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What we learned from the Chargers' 29-27 win over the 49ers

What we learned from the Chargers' 29-27 win over the 49ers
Chargers running back Melvin Gordon Jr. looks for more yardage against the San Francisco 49ers during a game at Stubhub Center in Carson, Calif., on Sept. 30. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

What we learned from the Chargers’ 29-27 victory over San Francisco on Sunday:

Melvin Gordon can inspire

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On one play, the Chargers running back pinballed off San Francisco safety D.J. Reed and simply refused to go down, whirling down the sideline for additional yardage. On another play, he was drilled by linebacker Reuben Foster and spun completely around in midair before landing and churning deeper into 49ers territory. Gordon finished with 104 yards on 15 carries, his first 100-yard rushing game since Oct. 29 at New England. “(It’s) his effort, his want-to to stay between the lines,” coach Anthony Lynn marveled. “There were times when he could have stepped out of bounds. He made plays. …It gives the whole sideline juice. He inspired me on the sidelines watching him.” Gordon also scored the Chargers’ final touchdown on a 6-yard reception from Philip Rivers.

Desmond King can be a weapon

King’s 56-yard punt return in the final minute of the second quarter was an unlikely swing that led to an equally unlikely halftime tie. He returned kicks in college at Iowa but had only one career NFL punt return before Sunday. Then he grabbed Bradley Pinion’s effort and took it back to the 49ers’ 32-yard line with 13 seconds remaining, setting up Caleb Sturgis’ 48-yard field goal as the Chargers scored 11 points in the final minute of the second quarter to make it 17-17. “That was a big change of momentum for us, just going into the second half with it,” King said. “That was the thing for us, trying to get points before halftime. That punt return did it for us.” JJ Jones had been the Chargers’ primary punt returner before Sunday. He was inactive in favor of veteran wide receiver Travis Benjamin, who came back from a foot injury but was hurt again during the game.

Placekicking could be a problem — again

A season after the Chargers used four kickers with varying levels of success and frustration, newcomer Caleb Sturgis opened 2018 with the job. But he missed two extra points against San Francisco and has missed three for the season. Sturgis also missed a 54-yard field goal, though he made three others, including the one that put the Chargers ahead for good. After the game, Lynn, saying he was “disappointed, no doubt,” indicated that he wasn’t ready to move on from Sturgis just yet. “It’s not up to me,” Sturgis said. “I can’t really focus on that too much. I just gotta work out what I need to do better.”

In limited playing time, Austin Ekeler is still impactful

There were long stretches Sunday during which Ekeler remained on sidelines as the Chargers relied on Gordon and stuck mostly to one-back sets. He didn’t have a touch until the second quarter but made his opportunities count. One of those chances became a 22-yard touchdown reception in the final minute before halftime. Ekeler lined up wide right and San Francisco attempted to cover him with linebacker Fred Warner. Ekeler beat Warner and took in a feathery pass from Philip Rivers. “Textbook,” Ekeler said. “Just like we drew it up in practice.” The route was called a “man-beater,” meaning as long as the 49ers remained in man-to-man coverage, it was up to Ekeler. “It’s me and this guy,” Ekeler said. “I have to beat him to score.”

The defense still has the ability to turn stout

During the lead-up to the game, Lynn lamented the Chargers’ struggles in stopping the Rams from scoring in Week 3. Last season, the defense built its reputation on preventing points even when surrendering yards. The Chargers returned to that mode against San Francisco. Over the 49ers’ final eight possessions, the Chargers gave up only one touchdown, and that came because of a single play, a reception that tight end George Kittle turned into an 82-yard score. “I felt like the whole game we had the confidence, we had everything rolling in the right direction,” defensive end Isaac Rochell said. “We were just making too many mistakes. It is nice to win and look back and correct mistakes as opposed to losing and doing it.”

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