Chargers kick returner Desmond King is stopped by Saints tacklers after a short run on a first half kickoff.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers quarterback Kellen Clemens is sacked by Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro during second quarter action.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers quarterback Kellen Clemens is sacked by Saints linebacker Manti Te’o, right, and linebacker Craig Robertson during second quarter action.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Saints running back Alvin Kamara breaks a tackle by Chargers safety Tre Boston for a long touchdown run on the Saints first offensive play from scrimmage.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers safety Dexter McCoil returns an interception for 99 yards and a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers defensive end Darius Philon reaches under the face mask of Saints quarterback Ryan Nassib for a third quarter penalty.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers receiver Keenan Allen misses a pass from quarterback Kellen Clemens as Saints defensive back De’Vante Harris covers.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers quarterback Cardale Jones is sacked by Saints defensive tackle Ashad Mabry, 96, and defensive tackle Al-Quadin Muhammad late in the game.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
]Saints quarterback Chase Daniel is sacked by Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram, 54, and safety Tre Boston during second quarter action.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers running back Andre Williams turns the corner for a short gain during third quarter action against the Saints.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Quarterbacks Drew Brees and Philip Rivers, two of the best in the NFL, put on a show while their teams’ fans roared. They threaded the tightest of openings, pushing the ball deep into the chests of their receivers. They scored touchdowns. They entertained.
It was some of the best action of the preseason — and it happened in Costa Mesa. Last week. During a practice.
If you were one of the 21,000 or so at StubHub Center on Sunday for the Chargers and Saints preseason game, you still got to see Brees and Rivers go at it — it was just during a taped segment on the jumbotrons.
But with the star quarterbacks trading their cleats for sneakers and their helmets for ball caps, definitive conclusions — and points — were in short supply, with the Chargers losing 13-7 to New Orleans.
“That couldn’t have gotten any uglier in my opinion,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said.
The Chargers’ offense struggled to move the ball on the ground, they produced no points and they started the game by promptly losing nine yards — and all of that was still better than what happened the first time the defense took the field.
With the Chargers’ starters on the field for New Orleans’ first play, Saints backup quarterback Chase Daniel handed the ball to their third-string running back, rookie Alvin Kamara, who sprinted through the right side of the defense mostly untouched for a 50-yard touchdown.
Nick Dzubnar, who’s competing to replace injured starting middle linebacker Denzel Perryman, couldn’t shake a block on the play and cover up what became a massive hole.
Following the score, the loudspeaker at StubHub Center blasted a song in which the singer fittingly growls the words “Wake up.” And after the long run, the Chargers defense wiped the crust out of its eyes, limiting the Saints to only a 53-yard field goal before New Orleans’ reserves scratched out three more points in the fourth.
“I thought our defense played well other than the first play of the game,” Lynn said.
Defensive end Melvin Ingram, whom the Chargers gave close to $66 million to with more than $40 million guaranteed, looked right at home in defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s 4-3 defensive scheme.
“I’m doing the same thing, really,” Ingram said. “I don’t know what you want to call it, but I do the same thing — and that’s rush the quarterback.”
He and safety Tre Boston teamed up for a sack with Ingram easily shoving Saints rookie tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who is 314 pounds, out of his way to get into the backfield.
Later in the first half, Ingram so badly beat Ramczyk with a spin move that the left tackle had no choice to but to commit a holding penalty. And, before Ingram’s day ended, he got into the backfield for a third time, recording a solo sack before being penalized for an illegal tackle.
The Chargers’ defensive line, one of the team’s only totally healthy position groups, got help for the team’s secondary, which was filled with backups and rookies.
Four of the team’s top cornerbacks — Casey Hayward (hamstring), Jason Verrett (knee), Craig Mager (soft tissue injury) and Trovon Reed (hip) — all were unavailable due to injuries, opening the door for players like rookie cornerback Desmond King to get extended playing time.
King had a sack, a pass breakup and a tackle for a loss.
“He was making plays all over the place,” linebacker Korey Toomer said.
After two good practices against the Saints earlier this week, Lynn said Rivers didn’t need to play Sunday, so he didn’t. Rivers and the rest of the starters are expected to play the first half in the next game.
But Lynn didn’t think being without Rivers was a good enough excuse for how the offense played.
“We were flat for some reason,” Lynn said, particularly upset with the team’s 66 yards rushing.
The offensive line, playing without starting tackles Joe Barksdale and Russell Okung, didn’t give Kellen Clemens, Rivers’ backup, a lot of time, and when Clemens did have opportunities, he and the offense struggled to string together positive plays.
Third-string QB Cardale Jones, whom the team acquired earlier in training camp, didn’t have much more luck, and the Chargers’ best drive ended when receiver Jamaal Jones fumbled the ball on the team’s only trip into the red zone. Their only points came on reserve safety Dexter McCoil’s 99-yard interception return.
Jones had a chance to lead the Chargers on a game-winning drive in the final two minutes, but back-to-back sacks led to an interception, ending any comeback hopes.