Chargers’ offense thrown out of line by 49ers defensive front

Chargers quarterbacks, Justin Herbert, left, and Easton Stick warm up for their Friday joint practice  with the 49ers.
Chargers quarterbacks, Justin Herbert, left, and Easton Stick warm up for their Friday joint practice with the 49ers.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press

Check out updates ahead of Chargers vs. 49ers during Week 2 of the NFL preseason.

The Chargers used backup offensive lineman against the 49ers in their second joint practice, and San Francisco’s front had its way.

The team is preparing for its second preseason game, facing off with the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.

Chargers’ backup lineman have difficulties against 49ers defense

Linebacker Fred Warner enjoys the 49ers' defensive dominance against the Chargers in a joint practice Friday
Linebacker Fred Warner enjoys the 49ers’ defensive dominance against the Chargers in a joint practice Friday
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press

After a short completion and a botched handoff, Austin Ekeler rushed for maybe two yards.

Ekeler then ran for another minimal gain, before being swallowed whole when San Francisco’s defensive front overwhelmed the Chargers’ patched-together line. This happened despite Chargers’ tackle Storm Norton being flagged for holding.

A blitzing Jimmie Ward next forced Justin Herbert into a hurried incompletion, and so ended — with a thud — the Chargers’ first possession of 11 on 11 Friday in their joint practice.

“That front seven for the 49ers is no joke,” Herbert said later. “They’re the real deal.”

Playing a defense projected to be among the NFL’s finest, the Chargers got a very real and sobering glimpse at some potential depth issues along their offensive line.

Check out updates ahead of Chargers vs. 49ers during Week 2 of the NFL preseason.

Aug. 20, 2021

They were playing without left tackle Rashawn Slater (back) and right tackle Bryan Bulaga (hip flexor). Reserve tackle Trey Pipkins also was absent because of the birth of his child.

Norton started at left tackle and Matt Feiler was moved from left guard to right tackle. Rookie Brenden Jaimes took over at left guard.

The results weren’t great.

On the starters’ next possession, wide receiver Jalen Guyton fumbled following a short completion.

Herbert and the No. 1 offense finally struck on their last series when he found Keenan Allen for a touchdown pass of about 20 yards.

This, however, came after the Chargers were called for holding twice in the span of three plays.

The sequence was quite telling and reminiscent of 2020: Herbert and Allen combining to overcome the Chargers’ offensive deficiencies.

“A big part of the NFL is how you play when some of your guys are down,” coach Brandon Staley said. “You still got to go out there and compete against the best teams in the league with some of your backups in there.

“So, I thought we were able to get a really good evaluation of some of our guys … having to block some of the edges and how we would plan if we had those guys in there. I thought it was a really good evaluation for us.”

While the Chargers were shorthanded, it should be noted that San Francisco was playing without edge rusher Nick Bosa and defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw.

Friday was the final day of training camp for the Chargers, and the results underscored one of the team’s possible concerns entering the season, particularly coming off a season in which the offensive line was injured and inconsistent.

Staley continued to downplay the ailments that have sidelined Slater and Bulaga, saying most of what the Chargers are dealing with right now is “just football soreness.”

But Bulaga was limited to 38% — a career low — of the Chargers’ offensive snaps a year ago because of injuries. Staley initially said he hoped Slater could practice against the 49ers, but those hopes weren’t realized.

Bulaga was limited throughout much of training camp with Staley explaining the team was trying to get him to Week 1 as healthy as possible. Still, he struggled to stay on the field.

On Sunday, these same teams will play a preseason game beginning at 4:30 p.m. at SoFi Stadium.

Most of the Chargers’ starters, including Slater — their 2021 first-round draft choice — won’t participate.

But nearly all of their younger and less-experienced offensive linemen are expected to play as they continue to search for contingencies that could prove significant.

As a reminder, the Chargers open the regular season at Washington, another team with a stout defensive front.

Highlights and observations from practice Friday:

—When the offensive and defensive lines were removed and the teams staged a seven-on-seven session in the red zone, Herbert and the Chargers dominated. In the space of six snaps, Herbert found Allen, Stephen Anderson and Jared Cook for touchdowns.

“I think that showed a lot of toughness,” Herbert said. “We might not always start perfectly. But, for us to come back and kind of battle through, I thought was really good.”

—The brightest moment for the Chargers came when safety Derwin James intercepted a Jimmy Garoppolo pass intended for tight end George Kittle near the goal line and ran it back for a touchdown.

“A lot of awareness of what’s happening in the red area,” Staley said. “He really anticipated the matchup, anticipated the route.”

