Why 'much improved' Chargers' run defense falters and gives up gargantuan gains




Houston Texans running back Dameon Pierce (32) carries the ball during an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, October 2, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/Matt Patterson)
Houston Texans running back Dameon Pierce (32) carries the ball during an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, October 2, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/Matt Patterson)  

The Chargers have given up only 13 first downs on the ground, tops in the NFL.

They've surrendered two rushing touchdowns, a total bettered by only five teams.

Against Jacksonville, they had six tackles for loss on runs after producing only seven such plays through the first four games of the 2021 season

After finishing 30th in the league against the run a season ago, the franchise's offseason defensive investments clearly have paid early dividends.

But here's something else also quite clear: The improved Chargers have developed an odd hobby of giving up huge runs.

In each of their last three games, they've permitted a rush of at least 50 yards, something that happened only once all season against last season's run-challenged bunch.

"Each run has a different story, for sure," coach Brandon Staley said. "It's just trusting the run fit. In all of those runs, they've been to the perimeter. We have to have better perimeter run support. That's where it starts."

Kansas City's Clyde Edwards-Helaire had a 52-yard rush in Week 2, Jacksonville's James Robinson a 50-yarder in Week 3 and Houston's Dameon Pierce a 75-yarder last Sunday.

That's three running backs with carries of 50 or more yards against the Chargers. Against the NFL's other 31 teams, only four running backs this season have gone 50 or more on a single play.

These facts have added meaning this week as the Chargers prepare to face Cleveland's Nick Chubb, who's second in the NFL with 459 yards rushing and gained 161 when these teams met last October.

Nick Chubb runs for a touchdown past the tackle attempt by Asante Samuel Jr.
Nick Chubb runs for a touchdown past the tackle attempt by Asante Samuel Jr.  

"He sets up his blocks really well and then he's just a very tough tackle because of how he's built," Staley said. "He's got a really strong lower body. He can shrink his surface where he becomes even thicker and smaller."

That one 50-plus-yard rush against the Chargers last season? That was Chubb in Week 5, when he had a 52-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He also had carries of 24 and 20 yards that afternoon.

The Browns are second in the NFL this season, averaging 187.3 yards on the ground. Chubb has 201 more yards rushing than all of the Chargers combined.

Cleveland also features veteran running back Kareem Hunt, who, against the Chargers twice ran for more than 150 yards in a game when he was with Kansas City.

"They utilize big people to run the ball," Staley said of the Browns, "which isn't normal in today's NFL where everything's getting smaller, three-receiver groupings. They go the opposite way."

The big runs against the 2022 Chargers have cost them more than just significant yardage.

The effort by Edwards-Helaire came late in the fourth quarter of a one-score game and set up the field goal that was the Chiefs' margin of victory in a 27-24 final.

Robinson's dash happened on fourth and one in the third quarter of a one-score game that eventually turned into a four-touchdown triumph for the Jaguars. Staley later suggested the play deflated his team.

The run by Pierce occurred on the first snap after the Chargers had opened a 21-0 second-quarter lead. Although their edge was back to 20 points by halftime, the Chargers had to play deep into the fourth quarter before finally putting away the Texans.

"We played really well," Staley said of his team's run defense in Houston. "One run like that can make you feel a lot different about your performance."

That statement also sums up the Chargers' run defense through four weeks. Those three big rushes against them have totaled 177 yards.

On their opponents' other 78 carries, they've surrendered 262 yards. That's an average of 3.6 yards per carry, which would be tied for fifth best leaguewide.

Add those three big gains and the Chargers' average goes up to 5.4 yards, 31st in the NFL.

Etc.

Wide receiver Keenan Allen is unlikely to play at Cleveland after sitting out practice Wednesday because of a hamstring injury that already has cost him three games. Allen tweaked the injury last week. ... Kicker Dustin Hopkins (quadriceps), linebacker Kyle Van Noy (back) and wide receiver Joshua Palmer (ankle) were limited in practice. ... The Chargers signed wide receiver Keelan Doss to their practice squad.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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