A game-high 14 tackles in his Chargers debut Sunday was of little solace to veteran linebacker Thomas Davis, the former Carolina Panthers standout who has been tasked with shoring up the thinnest position group on the team.
When the Chargers signed the 36-year-old Davis to a two-year, $10.5-million deal in March, it wasn’t just the physicality and experience they coveted — it was his leadership, his drive and determination to be better, even on a day that at least statistically looked pretty good to most.
“For me, it’s all about getting 15 tackles,” Davis said after the Chargers pulled out a 30-24 overtime victory over Indianapolis in the season opener at Dignity Health Sports Park. “The one I missed on the sideline proved to be pivotal.”
That came on the Colts’ scoring drive that forced overtime, but the defense was going downhill before that. After holding the Colts to one touchdown and 30 yards rushing in the first half, the Chargers yielded two touchdowns and 173 yards rushing in the second half. Marlon Mack, the Mack truck of a Colts running back, finished with 174 yards in 25 carries, including a 63-yard scoring run in the third quarter.
A Chargers bend-but-don’t-break defense that last season tipped away a pass on a potential score-tying two-point conversion with 35 seconds left to beat Tennessee and forced an incomplete pass in the end zone on the last play of a one-touchdown win over Seattle did not come up big in the fourth quarter Sunday.
The Colts drove 80 yards in 16 plays in the final eight minutes, converting one fourth-down play and pulling to within 24-22 on Jacoby Brissett’s 19-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton with 38 seconds left. Mack then pushed his way into the end zone for a score-tying two-point conversion.
“We were up by 14 points in the second half — we have to step on their throats and finish the game,” said defensive end Joey Bosa, who had one sack and eight tackles.
“When I see as a defense how many third and longs they had, how many opportunities we had to get off the field, the two-point conversion we didn’t stop … we’ll take the win, but we have to be better.”
It appeared the Chargers were about to put the game away before safety Malik Hooker’s one-handed interception of a Philip Rivers pass in the end zone set up the Colts’ final drive. And that seemed to have stalled when safety Adrian Phillips dropped Mack for a five-yard loss and lineman Justin Jones sniffed out a screen pass to tackle Nyheim Hines for a seven-yard loss.
But on third and 22 from the Colts 32, Brissett hit Hilton over the middle for 19 yards and then Devin Funchess on the left sideline for eight on fourth and three.
Six running plays moved the ball to the Chargers 19. Brissett’s pass to Funchess on a corner route in the end zone with 48 seconds left was broken up by cornerback Brandon Facyson, who had replaced the injured Michael Davis in the first quarter.
Brissett then dumped a short pass to Hilton on a crossing route. The speedy Hilton appeared headed for the left sideline, but instead of going out of bounds, he eluded Phillips’ arm tackle, deked Thomas Davis and raced straight up the sideline, diving for a pylon-scraping touchdown with 38 seconds left.
“I tried to hit him and keep him in bounds, and he just made a play,” Phillips said of Hilton, who caught eight passes for 87 yards and two touchdowns. “He did some type of step-back, arm swing. I was only able to get him with my arm, and he did what he does. He’s T.Y. He’s a great player.”
Davis took responsibility for the breakdown.
“A.P. did a good job of slowing him down — I’m the cleanup guy, I have to be there to make that play and finish,” Davis said. “We over-pursued him. Both of us were thinking the same thing — don’t let him get out of bounds and get a free timeout.
“A.P. took his shot. I have to do a better job of playing off him. Thankfully, our offense went down the field in overtime and scored, and the game didn’t come down to that last possession.”
Davis said it’s “kind of hard to pinpoint exactly” why the Colts ran the ball so effectively in the second half. There were some missed tackles, some missed assignments, some players out of position.
“As a defense, we have to do a much better job of understanding what teams are trying to do against us and to get off the field, and I feel like that starts in the linebacker room,” Davis said. “Mack made some nice plays, but we can’t allow a team to rush the ball for 200 yards against us.”
Brissett, who stepped in as the starter when quarterback Andrew Luck retired in August, completed 21 of 27 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
Phillips saw a silver lining on a day the Chargers defense struggled.
“We have work to do, but you’re not gonna be hitting on all cylinders in Week 1,” he said. “You don’t want to peak too early.”