James jumped in front of Kittle to pick off the pass in the right flat, a play so stunning that even Lakers star LeBron James reacted to it on social media.

Kittle beat the Chargers safety on a similar route during seven on seven Thursday.

“That’s a special matchup,” Staley said. “It’s been fun to see those guys go head to head the last couple of days. They’re two of the best in the entire league, not specific positions, but they’re two of the best players in the NFL.”

—James’ interception came after he was part of a brief scuffle that also involved San Francisco wide receiver River Cracraft.

Chargers edge rusher Joey Bosa found himself in the middle of the spirited exchange.

“I think that was the first time I ever actually intervened in a little scrap,” Bosa said. “I had to throw ’em off Derwin. Can’t mess with Derwin. That’s where I draw the line.”

Asked if the ill will could bleed into the exhibition game Sunday, Bosa explained that he didn’t believe so.

“Derwin ended it with that pick-six,” Bosa said. “So it’s over.”

—Rookie Larry Rountree III had the day’s most impressive run for the Chargers, lowering his head for a good gain while with the starters in 11 on 11.

—Rookie Asante Samuel Jr. appears to have overtaken Brandon Facyson on the cornerback depth chart. While declaring the competition still open, Staley did say Samuel “is really coming on strong.”

—With the intensity rising, both head coaches decided to cut practice short but only by a few minutes.

—Staley said Easton Stick will start at quarterback Sunday, with Chase Daniel to follow.

—Among the many Chargers who didn’t practice were tight Donald Parham (tailbone) and fullback Gabe Nabers (knee).


Chargers place Nasir Adderley, Ryan Smith on COVID-19 list

 Chargers free safety Nasir Adderley (24) breaks up a pass.
Chargers free safety Nasir Adderley (24) has been added to the COVID-19 list.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Chargers placed starting safety Nasir Adderley and reserve cornerback Ryan Smith on the COVID-19 reserve list Friday.

Adderley first missed practice Thursday, coach Brandon Staley explaining that Adderley was dealing with a migraine. Smith has been out with a core muscle injury. He missed most of training camp, which concluded Friday.

The Chargers also re-signed Michael Bandy, a wide receiver they released earlier this week.


Derwin James is taking Chargers as leader of the defense

Chargers free safety Derwin James jogs.
Chargers free safety Derwin James finally saw action against another team.
(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

He lined up on the edge, to the quarterback’s left, and blitzed with such intensity and immediacy that Jimmy Garoppolo only could rush a pass that had zero chance of being completed.

For the first time since Dec. 29, 2019, Derwin James played football Thursday against another team.

“I got some different color paint on my helmet today,” he said afterward, smiling. “It felt good.”

James and the Chargers are concluding training camp with a pair of joint practices against the San Francisco 49ers in Costa Mesa. The first session was Thursday and the second is set to begin at 9 a.m. Friday.

An All-Pro in 2018 as a rookie, James has suffered significant injuries the last two Augusts. He missed the 2020 season after appearing in only five games in 2019.

The Chargers continue to show progress on their revamped defense, and rookie head coach Brandon Staley is getting excited by what he sees.

Aug. 19, 2021

Now he’s back healthy and calling the defensive signals, a leader not just of the defense but of the team.

“He looks in command,” coach Brandon Staley said. “The energy. His technique. I think he’s hitting the sweet spot of running the show out there for us and all that comes with that.”

Staley announced last week that most of the Chargers’ starters won’t play in any preseason games. So these two sessions with the 49ers are particularly meaningful in preparing those players for Week 1 of the regular season.

San Francisco fans dominated the bleachers, but the teams took turns bettering one another on the two fields being employed.

After a season of knee rehabilitation, James welcomed the opportunity to match up with the likes of tight end George Kittle, an All-Pro in 2019.

“I was like, ‘Hey, Kittle, the people want to see me and you go. So let’s give ’em what they want,’ ” James said. “He’s the best and I feel like I’m the best. Why not go against him?”

Highlights and observations from Thursday (With split fields, I watched the Chargers defense Thursday; I’ll watch their offense Friday):

—Along with the pressure on Garoppolo, James nearly picked him off in the red zone when defending fullback Kyle Juszczyk. “That’s supposed to be an interception,” said James, who had the ball go off his hand. “I gotta tuck it.”

For his first time as a pro, James is calling the signals full-time in the defensive huddle, relaying the wishes of Staley and making sure everyone is lined up properly.

