Back when Darren Sproles was a young running back for the then-San Diego Chargers, that offense was downright electrifying, thanks to the 1-2 combination at running back with Sproles and future Hall-of-Famer LaDainian Tomlinson.
Lately, Austin Ekeler has looked a lot like Sproles once did in that uniform, combining impressive strength with incredible speed in a diminutive frame, giving the Charges a legit home run threat with the football in his hands.
Coming out of Western Colorado University, a small Division II school in Gunnison, CO, Ekeler has really burst onto the scene in recent years.
With star running back Melvin Gordon holding out for a new contract early in the year, the Chargers turned to Ekeler to be the workhorse in an explosive offense. It’s safe to say Ekeler came through in a big, big way despite his smaller stature.
On 81 touches through 4 weeks without Gordon (Gordon ended his holdout after Week 3 but didn’t play last week; though he’ll play in Week 5), Ekeler touched the ball 81 times on the ground and through the air, gaining more than six yards a touch while scoring six total touchdowns.
The former undrafted back did it all as the 'guy' in L.A.’s offense. He ran through tacklers, ran around them, lined up all over the field, caught passes…he literally did everything but kick the football.
I can’t help but get a real Sproles-like vibe when watching Ekeler. He’s so quick and so powerful, thanks to his frame and low center of gravity. This is a simple screen pass in Week 1 from Philip Rivers to Ekeler in the right flat, but the work after the catch is a thing of beauty.
Want-To & Will
He has a real want-to attitude in his game and refuses to go down on first contact. It’s really impressive to watch because he doesn’t look like he should be running through multiple tackles like this.
He won’t run an intricate route tree, but he’s very dangerous on short checkdowns with Rivers. The veteran quarterback trusts Ekeler to make things happen after the catch, which he does often.
This checkdown in Week 3 at Houston came on 3rd-&-10. Ekeler should have been stopped well short of the sticks, but he makes two defenders miss in space, leading to a much-needed first down the kept Los Angeles’s drive alive.
A Chess Piece In Motion
In Week 4 against Miami on the road, the Chargers really opened the playbook for Ekeler, moving him all over the formation to create mismatches. This is something I saw the Bears and Packers try to do with Tarik Cohen and Aaron Jones, respectively, but this is the first time I really saw it work.
That’s a credit to Ekeler.
Lined up wide right coming out of the huddle, Ekeler goes in motion and sprints back behind Rivers and fellow running back Justin Jackson in shotgun, running a semi-wheel route after the snap. He’s serving as the safety outlet for Rivers, who ultimately dumps it off to him.
Watch the straight-line speed by Ekeler to destroy defenders’ angles along the sideline, leading to the touchdown.
As a runner, Ekeler is dynamic is L.A.’s zone-blocking scheme. He has great lateral speed, turns corners quickly and has tremendous vision, allowing him to find cutback lanes without losing any type of speed.
Here against the Colts, Ekeler shows his comfort in the outside zone, turning the corner off left tackle and getting up the field in a hurry. I love the vision to get back inside and get downhill quickly, picking up as many yards as possible.
He doesn’t need much of a runway to get to top speed, and once he’s rolling it looks absolutely effortless.
Sifts & Cuts Through Trash
Against the Lions in Week 2, Ekeler really displayed his abilities in tight quarters. He is so quick laterally and never loses any speed. It’s remarkable.
Look at the way he’s able to move right to left here in traffic without losing any sort of speed.
How Denver Stops Him
With Melvin Gordon back this week against the Denver Broncos, Ekeler will almost certainly lose some touches. Gordon is an All-Pro-caliber running back with fresh legs.
The Chargers will want to get him up to speed quickly. That said, Ekeler has been the key cog in this Chargers' offensive engine through four weeks. He’s not going to all of a sudden disappear.
Ekeler will serve as the perfect change-of-pace back on Sunday, so the Broncos have to be on the lookout for him. In the passing game, Denver’s front seven must read their keys when it comes to screens. If not, Ekeler will burn them over and over again.
On dump-offs and swing routes out of the backfield, Denver has to spy Ekeler with a nickel defender, whether that’s Todd Davis, Justin Simmons, etc. He’s too dangerous of a weapon to just discard as a minor worry. He’s just as potent as Keenan Allen.