Denzel Perryman’s eyes light up and his grin widens as he sizes up Sunday’s challenge in Jacksonville, Fla., where the Chargers linebacker will be tasked with slowing the NFL’s leading rushing attack and bruising rookie Leonard Fournette.
“They’re the No. 1 team running the ball, and Fournette is powerful and elusive,” said Perryman, who will make his 2017 debut after missing eight games because of ankle surgery. “He’s a heavyweight, and I’m one too. It ain’t gonna be a walk in the park. They’re gonna bring it on every play, so we have to bring it. I like that.”
This was exactly the kind of matchup the Chargers envisioned when they selected Perryman from Miami in the second round of 2015’s NFL draft.
That day, general manager Tom Telesco placed a white hammer with the team logo on a table inside the Chargers draft room as a reminder of the types of players he wanted — hard-nosed, hard-hitting guys who make their presence felt. Hammers.
“I’d say I got that name from my explosiveness and the way I hit, the way I play,” the 5-foot-11, 240-pound Perryman said. “And I feel like that’s never going to change.”
Perryman lived up to his billing in his first two seasons, notching 73 tackles in 14 games (nine starts) as a rookie, and 72 tackles in 12 games (11 starts) in 2016.
One of his best games came in a 33-30 upset at Atlanta on Oct. 23, 2016, when Perryman set up a late fourth-quarter, game-tying field goal with his first NFL interception and notched a tackle for loss on a fourth-and-one to set up the game-winning, field-goal drive in overtime.
Perryman entered training camp this summer as the starting middle linebacker, but in the Aug. 13 preseason opener against Seattle, he planted awkwardly on the StubHub Center turf and tore a ligament in his left ankle, an injury that sent him to the injured reserve list.
“I don’t even know what I did — I just stepped one way and felt the pop,” Perryman said. “The most frustrating thing was just sitting at home and watching. Physically, there was nothing I could do.”
“It’s my season opener, my first game back, so I’m really excited,” Perryman said. “I may be a little rusty. I haven’t had any live action since the first preseason game, so the challenge for me is to just get back into football shape and get back into the swing of things.”
Coach Anthony Lynn said the Chargers will try to ease Perryman back by limiting his snaps and playing him at weak-side linebacker instead of middle linebacker, the spot Hayes Pullard won in Perryman’s absence.
“We’re not sure what his play count will be yet — you don’t just throw a guy back out there after missing eight weeks,” Lynn said. “But he’ll definitely help to bring a little fire to that position.”
The Chargers (3-5) have gotten uneven play and too many missed tackles from their linebackers and have allowed an average of 135.1 yards rushing a game, second most in the league. Once he finds his footing, Perryman should help.
“He’s very instinctive and is probably our most explosive linebacker as far as his ability to hit and tackle,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “You can tell when he came into the huddle that players lit up. He has that presence about him. He’s aggressive, he plays with a lot of energy, and he rarely makes mistakes.”
Perryman will be tested immediately. Fournette, the 6-0, 240-pounder from Louisiana State, ranks sixth in the NFL with 596 yards and six touchdowns on 130 carries despite missing last Sunday’s game after being made inactive for breaking a team rule.
“You have to wrap up and bring your feet,” Perryman said. “He’s going to bring his ‘A’ game, so everybody on defense has to make sure they bring their ‘A’ game.”
The Chargers defense ranks eighth in passing yards (201.9) and seventh in points (19.0) allowed per game. Perryman should strengthen their defense against the run.
“Denzel is a tone-setter, and we’ve missed his physical presence inside,” strong safety Jahleel Addae said. “He’s a guy who, when you turn on film, you see him flash, you see him making plays, you see him delivering big hits, so we’re excited to have him back.”
Right tackle Joe Barksdale, a full practice participant Wednesday and Thursday, watched Friday’s practice with his left foot in a walking boot and is questionable for Sunday’s game because of turf toe. The injury flared up at the end of practice Thursday. Barksdale said he would take a cortisone injection Friday, and his status will be determined before game time Sunday. “It’s pretty disappointing,” Barksdale said, “but I’m still hopeful.” … Pullard (neck) was limited Friday and is questionable for Sunday’s game. … Three Jaguars starters on the offensive line — Patrick Omameh (knee), A.J. Cann (triceps) and Jermey Parnell (knee) — are questionable for Sunday. … Kicker Josh Lambo, cut by the Chargers at the end of camp, signed with the Jaguars on Oct. 17 and has made all five field-goal attempts, including one from 56 yards, and all five extra-point attempts in two games.