Day’s Den: Chargers’ promise is still highly on-and-off

Duncan Day | Daily Trojan

The Los Angeles Chargers didn’t give up when they had their backs against the wall in the red zone against the New England Patriots. But the efforts of head coach Anthony Lynn weren’t enough to snag a win over the Pats in Foxborough on Sunday. Still, we learned that Lynn’s Bolts seem worthy of a playoff berth when they put pressure on opponents at certain points throughout the game.

After starting 0-4, the Chargers won the next three games, while special teams play, notably from electrifying return man Travis Benjamin, supplemented the resolve of quarterback Phillip Rivers. And they won the next three games. Thus, beating the Patriots would have been the icing on the cake that would have reset the Bolts’ record to 4-4, a .500 winning percentage which offers at least some hope for success.

The AFC West doesn’t have a definitive second-place squad, as the Oakland Raiders (3-5), Chargers and Denver Broncos (3-4) sit behind the Kansas City Chiefs (6-2). The Broncos’ defense is one of the best in the league, but battling the Chiefs on Monday night, the offense anchored by quarterback Trevor Siemian looked rickety. And I still feel the AFC West could draw two playoff teams, leaving Los Angeles a slight opportunity.

As far as the competition versus the Patriots went, you’d think Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram would considerably disrupt the rhythm of New England quarterback Tom Brady. But the Patriots’ offensive line performed well enough to neutralize them, as the Chargers’ pass rushing duo was funneled past Brady and usually failed to reach him due to the QB’s swift release and pocket elusiveness.

“We didn’t get to him enough,” Lynn said. “But you know, he is a master of moving around in the pocket and sliding and making guys miss.”

The Patriots weren’t hitting strings of completions down the field, as the Chargers were comfortable limiting Brady to his backfield options. However, the running back group of Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee and James White caused all sorts of problems for the Chargers’ defense. Burkhead and White combined for 153 receiving yards on 12 receptions. Lewis led the charge with 44 yards rushing.

New England gained yards and moved the chains play after play on some drives, killing the clock on the way to the red zone. The Patriots attempted six field goals on the day, thanks to Los Angeles’ stiffening as Brady inched closer to the end zone.

While the Charger defense held the Pats to only 21 points, Benjamin made a mistake that altered the outlook of this contest, handing the Patriots 2 points when he reversed field on a punt return before being tackled in the end zone for a safety. The former University of Miami standout looked like he was trying to turn the momentum in his team’s favor, but Belichick’s special teams had probably been working on situational defending all week.

Playing an offense like New England’s, one that can advance the ball in a hurry, Lynn knew his offense would have to perform up to snuff. They weren’t up to the task this week. Tight end Hunter Henry had served a key role in the Chargers’ recent victories, and the Patriots held him in check. Keenan Allen reeled in five catches for 64 yards, which was the best stat line for L.A.’s wide receivers.

Without Allen and Henry operating at high levels, Rivers found himself hung out to dry. Antonio Gates’ hands are still very strong, but he’s not as dynamic as he once was. Rookie wide receiver Mike Williams missed significant time to start the season and is getting accustomed to his new NFL surroundings.

The burden of someone needing to step up fell on the shoulders of running back Melvin Gordon, whose 87-yard touchdown run propelled the Chargers to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. Gordon bounced outside and took advantage of a seam left open by an ill-gapped Patriot defense. But Gordon wasn’t consistently dominant. He would gain only 45 more yards by the end of the game.

This on-and-off offensive attack continues to be a problem for the Chargers. What sort of continuity has to exist for them to get 30 points or more on the board? They scored 27 points against the New York Giants in early October and average around 18.8 points per game, which is good for 22nd in the league rankings. Rivers’ ability to get the ball down the field has them ranking 10th in pass yards. So it’s not like the Bolts have a terrible offense.

Some reason for optimism is the degree of defensive execution. While one of the worst units against the run, the Chargers have only allowed an average of 19.0 points per game, better than the Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos.

But eight weeks into the 2017 regular season, the Chargers have five losses, and that number is what counts the most.

Duncan Day is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Day’s Den”, runs Wednesdays.