goal as an offensive line this year, was to turn over that narrative with the run,” left tackle Rashawn Slater said in the locker room after the loss. “We did that today. I feel like we’re just getting started with it.”

The importance of an improved rushing attack can have a multiplying effect on the offense as a whole.

The talent in Justin Herbert’s right arm is obvious, and opposing defenses will always develop their game plans around taking away the deep part of the field with their coverage structures. But when a defense plays that way — with two-high safety shells — that inevitably means fewer resources deployed closer to the line of scrimmage.

In turn, that means more favorable run looks. The Chargers must take advantage of these looks to penalize defenses for prioritizing their deep-field coverage. They did not do that last season. According to TruMedia, the Chargers ranked 29th in EPA per rush when facing boxes with six or fewer defenders in 2022. They were 31st over Lombardi’s two seasons as offensive coordinator. There was minimal threat of the Chargers taking advantage of light boxes, so defenses could take away the deep part of the field without meaningful consequences.

On Sunday, the Chargers faced a heavy dose of light boxes while facing Vic Fangio’s Dolphins defense. There were six or fewer defenders in the box on more than 61 percent of the Chargers offensive snaps, the sixth-highest rate in the league in Week 1, according to TruMedia. Against these looks, Moore’s offense averaged nearly 4.6 yards per rush and finished with the fifth-highest EPA per rush in the league. Six of their 17 rushes against these looks went for first downs.

“It was an exceptional performance by the offensive group running the football,” Staley said Monday.

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Joshua Kelley had a career-high 91 yards rushing Sunday on 16 carries. (Harry How / Getty Images)

The Chargers have to show defenses they can run the ball against these looks. If they do not, teams will continue to deploy their resources to the deep part of the field without repercussions. Sunday’s performance was a big step toward keeping defenses honest. And if they maintain consistency, teams will have to adjust to some degree.

That, ultimately, is the pathway toward creating more downfield passing opportunities for Herbert and the Chargers pass-catchers.

“Each game is going to be different in terms of how they deploy their coverages,” Staley said. “I felt like we blocked the box and I thought that we blocked the support players at a high level, and then we broke some tackles. So regardless of the structure, we want to be able to be that physical at the point of attack. And then we want our backs to be able to make people miss, and I think that that’s why you saw a lot of 10-yard runs go even farther, is our backs were able to break tackles and create even bigger plays.”

Onto some other notes, stats and quotes from Sunday’s loss …

• Staley said Ekeler’s status for practice this week is “to be determined” with the ankle injury. Ekeler appeared to suffer the injury on a run late in the third quarter. He played six more snaps, including five in the fourth quarter. But he was not on the field for the Chargers’ failed two-minute drill. On the final offensive play of the game, a fourth-and-12, Kelley missed a pass protection pickup on cornerback Justin Bethel, who was blitzing out of the slot.



Two concerns for Chargers after 36-34 loss to Dolphins

• J.C. Jackson did not play well in his first game since rupturing his patellar tendon in Week 7 of last season. He misplayed his leverage on Hill’s 35-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter, according to Staley. He had a horrific pass interference penalty late in the first half that gifted the Dolphins three points. Jackson is coming off a severe injury, and some rust was expected. The biggest question: How long of a leash will Jackson have to work through his struggles?

Here is what Staley had to say on that: “We’re going to put the players out there who give us the best chance to win. … We also know that there’s a progression and a ramp-up as he continues his return to play. He’s proven that he can practice and can practice consistently the whole way. And now he’s proven that he can play in a game against an outstanding team that’s throwing the football. And so now we just got to keep building his confidence, rep by rep. And that’s only going to come in time.”

• Eric Kendricks had a rather interesting comment in the locker room after the loss, on how none of the Chargers defensive starters played in the preseason: “A lot of us missed the preseason, which is a huge wake-up call on some of those plays.” The implication is that the Chargers defenders had some adjusting to do early in that game because they had not played in a game since January. Having to make those adjustments against the Dolphins passing attack — with Hill and Jaylen Waddle — is about as tough as it gets. Staley was asked if he has reconsidered his decision to not play his starters in the preseason. “Yeah, just same comments in my first two seasons,” Staley said.

• Hill caught a 47-yard pass from Tagovailoa in the fourth quarter on a third-and-10 that set up their eventual go-ahead touchdown. Hill beat Ja’Sir Taylor on a wheel route out of the slot. Derwin James Jr. was playing as the deep-field defender in the post. Staley said the Chargers designed their coverage to take away the in-breakers on the play. “Good throw and catch kind of in the weakness of the of the coverage, per se,” Staley added.

• When asked for his assessment of linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr.’s performance, Staley said, “I thought he and Eric were solid in the game and gave us a chance to win. I thought they had winning performances.”

(Top photo of Justin Herbert handing off to Austin Ekeler: Peter McMahon / Miami Dolphins via Associated Press)

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