This is a defense packed with nuance and deception and featuring plenty of personnel groupings. Communication will be key, and Staley indicated Thursday that things are progressing well with James.

“[It’s] like we’ve been together 10 years,” Staley said. “That’s what I love about him … and we’re gonna keep getting better at it. We’re not where we will be. But every day we improve … He has started to finish my sentences now. He’s starting to finish them. And [saying things such as], ‘I got you, Coach.’ That’s what you want to hear.”

—Left tackle Rashawn Slater (back) did not practice after Staley said he had hoped the rookie would be ready. Staley said Slater wanted to try to play, but the team opted to be cautious instead.

“Just being extra careful,” Staley explained.

Veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga also sat out because of a hip flexor issue that arose this week. Staley said Bulaga could have played had this been a regular-season game.

Trey Pipkins returned after missing practice for undisclosed reasons and started at right tackle, with Storm Norton taking over on the left side.

Among the starters, safety Nasir Adderley (migraine) and wide receiver Mike Williams (hip flexor) also did not participate. Adderley’s absence was a new development; Williams is not expected back until next week, at the earliest.

Alohi Gilman started in place of Adderley.

—Rookie cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. had his first interception of training camp, picking off Garoppolo on third down in the red zone. Samuel jumped a route in the flat. Garoppolo might have been sacked on the play in real time.

Samuel, a second-round pick in April, has had some shining moments in practice but also has struggled.

In the Chargers’ preseason-opening 13-6 victory over the Rams, he delivered a solid hit against Tutu Atwell on one play but then gave up a long reception moments later.

“Especially at that position, you gotta have a short memory,” James said. “You’re going against some of the best receivers in the league. You may have perfect coverage and I told him they may catch a ball [anyway]. But you can’t dwell on that mistake or it will turn into another mistake.”

Calling Samuel “a dog,” James said he believes the rookie has the mental toughness to succeed in the NFL.

—Veteran cornerback Chris Harris Jr. had a rough start in seven-on-seven, allowing a long reception against Kittle and getting beat inside by wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk. Harris even committed interference on the Kittle play.

Later, in 11-on-11, he was beaten on another inside route by Deebo Samuel. But Harris then rebounded with tight coverage on Juszczyk for an incompletion and a pass breakup deep downfield against Aiyuk.

—Cornerback Brandon Facyson was beaten badly by former Chargers wide receiver Travis Benjamin for a 40-plus-yard touchdown in 11-on-11.

—Rookie safety Mark Webb had a breakup along the sideline on a Trey Lance pass intended for Benjamin.

—Cornerback Kemon Hall intercepted Lance and had a pass breakup on consecutive plays late in practice. The Chargers claimed Hall off waivers from Dallas in May. He has spent the last two seasons on various practice squads.

“I think he’s doing a lot of good things for us,” Staley said. “He still needs to play with more consistency. … He has what it takes. What we’re trying to do is get him to play like that on every single down in the NFL.”

Hall has a shot to make the 53-man roster, particularly with veteran Ryan Smith still out because of a core muscle injury.

—The Chargers’ No. 1 defense stopped Garoppolo and the 49ers during a two-minute drill. Joey Bosa halted the possession by getting to Garoppolo for what would have been a sack.

—Tristan Vizcaino, who appears to be the frontrunner for the kicking job, had a tough day, missing three (from 33, 50 and 52 yards) of six attempts. Michael Badgley made five of six, including a 52-yarder.

—Among the other Chargers who didn’t practice were wide receiver Joe Reed (ankle), running back Justin Jackson (groin), edge rusher Chris Rumph II (heel), outside linebacker Emeke Egbule (undisclosed) and long snapper Cole Mazza (shoulder).

—The day ended without any major incidents between the teams. Staley pulled Tyron Johnson off the field early after the wide receiver engaged in some trash talking.


Hands down, rookie receiver Josh Palmer seems to be en route to Chargers job

Chargers wide receiver Josh Palmer (5) is tackled by  Rams defensive back JuJu Hughes (23) in preseason opener.
Chargers wide receiver Josh Palmer (5), shown being tackled by Rams defensive back JuJu Hughes (23) in preseason opener, had many targets in the first half.
(Ringo Chiu / Associated Press)

He had a reception on the game’s first play, back-to-back catches two minutes later and four grabs in the opening four minutes.

The Chargers’ top two wide receivers didn’t play Saturday in their preseason opener against the Rams.

But Josh Palmer certainly did.

“You saw him catch some balls in traffic and some bang-bang plays where he’s getting hit right after he catches it,” offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said Tuesday. “He’s just got that overall strength that lends itself to that kind of game.”

