The third preseason game for the Los Angeles Chargers, also known as the annual “dress rehearsal,” has come and gone with the home team losing 36-7 to the New Orleans Saints. While the score certainly isn’t very pretty, I don’t think things are quite as bleak as a 29-point loss might otherwise suggest.
The truth is, the Chargers starters played pretty well on both sides of the ball. The offense, in particular, put together two solid drives against a talented and well-coached New Orleans defense – even if one ended when Rivers failed to connect with Mike Williams on a fourth-and-goal jump ball. Meanwhile, the first team defense intercepted Drew Brees and limited the Saints to a touchdown and two field goals in three red zone trips.
Let’s take a look at some of the things that stood out to me – both good and bad – in Saturday’s loss to the Saints:
When in doubt, run left: Mike Pouncey, Dan Feeney, and Russell Okung look like a major strength for this offense. Austin Ekeler ran the ball six times for 50 yards during the first two drives, including four carries for 38 yards behind the left side of the line. Pouncey, Feeney, and Okung didn’t just control the line of scrimmage, they owned it, and Ken Whisenhunt wasn’t the least bit shy about leaning on them. This is going to be a fun group to watch during the regular season.
Austin Ekeler – RB1?: With Melvin Gordon unavailable on Saturday, Austin Ekeler started the game and was the focal point of each of the Chargers’ first two drives. Ken Whisenhunt called Ekeler’s number nine times in the team’s first seventeen offensive plays and was rewarded with 63 total yards. While I’m half-kidding when I suggest Ekeler is RB1, his vision, burst, elusiveness, and hands out of the backfield might have him ready to take on a much larger role this year. He looked fantastic.
A glimpse of things to come?: The Chargers’ first drive may have revealed a new, more aggressive attitude on the part of head coach Anthony Lynn. Faced with a fourth-and-goal from the Saints four-yard line, Lynn eschewed a chip-shot field goal in favor of a jump ball for Mike Williams. Granted, Williams didn’t get open and the Chargers failed to convert, but it’s pretty telling that Lynn opted to go for it on fourth down instead of kicking the ball with a somewhat murky kicking competition taking place in camp. It seems like a big vote of confidence for Mike Williams in what has been a preseason of baby steps for the former #7 overall pick.
Detrez is the man: There is little doubt at this point that Detrez Newsome is the favorite to win the third-string running back job. While his stats on Saturday certainly weren’t eye-popping, he finished with 14 touches for 44 yards and an eight-yard touchdown run. Newsome strikes me as the ideal complement to Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler and, for the first time in years, the Chargers appear to have a dynamic and versatile three-man backfield. Detrez earned it.
JJ just misses: The fact that Travis Benjamin and Desmond King served as the primary return men on Saturday probably suggests Jones won’t make the roster. JJ simply isn’t an NFL wide receiver and, even with his potential as a return specialist, I the coaches likely can’t justify keeping seven receivers if the seventh man can’t at least break camp as the primary return specialist. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if the team tries to protect him by including him on the initial 53-man roster with the intention of transferring him to the practice squad after the rest of the league has announced their practice squads. He could serve as a “placeholder” for an Antonio Gates signing, assuming the team ultimately brings him in.
It’s Gates time: The Chargers played a third straight game in which their tight ends struggled to contribute as targets in the passing game. Sean Culkin caught his lone target for a seven-yard gain, but the group was otherwise invisible in the passing game. While I don’t think adding Antonio Gates changes much for this position group in terms of consistent playmaking ability, I do think his signing is probably inevitable. With that in mind, let’s get it done, already, so we can stop talking about it.
Let Pooh Bear eat: Derwin James started his first game as a Charger and celebrated with an interception, a couple big hits, and a couple third down stops. Derwin showed a bit of everything you look for in a free safety when he intercepted Drew Brees on the third play of the game, including anticipation, range and electric ball skills. He’s arguably the best athlete on the team and possesses the best natural ball skills of any safety on the roster. He’s also the only safety on the roster capable of making that play. Stick James back there and good things will happen.
White-out at WILL: Derwin James wasn’t the only rookie to start his first game as a Charger, as fourth-round pick Kyzir White got the nod at weakside linebacker (WILL). While he didn’t make any splash plays, White looked really good in man coverage, made a couple stops in the run game, and didn’t miss any tackles. I think he needs to work on how he reacts to play-action (a little too aggressive) and he seemed to be thinking a little out there, but it wasn’t bad for a rookie who missed the second preseason game.
Brown on the bubble?: Jatavis Brown looked lost against the Saints. After making consecutive run stops to start the third quarter, Brown promptly missed his next seven tackle attempts, including an embarrassing whiff on Taysom Hill at the goal line. His reads were inconsistent, his angles were extremely poor and he was routinely beat to the edge. He looked even worse than Dwight Lowery did against the 49ers last preseason – right before he got cut. While I’m not totally convinced he’ll get cut, I think next week could ultimately decide Jatavis’ fate.
Mager is in: It’s becoming pretty apparent that Craig Mager has the fifth cornerback spot on lockdown. He started the game opposite Michael Davis on the boundary, then played well into the third quarter while rotating inside to the slot. Mager went a third straight game without being targeted and I thought he played with solid technique and was generally in good position. Outside of eating a nasty stiff arm from Michael Thomas in the second quarter, Craig didn’t do anything to make me think he’s going to relinquish his hold on what figures to be the fifth and final spot on the depth chart.
Chargers eliminate the dirty laundry: I thought the team executed more efficiently in all three phases of the game against the Saints and, most importantly, they more or less eliminated the mental and physical errors that led to 28 penalties over the first two preseason games. Granted, some of that is the direct result of getting the starters extended snaps, but the team definitely played its cleanest preseason game to date. In addition to avoiding major injuries, that’s the best possible outcome from the third preseason game.
Well, those are my notes from the Chargers third preseason game. Overall, I thought the starters played pretty well on offense and defense, the majority of the camp battles have come to their conclusion, and the Bolts cleaned up the stupid mistakes they made through the first two preseason games. All in all, it was a pretty successful dress rehearsal for the starters. Don’t even get me started on the backups.