Austin Ekeler’s costly fumble one of many Chargers miscues in loss to Lions

Chargers running back Austin Ekeler breaks past the line for a long run during Sunday's loss to the Lions.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Austin Ekeler chose an aerial route for his first-quarter touchdown Sunday, the Chargers running back taking a handoff from quarterback Philip Rivers on third-and-goal from the one-yard line and leaping over a mass of humanity and into the end zone.

The skies near the goal line in Ford Field weren’t as friendly early in the third quarter. On a first and goal from the one, with the Chargers in position to salvage a drive in which touchdowns were twice nullified by penalties, Ekeler took the handoff from Rivers and went airborne again.

This time, as Ekeler reached for a touchdown that would have given the Chargers an 11-point lead over Detroit, Lions linebacker Jahlani Tavai reached in and punched the ball out of Ekeler’s arm. Detroit linebacker Devon Kennard recovered at the three-yard line.


The turnover was one of several miscues of a second half in which the Chargers failed to score, the 30-minute drought leading to a 13-10 loss to the Lions that left Ekeler second-guessing his fly-by-night decision.

Ty Long botches two field-goal attempts, and Philip Rivers throws an end-zone interception in the final seconds of the Chargers’ 13-10 loss to Detroit.

“It was just a dumb move by me, a rookie mistake,” said Ekeler, a third-year pro. “You have to look at the situation. It’s first down, and we have three tries from the one-yard line, so I probably need to stay on the ground and pound it in there. I got too anxious, I tried to go up over the top, and someone punched it out.”

That was the third and final gut punch of a drive in which Justin Jackson’s 60-yard touchdown run was nullified by receiver Dontrelle Inman’s holding penalty and Ekeler’s 22-yard scoring catch of a screen pass was called back because of tackle Sam Tevi’s illegal-block-above-the-waist penalty.

“I was doing exactly what they said to do in our meetings before training camp even began, to extend my hands,” Tevi said afterward. “I got out there on the play, I knew the [defensive] end was coming to make a play for the running back, and all I did was give him a little shove.

“I guess that’s blocking in the back. It’s really tough. It cost us a touchdown. It’s 100% on me. It’s not happening again.”

The Chargers weren’t deterred. On a second-and-16 from the Lions 36, Rivers found Keenan Allen down the left sideline for a 23-yard gain, one of eight passes Allen caught for 98 yards.

A pass-interference call on Lions cornerback Darius Slay, who tangled with Allen in the end zone, gave the Chargers a first-and-goal at the one. Ekeler fumbled on the next play.

“There is a time to leap, and there is a time to run through, and I thought we had plenty of time to run through,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “Usually in a got-to-have-it situation, you can go over the top and extend the ball, but that definitely was not a got-to-have-it situation. The ball should have been secured.”

Ekeler’s touchdown in the first quarter came after he was jammed for a two-yard gain on first down and Rivers threw incomplete on second down.

“So I thought, ‘All right, I’m gonna switch it up and go over the top on third down,’ ” Ekeler said. “I must have gotten antsy on [the third-quarter scoring attempt]. I should have kept it on the ground. I just reached. That’s the only reason it came out. I tried to reach for the goal line and somebody punched it out.”

The Chargers had two other chances to extend their 10-6 halftime lead, but kicker Ty Long hit the left upright on a 39-yard field goal attempt with two minutes nine seconds left in the third quarter and was wide right on a 41-yard field-goal attempt with 11:45 left in the fourth.

The Chargers stifled the Detroit Lions’ offensive attack for most of the game until Matthew Stafford found Kenny Golladay on a game-changing TD pass.

Rivers’ desperation heave into the end zone to Allen on third-and-19 from the Lions 28 was intercepted by Slay with 1:03 left, sealing the win for Detroit.

“Shoot, the whole second half it seemed like we’d drive down there, and we come up empty, we come up empty, we come up empty,” Ekeler said. “We have to score points to win the game, especially from the one-yard line. It was definitely a learning experience for me. You won’t see that again.”

Ekeler, who is the team’s lead running back while Melvin Gordon holds out in a contract dispute, rushed 17 times for 66 yards and caught six passes for 67 yards, but his afternoon was marred by one costly turnover.

“Man, we just have to finish,” Ekeler said. “The little details in the end, they matter, especially for me. I had mental errors in the game that I wish I could have back, and then the fumble.

“But I think you just have to use it [as motivation]. That’s what I’m going to do. It’s a sour taste in my mouth. I know it’s the same around the locker room. We know this feeling. Hopefully, we never come back to it.”