It was the the best special teams play the Chargers made in the first 30 minutes of an eventual 24-10 loss at StubHub Center, because just about everything else they touched in the first half turned to stone.
A special teams unit headed by first year assistant George Stewart entered Sunday with an objective of “not letting [return men] Tyreek Hill and De’Anthony Thomas dictate the game, and we did a phenomenal job of that,” said Rayshawn Jenkins, a rookie safety and special teams player.
They did not do a phenomenal job of anything else in the first half, committing three costly penalties and allowing a 42-yard kickoff return, breakdowns that contributed to the Chargers falling to 0-3.
“They’re contact penalties, guys trying to make a play, trying to get a block, straining too much,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “We just have to play a little bit smarter. We had a couple young guys, a couple rookies, make those mistakes.”
The game started on a sour note for the Chargers when Jenkins, a fourth-round pick out of Miami, was called for an illegal block above the waist on the opening kickoff, nullifying Desmond King’s 25-yard return and pushing the Chargers back to their six-yard line.
“When I get that close to a guy, I have to make a split decision, do I touch him or not?” Jenkins said. “In that case, I touched him.”
Three plays later, quarterback Philip Rivers threw his first of three interceptions, which led to the Chiefs’ first touchdown.
After Rivers’ second interception led to another Kansas City touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 5:33 left in the first quarter, cornerback Trevor Williams was called for holding on the ensuing kickoff, pushing the Chargers back to their 11-yard line.
That penalty didn’t hurt the Chargers but forced them to go an extra 10 yards on a nine-play, 89-yard drive that ended with Melvin Gordon’s 11-yard scoring run.
Akeem Hunt returned the ensuing kickoff 42 yards to the Chiefs’ 40. The Chargers minimized damage when Chris McCain sacked Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith for a nine-yard loss on third down, forcing a punt.
But the next special teams mistake hurt. Another sack of Smith, this one shared by Joey Bosa and Corey Liuget, forced Kansas City to attempt a 51-yard field goal midway through the second quarter.
Cairo Santos missed the kick, but Jenkins, charging hard off the left edge, ran into Santos as he lunged for the block and was called for a 15-yard, roughing-the-kicker penalty.
That gave the Chiefs a first down on the Chargers’ 18. Four plays later, Santos nailed a 34-yard field goal to give Kansas City a 17-7 lead.
“I wanted to make a play so bad, I wanted to get that field goal block so bad because I knew it would shift the momentum our way,” Jenkins said. “I hit the ground, and I couldn’t stop my momentum, which carried me into the kicker. And he did a nice acting job, which definitely helped him.”
There was some improvement in the second half. From the Chargers’ 34, Drew Kaser boomed a 66-yard punt into the end zone late in the third quarter.
And on the first play of the fourth quarter, with the Chiefs lined up to punt from their 39, McCain sniffed out a fake and dropped Albert Wilson, who had taken the short snap and bolted toward the right side, for a four-yard loss.
“I kind of was expecting it because the cadence they called out wasn’t the same one they used all game,” said McCain, who also filled in at defensive end. “I was kind of suspicious about something. I didn’t know what side it was coming to, but he literally ran right into my arms.”
The play gave the Chargers, who trailed 17-10, a first down at the Kansas City 35, a gift the offense did nothing with. The Chargers went three and out, forcing Kaser to punt.
There was one other special teams bright spot. Rookie Younghoe Koo, who had a potential game-tying 44-yard field goal in a season-opening loss at Denver blocked and missed a potential game-winner from 44 yards in Week 2 against Miami, made his only attempt, a 29-yard kick, in the second quarter.
Otherwise, the film review of Sunday’s game will be pretty painful for Stewart and his special teams crews.
“It was a rough first half for the special teams,” Jenkins said. “There’s definitely stuff we have to clean up. We have a lot of young guys out there, and we have to pay attention to detail, take coaching and be fundamentally sound.”