A third-round pick out of Tennessee in April, Palmer has emerged in training camp as a potential third wide receiver option after Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.

The Chargers continue to show progress on their revamped defense, and rookie head coach Brandon Staley is getting excited by what he sees.

Aug. 19, 2021

He has displayed an ability to operate in tight spaces and line up inside and outside. The 11th wide receiver drafted in 2021, Palmer has shown the sort of promise the Chargers were seeking.

“He’s a guy who’s been very consistent, reliable, good hands, good route runner, strong,” Lombardi said. “He has probably worn down maybe a little bit from all the work, but he keeps making plays. So we’re real, real pleased with him.”

Against the Rams, Palmer finished with six catches for 36 yards, with a long of nine yards. But three of his receptions converted third downs.

He finished with four catches on the Chargers’ opening field-goal drive but could have had more had he not been forced from the game because of an issue with one of his contact lenses.

Lombardi said Palmer has the ability to get deep but didn’t do so Saturday because of the way the game unfolded.

The memorable preseason debut represented a bounce back for Palmer. He said he was nervous and uncomfortable a week earlier when the Chargers staged an open practice at SoFi Stadium.

“It was just all new to me,” Palmer said. “I think, from a mental standpoint, it was a lot to get used to. Huge stadium. Lights everywhere. You look up you see a big Jumbotron …”

He explained that a few veterans helped him better prepare Saturday, giving him advice on everything from how to make his uniform fit better to being patient and allowing his mind to catch up.

The results were impressive.

Retired star Philip Rivers has not ruled out a return to the NFL, but his family is living large as he coaches high school football in Alabama.

Aug. 5, 2021

Highlights and observations from practice Tuesday:

—Tristan Vizcaino continued his strong push to win the kicking job, converting all five of his field-goal attempts. Michael Badgley made four of five, missing from 43 yards. Both made 52-yarders into the wind.

Vizcaino has displayed the stronger leg in camp, and kickoffs could play a significant role in the Chargers’ final decision.

Coach Brandon Staley has said he’d prefer to have the team’s kicker — rather than punter Ty Long — kick off. Long handled kickoffs last season.

—The day’s brightest defensive play: inside linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr., one of the most athletic players on the team, ran 20-plus yards downfield to catch wide receiver Jalen Guyton, one of the fastest players on the team.

—Rookie safety Mark Webb had another interception, picking off Chase Daniel when wide receiver Austin Proehl fell down.

—The Chargers released quarterback KJ Costello and tight end Matt Seybert and signed outside linebacker Davin Bellamy.

—Starting left guard Matt Feiler spent time at right tackle when Bryan Bulaga was given a series off. Feiler has played both positions during his NFL career.

—After 15 training camp practices, the Chargers won’t be on the field Wednesday before returning for back-to-back joint workouts — Thursday and Friday mornings — with the San Francisco 49ers.

The teams will play a preseason game 4:30 p.m. Sunday at SoFi Stadium.

“It’s extremely valuable from both getting your team ready to play and also in evaluating some of these players,” Lombardi said. “… I think, for the players, it infuses them with a little bit of energy.

“When a team with a different color jersey comes out there that adrenaline starts rushing, and those practices end up being a little faster. So I think in a lot of different facets it’s important.”

Said edge rusher Uchenna Nwosu: “They were in the Super Bowl two years ago. So they know what it takes. They’re a real NFL team. To be able to get some experience like that … it’s only gonna make us better.”

—Among the players who missed practice were receiver Joe Reed, tackle Trey Pipkins and edge rusher Chris Rumph II, all for undisclosed reasons.

—Tight end Donald Parham was shaken up on a play and missed the remainder of practice.


Chargers release punter Lachlan Edwards, kicker Alex Kessman and receiver Michael Bandy

Los Angeles Chargers kicker Alex Kessman (6) warms up
Los Angeles Chargers kicker Alex Kessman (6) was waived.
(Ringo Chiu / Associated Press)

The Chargers made their first training camp cuts Monday, releasing punter Lachlan Edwards, kicker Alex Kessman and wide receiver Michael Bandy.

Edwards was signed to compete with Ty Long, who has been the Chargers’ punter the past two years.

With Kessman gone, Tristan Vizcaino and Michael Badgley are the two remaining kickers in camp.

The Chargers’ roster is now at 85 players, which will be the league limit as of 1 p.m. Tuesday. Teams must be down to 80 players by 1 p.m. Aug. 24 and 53 players by 1 p.m. Aug. 31.