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Chargers vs. Broncos matchups: L.A.'s ground game is struggling to get going

Chargers offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, right, calls plays against Green Bay in November 2019.
Chargers offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, shown at right last season, tried to jump-start a struggling ground game last week by calling sweeps with wide receivers.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Breaking down how the Los Angeles Chargers (2-4) and the Denver Broncos (2-4) match up going into Sunday’s game at 1:05 Pacific time at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver.

When Chargers have the ball: All the attention that rightly has gone to rookie quarterback Justin Herbert has diverted eyes from a Chargers ground attack that has nearly ground to a halt. Over their last four games, Chargers running backs have carried 82 times for 281 yards, an average of 3.4 yards per attempt. Last week against Jacksonville, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen tried to jump-start matters by calling sweeps with wide receivers Joe Reed and Tyron Johnson and opening with several short passes to targets coming out of the backfield. With No. 1 back Austin Ekeler still out with a hamstring injury, this probably isn’t the week to expect much improvement, as Denver features a top-10 defense against the run and overall. The Broncos are 2-4 mostly because of their offense, with some special teams failure mixed in. Kansas City failed to convert any of its eight third-down conversion attempts last weekend against Denver. At some point, Herbert figures to have a below-average game. This is still the NFL, and he is still a rookie. And in this game, his offensive line will be dealing with injuries and COVID-19 related issues. Broncos outside linebacker Bradley Chubb has a sack in three consecutive games, and fellow linebacker Malik Reed has two sacks in each of the last two games.

The Chargers head to Denver looking to end their AFC West losing streak after a morale-boosting victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars last week.

When Broncos have the ball: Quarterback Drew Lock passed for a season-high 254 yards last week but also had a pass intercepted that was returned for a touchdown. In two games since returning from a strained right rotator cuff, he has completed just 53% of his throws with one touchdown and four interceptions. After shaky second halves in back-to-back games, the Chargers rebounded on defense against one-win Jacksonville a week ago. They sacked Gardner Minshew five times and allowed him to pass for only 173 yards. The Chargers did struggle stopping hard-running Jaguars back James Robinson, with coach Anthony Lynn admitting later that the team had underestimated the undrafted rookie. The Chargers face another angry runner this week but shouldn’t be surprised in the least by Melvin Gordon. The former Charger leads the Broncos in rushing yards (349) and touchdowns (five) but also has three fumbles. Gordon spent his first five years with the Chargers, but the relationship went sour last year when he held out in a contract dispute at the start of the season.

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A day after Ryan Groy’s positive coronavirus test prompted the Chargers to cancel practice, the team is adjusting its focus back on the Denver Broncos.

When they kick: Michael Badgley’s “Money Badger” moniker is almost as popular as the kicker himself among teammates, who often publicly praise him for being so unlike the stereotypical placekicker. His popularity has taken some hits, though, as Badgley is coming off consecutive games with two missed attempts — a pair of extra points and field-goal attempts of 48 and 50 yards. Denver’s Brandon McManus already has been named the AFC’s special teams player of the week twice and has made 13 of 14 field-goal attempts overall.

Jeff Miller’s prediction: It’s hard to envision this not being another tight game that’s decided late, circumstances that have been unkind recently to the Chargers.

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BRONCOS 23, CHARGERS 21


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