As the cliche goes, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. The Los Angeles Chargers got lucky against the Cincinnati Bengals to open the season. The Chargers pulled off the 16-13 win after Bengals kicker Randy Bullock missed a chip-shot 31-yard field goal right before the clock struck zero.
The luck broke for LA in more ways than one. They were fortunate to be facing the only rookie starting QB in the NFL, playing behind a questionable offensive line. The Chargers slide by despite a poor offensive effort.
But a win is a win, and the Chargers return to LA for their home-opener with a 1-0 record. Let’s take a look at some takeaways from Week One.
First: The positives.
If there was a breakout Charger in the opener, it was Joshua Kelley.
The fourth-round draft pick out of UCLA was an instrumental part of the offense in the second half. He presented an attractive contrast to Austin Ekeler in the backfield. Ekeler is a shifty back that provides most of his value in the passing game, while Kelley showed physicality with explosive cutting ability, showcased on this impressive 26-yard run.
When Ekeler is the lone back on the field, the Chargers sacrifice ground production between the tackles. According to Sharp Football Stats, he averaged just 3.6 yards per carry while running through the A-gap in 2019 and just 3.0 YPC on five attempts through the A-gap on Sunday.
Kelly averaged 4.8 YPC through the A-gap in his debut on four tries. His size (5-foot-11, 212 pounds) contributes to his bruising, powerful running style — something the Chargers have lacked since the days of Mike Tolbert.
While Josh Jackson had two early carries on Sunday, Kelley’s 12 carries for 60 yards and his five-yard touchdown run proved that the rookie would serve as the second running back for this offense.
You’re going to see a lot of Kelley this season, and there’s a lot to love.
Mike Will Made It
Mike Williams was listed as questionable throughout the week, but there is no question about his role this season.
Williams appeared to be a favorite target of Tyrod Taylor in Week One. The chemistry wasn’t quite there between Keenan Allen and Taylor on those patented double-move routes (this will come in time), but Williams and Taylor were on the same page.
Of his nine targets, Williams caught four for 69 yards. Not great efficiency. But it was surprising how vertical the passing game was to Williams, and how many times Taylor went for it. Taylor didn’t quite make all of the throws, with emphasis on a poorly-thrown goal-line fade, but Williams played well, considering the lack of prep time with his new QB.
Fantasy players, keep an eye on Williams if he’s still available on the waiver wire.
An evolving offense
While the execution wasn’t always there, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen’s new scheme tailored for Taylor (yes, pun intended) made its debut Sunday. It was a breath of fresh air.
Taylor wasn’t flashy or consistent, but he did what he was brought in to do. Protect the football. The Chargers didn’t turn the ball over on Sunday.
The play-calling took advantage of Taylor’s wheels. He often rolled out of the pocket to pass, and they ran more play action. With Philip Rivers, the Chargers playbook was obviously limited by his lack of athleticism. With Taylor for now and Justin Herbert on deck, they’ll hide any deficiencies on the offensive line by moving the pocket to outside the hashes.
Speaking of the offensive line, it did a decent job considering, with both Trai Turner and Mike Pouncey out. While those two heal up, expect a similar offensive gameplay against Kansas City’s formidable pass rush next week. A lot of quick passes and movement from Taylor.
Welcome to the league, Mr. Heisman
Let’s preface this. The Bengals’ offensive line is not good. Joe Burrow is a rookie who made his first-ever NFL start after a weird offseason.
Okay, that’s out of the way. The Chargers pass rush single-handily won them this game.
Burrow attempted 36 passing attempts and was pressured on 22 (!) of them. LA sacked the rookie three times, with Joey Bosa, Uchenna Nwosu, and Jerry Tillery doing the damage.
Bosa was his dominant self, but the real breakout was Tillery. He had a quiet rookie year last season, but this game was anything but. He penetrated the backfield consistently and forced Burrow to make tough throws.
If this team is to make some noise, the pass rush needs to replicate this performance on the regular. The real test for this group will be Sunday against the defending Super Bowl champs.
Now, let’s look at some of the not so good things from Sunday.
A weak start for Taylor
Tyrod Taylor’s expectations aren’t high this season. He’s just buying LA time while Herbert adjusts to life in the NFL.
But even those with tempered projections, you have to be a tad disappointed with the veteran’s effort against the Bengals. He was 16-for-30 with 208 yards.
The scheming and playcalling were there, but Taylor’s accuracy simply wasn’t. He seemed hesitant to throw it to any receiver that wasn’t completely wide open.
Austin Ekeler was only targeted once, which isn’t acceptable when there’s as skilled a pass-catcher as him in your backfield. Ekeler needs the ball more, simple as that.
It’s not time to panic or call for the rookie to come in. This team can coast by until Herbert is ready. It was Taylor’s first game as the starter, and he needs to build chemistry with the receivers and backs.
However, if these sub-par performances become a habit, the pressure will mount for Anthony Lynn to pull the plug and put Herbert in. Putting young quarterbacks in too early can be detrimental, so that should be a last resort. If Taylor continues to struggle then Lynn won’t have much of a choice. Taylor needs to be better than what we saw on Sunday.
Some issues up the middle
After three-and-a-half quarters of massive struggling (aside from a sick TD run), Joe Burrow looked like a legit NFL quarterback at the end of the game.
Burrow was accurate, but more importantly, he was protected. The Bengals finally adjusted to the pass rush and called some quickly developing plays in the fourth quarter, which gashed the defense.
This is a bit of a troubling development, especially when Patrick Mahomes strolls into SoFi Stadium next week. LA’s corners and linebackers need to anticipate the quick throws in the future and learn how to stop offenses even when the pass rush isn’t working.
But perhaps the more troubling development is the success Burrow had in the middle of the field.
According to Sharp Football Stats, Burrow was 5/5 for 58 yards in the middle of the field within 15 yards. That’s good for a 115 QB rating on those passes.
The pass coverage from the linebacking core needs to be better. Kenneth Murray Jr. was decent in his debut with eight tackles but struggled in coverage. The loss of Drue Tranquill, who fractured his fibula in the opening quarter, could prove costly while defending the pass.
If this is a trend and not a fluke, Mahomes will do some serious damage next week.
A win in Week One is a tone-setter. The Chargers won an ugly game where they didn’t play their greatest on either side of the ball. Lots of things need to improve. But the lining is simple: this is the type of game they would have lost a year ago.
Sure, they escaped a potential overtime thanks to a shanked field goal, right as Burrow was figuring it out. But the Chargers will gladly take a win under the circumstances. Next week, the big challenge is when the Chiefs come to town for the first Charger home game in SoFi Stadium. For more on that game, keep your eyes on OTHeroics throughout the week.
Austin covers the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Chargers for OT Heroics. Follow him on Twitter @AustinTurner.
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