COSTA MESA — Chargers running back Austin Ekeler was left confused after being shut out against the New England Patriots in Week 13, but then he realized why the flat performance occurred.
The Chargers didn’t have an offensive identity through 12 games of the season.
“I think that’s where we struggled this year (with) just trying to find what really is our formula for success on offense,” Ekeler said on Dec. 9.
Ekeler found his answers after back-to-back wins and a 30-point performance against the Las Vegas Raiders last week.
Rookie quarterback Justin Herbert is the Chargers’ offensive identity, according to Ekeler.
“I think we have an identity and I think a lot of it stands from our rookie quarterback, who’s been really playing well,” Ekeler said Tuesday. “He’s taken a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and proven he can take that and I think our identity is coming through Herbert right now.
“Obviously, we’re trying to run the game, but Herbert is out there taking control and doing it with his arm and legs too at the quarterback spot.”
Herbert had a dynamic start to his NFL career after taking over as the starter in Week 2, but he hit a rough patch in games against the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and Patriots. The Chargers faced the AFC East in four consecutive games between Weeks 10 to 13.
Herbert struggled with reading blitz disguises against those three teams and was looking for certain targets instead of spreading the ball.
But Herbert made adjustments in the past two games and has earned more trust from teammates and coaches after guiding them on back-to-back game-winning final drives against the Atlanta Falcons and Raiders in overtime.
Chargers wide receiver Jalen Guyton said Herbert made a key audible at the line of scrimmage against the Raiders after reading the defense. Guyton said Herbert read the defense incorrectly in a similar situation a few weeks earlier.
“Justin started out playing well,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “He peaked a little bit. You had to expect it. You knew that was coming. So he went through a rough patch and I believe he’s come out of the rough patch with his performance over the last couple weeks. I think he’s a better quarterback coming out of that rough patch, so he’s doing some good things, but he still has ways to go.”
Herbert is showing his fast start wasn’t a fluke by countering defenses’ adjustments. He’s now seeing teams for a second time, starting with the Raiders last week and ending the season against the Denver Broncos on Sunday and Kansas City Chiefs in Week 17.
Lynn said Herbert stopped looking for his star players and returned to his progression reads and spreading the ball.
Herbert struggled to incorporate Ekeler when he returned from his six-game absence in Week 12 against the Bills. The Chargers averaged 29.5 points while Ekeler was sidelined with a torn hamstring. They only managed 17 points combined in Ekeler’s first two games back.
The Chargers’ offense is back on track because Herbert has taken control and players have followed the star rookie’s lead. He’s no longer concerned with feeding his top playmakers. They’re waiting for their opportunities.
“Super proud of him,” Ekeler said about Herbert. “We’re trying to back him up as much as we can by making plays for him out in space because he’s giving us opportunities. We just have to take advantage.”
Austin Ekeler kept it simple when asked what’s the offensive identity: “Justin Herbert.” #Chargers
— Gilbert Manzano (@GManzano24) December 22, 2020
NO PLANS TO SHUT DOWN BOSA
With two games left on the schedule, Lynn said he has no plans to shut down Joey Bosa for the season after Bosa was placed in the concussion protocol for the second time this year.
“Guys in the protocol, I really can’t talk about them anyway, but that’s not the intention,” Lynn said about his star pass rusher.
Bosa left in the fourth quarter of last week’s game against the Las Vegas Raiders to be evaluated for a concussion. He missed two games after sustaining a concussion in Week 8 against the Denver Broncos.
Bosa has dealt with multiple injuries this season, including a shin injury that limited his snap count versus the Raiders.
REMEMBERING KEVIN GREENE
Lynn opened his Tuesday news conference by remembering Hall of Fame outside linebacker Kevin Greene, who died Monday at the age of 58.
Lynn referred to Greene as a great friend and an unbelievable pass rusher. Greene played the first eight seasons of his 15-year NFL career with the Rams.
“You just felt like a better person because his enthusiasm for life, his passion, it was contagious,” Lynn said about Greene. “It was just sad when I heard he had passed yesterday, but I know he’s in a better place right now. But if you pray, please keep his family in your prayers, please.
“When Kevin was with the Carolina Panthers and I was with the 49ers, Kevin was my nemesis. I could not block him. He was unbelievable, but at the same time, he was this great pass rusher, but he had such a respect for his opponent in the game that you couldn’t help but to like him.”
Lynn said he spoke to Greene before the 2020 season about coaching together in the future. Greene was an outside linebackers coach for the Green Bay Packers and New York Jets.
“We spoke right before the season about opportunities of working together one day,” Lynn said. “I just hate (that) I missed out on an opportunity to work with him.”