When coach Anthony Lynn gathered the Chargers in the locker room for his halftime speech Sunday, he wasn’t sure whether to lay into his underachieving team or head to a local police station to file a missing person’s report.
“He came in and said: ‘This is not us. I don’t know who it is. I don’t know who’s out there, but that’s not us,’ ” safety Rayshawn Jenkins said after the Chargers’ 20-13 loss to the Denver Broncos at Dignity Health Sports Park. “The energy was just flat, especially in the first quarter.”
Philip Rivers looked nothing like the savvy veteran who passed for 1,254 yards and seven touchdowns in the first four games, finishing with a quarterback rating of 58.6, but it was a porous defense that put the Chargers in an early hole they could not escape.
The Chargers yielded massive chunks of real estate on Denver’s first two possessions, big plays that allowed the Broncos to jump to a 14-0 lead with 4 minutes 58 seconds left in the first quarter.
The defense tightened up considerably from that point, yielding only two field goals — in the second and fourth quarters — and forcing two turnovers with a strip sack that led to a fumble recovery and an interception, but the damage was done early.
“We have to score when we get into the red zone, and we can’t let them score 14 points in the first 10 minutes,” defensive end Joey Bosa said. “They came out ready to play, and we didn’t match their energy in the first half. That’s something we have to change.”
Denver opened the game with quarterback Joe Flacco connecting with tight end Jeff Heuerman for 26 yards on a play-action pass. Phillip Lindsay ran 21 yards up the middle and 12 yards around the left side.
Flacco threw to Royce Freeman for six yards, Freeman had runs of five yards and one yard, and Lindsay ran four yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead with 11:06 left in the first quarter.
On Denver’s next possession, Flacco dropped back from his 30-yard line and found Courtland Sutton open near midfield. Jenkins got both of his arms around Sutton but couldn’t bring the wide receiver down. Sutton broke the tackle and raced to the end zone for a 70-yard score and a 14-0 lead.
“They went straight down the field and scored on our defense,” Lynn said of the first two Broncos drives, which netted 156 yards. “They played faster. They played harder.”
The Broncos wouldn’t have scored so easily on their second possession if Jenkins had chosen a lower target zone on Sutton.
“That was my fault,” Jenkins said. “I went up, I tried to grab the guy from the upper half, and when I went in, he ducked.”
From that touchdown to Denver’s last possession of the game, when Lindsay broke off runs of 32 and 13 yards to set up Brandon McManus’ game-clinching 46-yard field goal with 1:55 left, the Chargers’ defense was dominant. Denver mustered only 153 total yards between those first- and fourth-quarter possessions.
But the Chargers’ offense was unable to capitalize when the defense handed it opportunities.
On the first play of the second quarter, Uchenna Nwosu — starting in place of injured defensive end Melvin Ingram — knocked the ball out of Flacco’s hand and linebacker Jatavis Brown recovered at the Chargers’ 31-yard line. Unfortunately for the Chargers, that didn’t lead to points because Chase McLaughlin’s 48-yard field-goal attempt was deflected.
Defensive tackle Jerry Tillery sacked Flacco for a seven-yard loss to thwart a drive midway through the third quarter, and tackle Justin Jones tipped a pass from Flacco that linebacker Kyzir White intercepted at the Denver seven later in the third. That also didn’t lead to points because Rivers threw a pass that was intercepted in the end zone.
Bosa blew by Denver right tackle Elijah Wilkinson for a sack of Flacco in the fourth quarter that pushed the Broncos back six yards, and McManus missed the ensuing field-goal try from 54 yards out.
“Obviously, we’re doing some things right to keep them to three points in the second half, but we have to play better in the first half,” Bosa said. “It could be an energy thing. It could be nerves, anxiety, who knows?
“We have to watch the film, and if it is an energy thing, we’re going to have to change that. It might just be we were out of our gaps on a few plays here and there, and they break long runs. I know I was out of the gap a few times, and against a running back like [Lindsay], you can’t do that.”
Linebacker Denzel Perryman said the first two possessions felt like getting punched in the mouth, and though the defense recovered, the Chargers were too far behind to pull out a victory.
“It’s never a good feeling when a team comes in and scores back to back on you,” Perryman said. “We picked it up in the second half, and that goes to show that when we actually play as a team and everyone does their job what we can look like. But we were flat in the first quarter, and I don’t have any answers for it.”