A good 20 minutes had passed since the final gun sounded in StubHub Center, and Darius Philon was still out of breath, the defensive tackle practically panting through his first round of interviews after the Chargers held on for a 26-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
That prompted a question: Was Philon still winded by his sack of Bengals quarterback Jeff Driskel on a potential game-tying two-point conversion attempt with 1 minute, 50 seconds left, or by a celebratory sprint/dance that took the 6-foot-1, 300-pounder from the 15-yard line to midfield in about 3.2 seconds?
“Oh man, I’m just super excited that I made a big play in a big-time situation for my team and got us the win,” Philon said. “I knew I had done something big, and I was excited for me and the team. It was definitely one of the biggest sacks of my career, even though it doesn’t count on the stat sheet.”
The Bengals, who have lost seven of eight games, pulled to within 23-21 of the Chargers when Joe Mixon scored from one yard out, capping an 11-play, 79-yard drive that was aided by a pair of third-down penalties, a pass-interference call on cornerback Casey Hayward and a holding call on free safety Jahleel Addae.
Philon lined up opposite Cincinnati left guard Christian Westerman on the two-point attempt. He took an outside route after the snap and beat Westerman with a spin move that turned the guard so thoroughly that Westerman fell to the ground.
While left tackle Clint Boling tried to fend off a bull rush by end Joey Bosa, Philon had a clear path to the elusive Driskel, who backpedaled toward his right in an effort to move the pocket.
Chargers defensive end Melvin Ingram closed from the other side, leaving Driskel with no escape route. Philon moved in quickly, wrapped Driskel by the waist and drove him into the ground before sprinting toward the Chargers sideline.
“The guard overset on me, so I spun back inside, and with some pressure by Mel on the backside, it made him step back,” Philon said of Driskel. “That’s when I made hay and made a play. Like our coach always tells us, it’s about keeping your feet moving and finishing.”
The Chargers secondary deserves an assist on the sack for its blanket coverage of the Bengals receivers, tight ends and running back.
Safety Derwin James said Cincinnati tried to run a play similar to the one it scored with in the second quarter, when Driskel dumped a six-yard touchdown pass over the middle to a wide-open John Ross on an underneath route.
The Chargers defended the two-point attempt with man-to-man coverage on the outside and zone coverage in the middle. Driskel had ample time to get a pass off but found no open receivers.
“It’s all of us in it together, so of course they had a lot to do with it,” Philon said of the defensive backs. “If it wasn’t for them plastering and staying on their receivers, I wouldn’t have been able to get to the quarterback.”
Philon’s sack was one of the few highlights of an overall defensive effort that Philon described as “a little bumpy,” and that Bosa said left the team with “a lot of things we have to clean up.”
Mixon rushed 26 times for 111 yards, the most the Chargers have yielded to a running back this season, and caught five passes for 27 yards. Driskel, making his second NFL start, completed 18 of 27 passes for 170 yards and one touchdown. Though the Chargers sacked Driskel three times, they did not force a turnover.
“For me, the game just felt like a pig fight,” Chargers defensive lineman Damion Square said. “It was real grimy on the inside. They were determined to run the football. But we found a way to get it done. We dealt with a few short fields, and we came out victorious, man. I’ll take it.”
The Chargers made just enough big plays on defense to prevent an upset. They stopped the Bengals on a two-point conversion attempt just before halftime when James read a play in which Driskel looked left and fired to running back Giovani Bernard in the right flat. James tackled Bernard short of the end zone to preserve a 14-12 lead.
The Chargers stopped Cincinnati on a fourth-and-one from the Chargers’ 35-yard line early in the third quarter. Mixon took a handoff up the middle and bounced off a pile and to the outside, but he was chased down by cornerback Michael Davis and Addae, and tackled for no gain.
Defensive back Adrian Phillips broke up a third-down pass early in the fourth quarter that forced the Bengals to settle for a field goal. Bosa dropped Driskel for a loss of 10 yards in the second quarter, and linebacker Uchenna Nwosu sacked Driskel for a nine-yard loss on the second-to-last play of the game.
“It wasn’t our best showing — I think we can do better — but we’ll take a win,” Addae said. “It’s hard to get W’s in this league.”