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After inconsistent rookie season, Chargers' Michael Davis found a way to wrestle away starting cornerback spot

After inconsistent rookie season, Chargers' Michael Davis found a way to wrestle away starting cornerback spot
Chargers' Michael Davis chases down 49ers' D.J. Reed Jr. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

All those wrestling moves Chargers cornerback Michael Davis learned in an effort to improve his tackling skills have paid off.

The undrafted free agent from Brigham Young pulled a two-point reversal on Trevor Williams last week, swiping a starting job from a teammate who was entrenched in the position since the beginning of 2017.

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“It wasn’t that Trevor was playing bad — he was doing some good things,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said Thursday. “You try to reward guys with opportunities when you see it on the practice field, and Michael is a guy who’s been very competitive on the practice field week in and week out.”

Davis, who played only 36 defensive snaps as a rookie last season, made his first NFL start in Seattle on Sunday, playing all 81 defensive snaps in a 25-17 victory over the Seahawks.

He was credited with eight tackles. He was beaten down the left sideline on a 42-yard pass to Doug Baldwin in the second quarter and called for pass interference in the end zone as time expired, giving the Seahawks one more chance for a potential tying touchdown with a two-point conversion.

But Davis also had a hand in a huge play, alerting slot cornerback Desmond King before a fourth-quarter snap that Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson would throw a quick out to the left side.

In zone coverage, King bolted toward the sideline, intercepted a pass intended for David Moore and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown that gave the Chargers a 25-10 lead with 6 minutes 44 seconds to play.

“I’d give myself a high-C, low-B,” Davis said, when asked to grade his first start. “I made a couple of plays, but there is still room for improvement. My technique, especially in man-to-man coverage, and my eye control, making sure I see the receiver and the quarterback, can be better.”

The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Davis, a Glendale High product, has exceptional speed and length, but his inability to tackle consistently relegated him to special teams for most of 2017. So he added twice-a-week wrestling and boxing classes to his off-season workout regimen.

“The best tackler on the team last year was Desmond King, and he wrestled in high school,” Davis said. “I took boxing to get my aggression out. Wrestling helped me get my base and technique down.”

Chargers coach Anthony Lynn noticed Davis’ improved physicality in training camp, saying it was like “night and day” compared to last season. Davis played so well in practice and on special teams this season that he earned his first start. Bradley said Davis will start again Sunday at Oakland.

“We ask a lot of our corners as far as getting involved in the run game, and that part we didn't see as consistently as we needed,” Bradley said about last season. “So I think he identified that as a weakness and really tried to attack it.

“Then we saw his toughness and his ability to make plays on special teams, and it kind of filtered over to the defensive side, so he’s becoming a more consistent, willing tackler.”

Williams, an undrafted free agent out of Penn State, started 15 of 16 games in 2017 and the first seven games of 2018. He said before Thursday’s practice that he’s “been trying to fight through injuries, little nick-knacks here and there,” but declined to specify what was hurt.

The Chargers (6-2) later revealed that Williams sat out Thursday’s practice because of a knee injury. As disappointing as it is to lose his job, Williams fully intends to win it back.

“Coach made the decision,” Williams said. “Whether I agree with it or disagree with it, it doesn’t matter — we got the victory. I just have to get back to the high level I was playing at last year. I will.”

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Explosive plays

The Chargers rank first in the NFL with 12 rushing plays of 20 yards or more and fifth with 35 pass plays of 20 yards or more. They’re tied for first with 41 rushing plays of 10 yards or more and 13th with 95 pass plays of 10 yards or more.

“We have the capability personnel-wise to get those chunk plays, both in the skill positions and with what our guys are doing up front, and I think it comes with balance,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “Over the years, we’ve had the most success down the field in years like this, when we ran the ball the best.

“We’ve been in a good groove of run-pass balance. I think that allows us some of those opportunities. You can’t just line up and play soft to protect chunk plays because then we’ll hand it to Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler 30 times a game.”

Gordon has rushed for 579 yards and averages 5.4 yard per carry; Ekeler 326 at 5.8.

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