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Chargers’ offense runs better behind Austin Ekeler-Josh Kelley combination

The Chargers' Austin Ekeler  slips a tackle attempt by Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill.
Austin Ekeler, shown slipping a tackle attempt by Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill, leads a Chargers rushing attack that currently ranks No. 6 in the NFL.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

So much of this still-brief Chargers season has been about the quarterbacks, Tyrod Taylor and Justin Herbert.

The running backs have received much less attention but not because of a lack of production. Entering Week 3, the Chargers rank sixth in the NFL with a per-game rushing average of 169 yards.

They haven’t finished a season in the top 10 in that category since 2007. They were 28th last season.

Even with Justin Jackson sidelined by a quadriceps injury, Austin Ekeler and rookie Josh Kelley have carried on. Ekeler has 177 yards and Kelley 124, both on 35 tries.

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“This is exactly what I was expecting,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “I wanted a tandem backfield. Both those guys have different skill sets. When they come into a game, they can attack a defense differently, one with speed and space and other one with more power.”

When the Chargers decided after last season to move on from quarterback Philip Rivers, the expectation was they would emphasize a running attack.

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That’s precisely what the first two games have revealed. No team has run the ball more often through Week 2 than the Chargers. Their 83 attempts were at least 25 more than half the teams in the league.

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Ekeler, who is 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, has talked often about the need to share the job of carrying the ball because of his somewhat limited stature. This, despite the fact he’s probably the Chargers’ strongest player, pound-for-pound.

“I’ve been loving it because I feel like we have similar play styles,” Ekeler said, referring to Kelley. “Obviously, different body types. He goes in there, gives ’em a crack. I come in there, I crack ’em for a few.”

In April, the Chargers drafted Kelley out of UCLA in the fourth round. He has proven to be a valuable addition, particularly given Jackson’s continued inability to remain healthy.

Kelley is only an inch taller but is listed as being 12 pounds heavier than Ekeler, the added weight permitting him to emerge, at least early on, as a team’s better option in short-yardage situations.

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The Chargers have struggled picking up one or two yards on crucial downs the last couple seasons. Coaches have explained that coming through in those scenarios is a mind-set they are trying to instill.

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In a 23-20 overtime loss last weekend to Kansas City, the Chargers largely controlled the time of possession because of their running game. The finished with nearly 40 minutes of possession and 44 rushing attempts, one short of what Lynn said was their goal.

“When you can eat up the clock like that and don’t turn the ball over,” he said, “your chances of winning are unbelievable.”

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The Chargers have an opportunity Sunday to do something that has happened only once in franchise history: rush for at least 150 yards in each of the first three games.

DL injuries

The Chargers’ defensive line took one hit Friday when tackle Justin Jones (shoulder) was ruled out and potentially a second one when edge rusher Melvin Ingram (knee) was designated as doubtful for Sunday. Both were hurt against Kansas City, though Ingram practiced in full Wednesday and Thursday before his injury worsened.

The situation should mean more opportunities for Jerry Tillery, who has emerged over the last two weeks after struggling as a rookie. Tillery, a 2019 first-round pick, has a sack and four quarterback hits, which is second on the team to Joey Bosa’s five.

“He’s a scary, scary man,” veteran defensive tackle Linval Joseph said. “He’s very explosive. … I love the young guys who take advantage of their opportunities. Right now, he’s taking advantage of them.”

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Tillery also contributed on special teams against the Chiefs by blocking an extra-point attempt. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said Tillery improved his strength in the offseason and committed to “really trying to be a student of the game.”

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Tillery has been perhaps the Chargers’ most active defensive lineman, just nine months after concluding a tough first season during which he was rebounding from a shoulder injury.

“My reaction is the same as yours,” linebacker Denzel Perryman said. “I wonder what got into him because he’s a totally different player out there. You can definitely see it.”

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Etc.

The Chargers also have two injuries of note on their offensive line, with right tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee) and right guard Trai Turner (groin) questionable. Lynn did say he expects Turner to be able to play Sunday. … Starting safety Rayshawn Jenkins (groin) is questionable. Jackson (quadriceps) and linebacker Nick Vigil (groin) are doubtful.

Chargers vs. Carolina Panthers.
(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)


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