The offense has seen some serious changes this season. The quarterback is different. The former starting running back is a Bronco. Head coach Anthony Lynn has the balanced offense he has always wanted.
The backfield is led by Austin Ekeler, who is coming off a new four-year contract extension, and rookie Joshua Kelley, a fourth-round draft pick. Both have been very productive and a huge part of the offense thus far.
Ekeler has touched the football 30 times for 235 yards while Kelley has touched the ball 37 times for 173 yards and one touchdown.
"It is exactly what I was expecting you know I wanted a tandem backfield, and both those guys have different skillsets when they come into the game, they can attack a defense differently," explained Lynn. "One with speed and space. The other one with more power."
This one-two punch was supposed to be Ekeler with Justin Jackson, but he injured his quad in the first game of the season against the Cincinnati Bengals. Kelley took his opportunity and ran with it, literally. On a crucial third and one, Kelley received the handoff and went for 26-yards. He rushed for 60 yards and scored the only touchdown of the game for the Bolts.
Ekeler led the way with 19 carries for 84 yards. He was making himself small in between the offensive linemen making big running plays. Both backs combined for 27 carries and 144 yards while also adding the Kelley touchdown.
After the Bengals game, Lynn felt like Kelley had a good game, but said he would talk to the rookie back about how he can improve his game, which is something the UCLA product appreciates.
"He (Lynn) definitely talk to me about just the mentality that must change on third and one and 4th and one," explained the rookie running back. "You're not trying to get the big play, not trying to break. Your trying to get it. You already trying to get this drive extended. So, there’s definitely a difference in mentality, you know I think in some areas today I improved in short-yardage, but I have to get in the goal line I have to score touchdowns that makes the difference in this league."
The offense ran the ball 57 percent of the game and threw it 43 percent. That balance led the Chargers to their first victory of the season and helped establish the duo of Ekeler and Kelley.
"I've been loving it because I feel like we have similar play styles," said Ekeler with a smile on his face. "Obviously different body types, but uh, I feel like he goes in there gives him a crack. I come in there I cracked for a few, and yesterday was so much fun just rotating with him. Obviously, we didn't win, which is unfortunate, but just I love the rhythm that our coach Coach Ridg (running backs coach Mark Ridgley) had us in, as far as you know, handing this off, because I know I've told him in the past, like, you got to watch my reps, you know, you know, my body type is not necessarily his or even like Melvin Gordon's was so you gotta be careful with me. I'm fragile."
Ekeler is far from fragile. He has been a considerable part of the Chargers offense since 2017 when he was an undrafted free agent who made the 53-man roster. Last season, Ekeler had a career-high 997 receiving yards and showed that he could be the guy, but he wants it to be about the guys, not a guy. During training camp, Ekeler told the media that he is okay with giving other guys a chance and keeping the backs fresh.
The veteran running back said that Kelley reminds him of someone.
"I feel like I see myself in him when I was a rookie," said Ekeler. "Just all the questions he asked. And I'm just doing my best as a guy's been here and kind of knows the ropes of just showing him you know, kind of how the NFL works because it is a lot different than college. It's a lot of preparation. But on your belt, and on your plate that you do not necessarily in college, where it's like, Hey, we're gonna watch this, we're going to do this, it's you know, a lot of it's put on to you because this is your job now."
In the week leading up to the Kansas City Chiefs games, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen said that he wanted to get both backs involved more in the passing game. Week one, Ekeler only had one reception for three yards, while Kelley had no receptions.
Well, Steichen was true to his word. Ekeler had four receptions in the game for 55 yards while Kelley had two receptions for 49 yards. That's 104 yards the duo produced on Sunday. The veteran back added 93 rushing yards while the rookie had 64 yards.
After the game, Kelley said that no matter the success, he is still learning.
"You have to be efficient, everything you have to always be positive, keep your legs moving forward," explained Kelley. "It is tough sledding. You know Austin and my coach (Mark Ridgley) told me that some games are gonna be games where it's like you're just really out there just running the ball and nothing's happening. There's gonna be some games where it just pops open, so I think that's something I have to learn is that man, when I gotta just make the most of our opportunities going forward, it should be more efficient."
Ekeler told the media on Monday that the team may have played well, but they lost. It was that simple. He said he couldn't stop thinking about a play where the Bolts had the ball at the three-yard line looking to score a touchdown. It was third down. Rookie Justin Herbert hiked the ball he RPO'd to the right side while Ekeler ran to his left. The rookie quarterback ended up taking a sack.
"It's just they keep me up, and I literally at night last night I was just thinking," said Ekeler. "I wake up at three o'clock in the morning and had to go downstairs, my dogs, and just kind of just cool off because I'm just thinking about these things that are lingering around in my head. But we got a 24-hour policy here. So, I got to relax, move on to Carolina, and get ready for a new game."
Carolina might be a good game to get both backs in the end zone. The Panthers defense has allowed six touchdowns so far in two games this season. After the loss to the Chiefs, the Bolts are looking to bounce back and not repeat old trends.
"I'm looking forward to getting back to work with these guys," said Ekeler. "And you know, try and get this some dubs (wins) going, not trying to go down the path again last year. So, I have a salty taste in the mouth and is going from last year or seemed like every flippin' game was just a one-score game. And so, we had to find a way to get over that. Because we don't wanna go down that rabbit hole too far, because it's hard to get out."