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Chargers know Austin Ekeler can more than pull his weight as Melvin Gordon's replacement against Steelers

Chargers know Austin Ekeler can more than pull his weight as Melvin Gordon's replacement against Steelers
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler finishes a 13-yard run against the Cardinals. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

He benched pressed 295 pounds Wednesday despite having a neck that has been sore for several days and requires daily physical therapy.

That’s nearly 100 pounds more than Austin Ekeler’s listed weight but still represents a light day for him, the Chargers right now not wanting him to risk further injury.

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More than once this season, Anthony Lynn, based on formulas used to determine such things, has called Ekeler, pound-for-pound, the strongest player on the team.

“That’s a fact,” the coach reiterated Wednesday. “That’s not opinion.”

On Sunday against Pittsburgh, everyone will find out just how strong Ekeler really is when he attempts to lift something quite large — the Chargers running game.

OK, he won’t be doing it alone. Everyone around this team has repeatedly said it will take more than one player to replace the injured Melvin Gordon.

But the bulk of the, yes, heavy lifting figures to fall to Ekeler, Gordon’s primary backup and a player who already had a significant role in the offense.

After making the team with an attention-grabbing performance in the preseason finale last year, Ekeler since has carved out a prominent position because of his abilities as both a runner and receiver.

Perhaps, though, given his powerful, iron-built physique, it’s more accurate to say Ekeler has chiseled out a spot for himself.

“That’s why you see him running through tackles,” Lynn said. “That’s why you see him creating yards after contact … He’s not a big back, but he can still do those types of things.”

Ekeler is 5 feet 10 but runs with a center of gravity only slightly taller than the hash marks. His size allows him to shake defenders, as well as smash them.

He is someone who doesn’t occupy much space to begin with and needs even less room to make something happen.

This season, the second-year back is averaging 5.8 yards on his 70 rushes and 11 yards on his 32 receptions. He has five plays that have gone in excess of 20 yards, only one fewer than Gordon.

“People think, ‘Oh, man, I’m going to light this kid up,’ ” Ekeler said. “I can take hits, for sure. People bounce off me.”

He is the popular “next man up” at a time when the Chargers continue to experience “next man down.”

Gordon’s status is considered week to week after suffering a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee Sunday.

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The Chargers have lost a starter to an injured knee in each of the past three games. Gordon followed Denzel Perryman and Corey Liuget.

Their depth is being tested, certainly, with Ekeler providing support via his width and overall thickness.

He explained that he began lifting seriously during his sophomore year of high school in Colorado, the whole thing starting as a way to hang out with his buddies.

Ekeler soon discovered that strengthening his muscles also boosted his mind, saying “it became therapy for me.”

He would go through team-mandated workouts and then, later at night, return to the weight room to lift some more. He began shooting video of his workouts and posting them on social media.

He said lifting has grown into “just part of who I am,” Ekeler working out four times a week, the sort of in-season schedule normally kept only by practice-squad players since they aren’t needed on NFL Sundays.

Last season as a rookie, Ekeler said he cut back to three days a week but found himself getting weaker and lighter. After his weight loss reached eight pounds, he returned to working out four times a week.

“For me, I don’t really have a lot of weight to lose,” Ekeler said. “I’m already a small guy, so I need to keep up my weight and my strength.”

The Steelers are ninth-best in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game. They have limited seven of their 11 opponents to fewer than 100 yards.

When Gordon missed the Chargers game last month against Tennessee because of a hamstring issue, they rushed a season-low 16 times for a season-low 47 yards.

Ekeler had 12 carries that day for 42 yards, but the Chargers still won. They probably will need more from him to be successful Sunday night.

“Sometimes, you can see him from afar and say ‘scat back’ and all of those things,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “But he’s just so powerful and tough to bring down. Very seldom does the first guy get him. We have a lot of faith in him.”

That’s Austin Ekeler, a pound-for-pound force from whom the Chargers will now need every ounce.

Etc.

Ekeler's additional snaps on offense likely will mean a reduced role for him on special teams, another area in which he has excelled. “That could hurt the coverage units a little bit,” Lynn said. “We have some guys who are going to be given a heck of an opportunity to step up on special teams and make some plays.”… Lynn said the Chargers will be without Brandon Mebane for the second consecutive game Sunday. The defensive tackle has been away from the team dealing with a family issue. … Rookie running back Justin Jackson also could see more action Sunday in Gordon’s absence. Lynn praised Jackson’s pass-catching skills and said he has been playing some scout-team wide receiver in practice.

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