Melvin Gordon returns, but Chargers offense falters against Broncos
CARSON, Calif. -- With the return of running back Melvin Gordon to the field, the Los Angeles Chargers believed their offense could avoid some of the shortcomings that plagued them during the first quarter of the season. Instead, the team endured its worst offensive showing under head coach Anthony Lynn's watch.
"If we play like that, we won't beat anybody," Lynn said after the 20-13 loss to the Denver Broncos. "That team came here desperate for a win, played hard, out-coached us and it was disappointing."
Though the Chargers struggled on both sides of the ball early, the offense went the entire game without reaching the end zone. The scoring drought broke Los Angeles' 55-game streak of first-half scoring, a run dating back to the Mike McCoy era and the team's tenure in San Diego.
The team blew multiple scoring opportunities earlier. During the first half, quarterback Philip Rivers drew an intentional grounding penalty that pushed a field goal attempt -- the first of rookie kicker Chase McLaughlin's career -- back 10 yards. The resulting 48-yard attempt fell short. The Chargers later reached the Denver 1-yard line during the final minute of the first half and failed to punch it in, with running back Austin Ekeler fumbling the ball through the end zone for a touchback on fourth down. Another trip inside the 5-yard line failed to produce any points after Rivers threw an interception, his second of the day.
"We've got to finish in the end zone," Rivers said. "The fourth down right before the half, the third-and-goal at the 2 after the turnover, those are two opportunities. The throwaway makes it a lot easier field goal if I get that back to the line of scrimmage. Then you look at that, there is potential for 17 points right there. We just didn't capitalize and finish, and we turned the ball over."
Though Gordon saw his first game action since ending a lengthy contract holdout last week, the offense still lacks several of its key players while some others remain limited with injuries. Starting left tackle Russell Okung has not played this year and top tight end Hunter Henry has yet to recover from the fractured knee suffered earlier in the season. Meanwhile, wide receiver Mike Williams returned after missing last week's matchup with the Miami Dolphins, but the former rotated in and out of Sunday's game while dealing with setbacks.
Those absences and limitations forced the Chargers to tweak their offense. With Gordon back in the fold but without a full complement of pass catchers, Lynn and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt decided to feature Ekeler as a receiver. In addition to deploying him as a traditional wideout, Los Angeles' game plan called for heavy use of Ekeler on pre-snap and orbit motion.
"It does two things," Ekeler said of the motion tactics. "It gives us a man-zone indicator. So if someone's running with me across (the formation), we know they're in man. If they're in zone, they'll just bump. Everyone will slide over. So it gives us an idea of what their defense is, and then it can also create a mismatch too."
The approach did free Ekeler on several plays, contributing to his team-leading 15 receptions and 86 receiving yards. However, Rivers didn't always work his way back to Ekeler, leaving big plays on the field.
"I'm probably going to be the checkdown unless it's designed to come out there to me," Ekeler said, "but we're trying to push the ball down the field, usually on first and second down."
Meanwhile, Gordon struggled to produce as a runner, finishing the game with just 31 yards on 12 carries. Gordon tried to bounce several runs to the outside in hopes of a bigger play but couldn't reach the edge before falling into a swarm of Broncos defenders. Gordon also went down short of the goal line on back-to-back attempts directly before Rivers' end-zone interception.
"We just couldn't get stuff going," Gordon said. "What kind of frustrated me most was being inside the 20, being right at the goal line and not converting and making plays. That's just not Chargers football. You know us, we get to the goal line. We're licking our chops. We usually get in. We just weren't successful today."
It didn't help that the Chargers dealt with in-game shakeups to the offensive line. Starting center Mike Pouncey left early with a neck injury, forcing left guard Dan Feeney to move over to center and backup Forrest Lamp to fill in next to him.
"It's hard after you've been sitting on the bench for a quarter and a half to come in and get warmed up," Chargers backup guard Forrest Lamp said. "It's a lot harder for Dan changing positions midgame than it is just coming in off the bench. So Dan had the harder job today."
Whether because of issues with the offensive game plan or the near-constant flux of personnel, the Chargers offense simply couldn't avoid mistakes Sunday. The unit finished without a touchdown for the first time since 2015, an unthinkable outcome given Los Angeles' five trips inside the Broncos' 30-yard line and two drives that reached inside the 5.
"We try to do a lot to mess with defenses," Feeney said. "It's frustrating when sometimes it doesn't work. And not every play is going to work every time. That's just football.
"It's just more of getting into a groove, getting into a rhythm. I think that's kind of the biggest thing. I feel like we never got in that early, so we were kind of fighting an uphill battle right away."
The loss to Denver drops the Chargers to 2-3 and further behind in a competitive AFC West. Their upcoming schedule doesn't offer many easy wins with road trips to the Tennessee Titans and Chicago Bears followed by a home game against the 4-1 Green Bay Packers. For Los Angeles to have any hope of climbing out of the hole, the offense needs to display marked improvement.
"I think we're close, it's just a couple little things," Feeney said. "It's always going to be a little thing. In a run game, if one guy does something just not good enough, it's not going to be a good run. It's the same in the pass. Our receivers have the same exact kind of mentality with that. It's just frustrating. One little thing every play kind of adds up. It's tough."
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH