The Los Angeles Chargers dropped their third straight game Sunday, this one to the Tennessee Titans by a score of 23-20. Here are some instant reactions and observations from the game.
Running lanes still closed
After the Chargers failed to establish their run game against the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday, head coach Anthony Lynn didn't blame Melvin Gordon and the tailbacks. Instead, Lynn pointed to the offensive line's inability to open up running lanes and double down on that assessment during the week, noting that the O-line has mainly young players and that the performance would improve.
Though the offensive line could still improve this year, it didn't show much progress in the ground game against the Titans. The Chargers averaged less than 2 yards per carry on 21 attempts, most of which came in the first half. The inefficient performance of the ground game forced offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt to effectively abandon the run at halftime. That approach created its own issues, with the Chargers producing just 7 yards during the third quarter.
The Chargers could receive a boost from Russell Okung in the coming weeks, but they now have to adjust to the loss of Forrest Lamp. Lamp suffered an ankle injury during the first half of Sunday's game and didn't return, casting doubt over his future availability. The team has better run blockers than Lamp, but the injury forces the untested Scott Quessenberry to center and Dan Feeney back over to left guard. Most offensive lines struggle with personnel fluctuations, and Los Angeles' group appears no different.
Austin Ekeler remains the key to the Chargers offense
The Chargers have playmakers all around the offense. Wide receiver Keenan Allen continues to burn defensive backs with exquisite route running. Newly healthy tight end Hunter Henry opens up the middle of the field with his receiving skills and helps out meaningfully as a blocker. Melvin Gordon possesses a nose for the end zone bettered by few in the NFL.
However, multipurpose tailback Austin Ekeler remains the key to the offense.
Ekeler, who has played as much wideout as running back since Gordon's return, showed off his route-running skills during the fourth quarter. Badly in need of a quick score, the Chargers lined him out wide and had him run a double move. Ekeler ran the route as well as a full-time wideout, pulling away from the coverage in time for Philip Rivers to find him for a 41-yard touchdown. Later that quarter, Ekeler moved the Chargers into scoring position again by making a difficult reception between two defenders.
The Chargers have many mouths to feed, and that has limited the number of touches for Ekeler in recent weeks. Still, if Ekeler continues to produce as well as he did Sunday, they'll have no choice but to manufacture opportunities for him.
Playoff berth moving farther out of reach
Even after a poor start to the game, the Chargers had a chance to take the lead in the final minute and walk away with a victory. A win would have put them on even footing with the Oakland Raiders and not far behind the Patrick Mahomes-less Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West standings, the best-case scenario considering how the week began.
Instead, the Chargers fall to 2-5. Though not mathematic elimination, less than five percent of teams that begin the season with that record have made the playoffs since 1990.
The Chargers have a franchise quarterback, playmakers on both sides of the ball, and more field-tilting players set to return in the coming weeks and months. However, they have not shown the ability to capitalize on those assets in quite some time. After their third consecutive loss, they have little time to correct course.
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH