View Original Notice ? Chargers look for more efficiency on early downs
COSTA MESA — Chargers running back Austin Ekeler was in a cheerful mood during his first meeting with reporters since the team’s bye week.
He was rejuvenated from the time off and optimistic about where the team stands heading into the 11 remaining games of the regular season. But Ekeler hasn’t forgotten about the ugliness that occurred nearly two weeks ago in their blowout loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
“The belief never takes a hit as an individual,” Ekeler said of their confidence level since the 34-6 defeat. “I don’t think we took a hit. Even when we lose, we don’t take a hit. Win or lose, it doesn’t matter. Even Coach (Brandon) Staley said it the other day. He said, ‘We should feel the same after we win as we do after we lose.’”
The Chargers (4-2) did plenty of self-evaluating during the bye week, but what Ekeler noticed offensively were some corrections that can be made, specifically on first and second downs.
Even in the Chargers’ four wins before the bye week, they struggled on early downs. But quarterback Justin Herbert was productive on third downs and the team was aggressive on fourth downs to move the chains.
The Chargers converted 14 third downs in their season-opening victory at Washington, but they were faced with 19 third downs because they were inefficient on early downs.
The Chargers were beating the odds on third-and-long and fourth-and-short, but the numbers caught up to them against the Ravens.
“We’ve had a lot of third downs,” Ekeler said. “That was the biggest emphasis Coach Staley was talking about. Like, ‘Hey, we have to get better on first and second downs. Whether that’s being more creative with our play call or being more aggressive.”
Staley said he liked the aggressiveness because they threw the ball at a high rate on first downs during the first six games of the season. Staley said it was more of an execution issue and lack of efficiency in the running game.
The Chargers are in need of a second running back to step up behind Ekeler. Running backs Justin Jackson, Larry Rountree III and Joshua Kelley have been inconsistent this season, and the Chargers only produced 26 rushing yards against the Ravens.
“I’m definitely ready for someone to step up,” Ekeler said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, guys, let’s go. Someone has to rise to the occasion. Come on.’ It’s been a (committee) mix, which honestly hurts them, in my opinion, because now there’s no clear role for them.”
“I think Austin’s had a really good season,” Staley said. “Until a guy emerges as like, ‘Hey, that’s going to be our second back,’ then we have to continue to let the competition play out and try to get those guys doing the right jobs for us, which I think we are. Then, hopefully, those guys will continue to develop and grow.”
One bad game in Baltimore shouldn’t diminish what the Chargers’ offense accomplished in its first five games. The unit was churning yards with a productive quarterback and overcame its early-season red zone struggles.
The Chargers simply need to help themselves in the running game and on early downs, beginning Sunday against the New England Patriots.
Staley can’t say why Washington decided to release kicker Dustin Hopkins, but he didn’t notice a decline in production during Hopkins’ evaluation and workout with the Chargers this week.
“I can’t speak to what that organization did, but all we tried to do was evaluate the film, evaluate his film over time, not just this season, but preseason,” Staley said about Hopkins. “Then, the previous seasons. The other thing that we did was evaluate him live. … I think that was important, too, because you’re comparing him to Tristan (Vizcaino) and we wanted to make sure that he was of that caliber.
“We felt like he had a really good workout. We felt like with his experiences, being a starting NFL kicker for six seasons, and being a guy that has kicked in playoff games, that that would be an advantage for us.”
It’s a bit of a mystery as to why Washington released Hopkins, but he did have a few hiccups this season. Hopkins missed two extra-point attempts in a game against the Atlanta Falcons this month.
Hopkins made 12 of 14 field-goal attempts in six games with Washington this season and left as the franchise’s all-time leader in field goal percentage (84.0%) and field goals of 50-plus yards (13).
The Chargers were impressed by Hopkins, but the team isn’t ready to give up on Vizcaino’s development. Staley said he hopes to sign Vizcaino to the practice squad.
The Chargers requested workouts from Hopkins and kicker Elliott Fry because of Vizcaino’s struggles this season. The Damien High graduate missed five extra-point attempts in six games for the Chargers.
“We really believe in the talent of Tristan,” Staley said. “The reason why I’ve continued to say it is because I believe it. Dustin’s path is similar to a lot of past kickers. He’s on his fourth team. He was drafted by Buffalo, then went to New Orleans and Washington, and now he’s with us. Sometimes, that’s how it happens for kickers, where it takes some time to get your legs underneath of you.”
ROBERTS READY TO HELP
Newcomer wide receiver Andre Roberts said he’s eager to help the Chargers improve their stagnant return games in punts and kickoffs.
“It was a good opportunity,” Roberts said about why he decided to sign with the team last week. “I understood a bit about what they are struggling with special teams. I wanted to come in and help.”
Roberts is expected to take over as the team’s punt and kick returner. He struggled as a punt returner for the Houston Texans this fall and that’s probably why he was released, but Roberts did produce as their kickoff return specialist. Roberts is second in the NFL with 386 kickoff return yards and averaged 21.4 yards per return.
Returning kickoffs has been Roberts’ strength, as a two-time All-Pro at the position. He was named to three consecutive Pro Bowls as a return specialist for the Buffalo Bills between 2018 to 2020.
Roberts said the Chargers’ return game scheme is similar to what the Bills run.
Andre Roberts on joining the #Chargers: “It was a good opportunity. I understood a bit about what they are struggling with special teams. I wanted to come in and help.”
— Gilbert Manzano (@GManzano24) October 27, 2021