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Chargers vs. 49ers Preview: 3 things to watch for in Week 10

Is Derwin James the key to an improved run defense?

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Chargers are 5-3 and about to face a tough two-game stretch against the NFL’s top-ranked defense followed by the league most-productive passing attack.

For a team as battered as the Chargers, it’ll be close to a miracle to find a way through it without a pair of losses and a .500 record. But anything can happen in the NFL, right?

Ahead of this intra-state matchup on Sunday, here are the three things I’ll be watching closely when the Bolts take the field against the 49ers.

1.) Which defensive tackle will replace Austin Johnson?

The loss of Johnson was just another addition to the plethora of hits the Chargers have taken this year. He was placed on injured reserve this week and the team signed Breiden Fehoko to the active roster in a corresponding move.

With Jerry Tillery a non-participant on Wednesday due to personal reasons, there’s a chance the Chargers will be without him once again in week 10. If that ends up being the case, the Chargers will have an interior group made up of Sebastian Joseph-Day, Christian Covington, Morgan Fox, rookie Otito Ogbonnia, and Fehoko. That’s a shallow group, especially with Fox mainly being a pass-rush specialist and Ogbonnia playing mainly nose thus far.

If I had to take a guess, I’d say Covington starts in Johnson’s place while Ogbonnia sees an increase in snaps, as well. Fehoko’s snap share will depend on how run-heavy the 49ers decide to be. If that’s the case, the Bolts will be in a lot of fronts with three linemen, meaning the depths of the rotation will be tested more than usual.

2.) Is playing Derwin James on the edge better for the run defense?

Against the Falcons, James played a season-high 17 snaps lined up on the edge outside the tackle. His previous season-high was eight snaps on the edge in week three against the Jaguars.

Surprisingly, one of the Chargers’ best defensive front against the Falcons was when they had five to six bodies on the line of scrimmage and one off-ball linebacker, mainly Drue Tranquill. This look not only helped scheme up exotic blitz packages, but it also seemed to do enough to limit the Falcons run game after an explosive first quarter that saw them rack up 90+ yards.

Now I know you’re probably thinking, “James is too small to hold up on the edge. This is probably fluky not a great idea.” Now that’s all fair, but it was the personnel groups with Kyle Van Noy and Kenneth Murray that were gashed the hardest by Atlanta this past Sunday. I know fans may be more comfortable with their heftier players out there, but we’ve seen the Chargers stop high-powered rushing attacks before with a plethora of defensive backs (i.e., the 2018 playoff victory over the Ravens).

In the end I doubt the Chargers will put James back out there on the edge 10 or more times, but it’d be interesting to see them at least notice the difference when they’ve got their best players mixing it up at the line and when they don’t.

3.) Will the Chargers make it five consecutive games being down by 10+ points after the first quarter?

When the Chargers fell behind by 10 following the open quarter of last Sunday’s game against the Falcons, they became the third team in NFL history to find themselves trailing by double digits after the first quarter in four consecutive games. To add a little more salt to the stat, the last team to do it was back in the 1970s.

By like every other game in that streak, the Chargers offense came alive in the second half half to take a 14-10 lead at halftime. From there, they simply needed to hang on as best as possible before Cameron Dicker banged home the game-winning field goal at the end of regulation.

The reason I have this as one of the things I’m watching for is that — if the offense comes out seriously flat once again — maybe it will actually force a change amongst either the staff or the scheme, in general. Injuries and unfortunate circumstances can only be considered for so long. At some point, the players you are forced to trot out there have been working together long enough that you should be able to at least get into field goal range within the first 15 minutes.

It doesn’t look like Keenan Allen is coming back anytime soon, so what the Chargers have right now on offense is what they’ll need to rely on this week and also likely next, as well.