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The Chargers need to do one thing in the second half: Protect leads

Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams celebrates his touchdown catch with quarterback Justin Herbert.
Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams celebrates his touchdown catch with quarterback Justin Herbert during the second half last Sunday in Denver.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Bryan Bulaga is in his 10th NFL season, one of which ended with a Super Bowl championship.

Therefore, the veteran right tackle is experienced and accomplished enough to properly capture what has happened so far to the 2020 Chargers.

“We show some great things,” Bulaga said. “And then, you know, things kind of go haywire.”

Haywire. That’s not a bad way describe a situation in which a team has squandered leads of at least 16 points in four consecutive games.

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The Chargers have set a new NFL standard for failing to close out victories, dropping three of those games — one in the fourth quarter, one in overtime and one on the final play.

When this happens in baseball, a relief pitcher usually loses his job. As for the Chargers, they did trade away defensive back Desmond King this week before the deadline. But that was unrelated to the blown leads.

With a little more than two months remaining, the 2-5 Chargers enter Sunday desperate to quiet the chaos.

The rookie quarterback’s first pass against the Broncos was intercepted. But right tackle Bryan Bulaga said Herbert “didn’t shy away from anything” after that play.

A look at where they stand heading into their final nine games:

What’s working?

Throughout training camp and into Week 2, the Chargers’ plan was to not play Justin Herbert, possibly all season. That plan now seems extraordinarily suspect.

The rookie quarterback has done nothing more than perform well enough to look like a franchise cornerstone who could be leading the Chargers into the 2030s and beyond.

After veteran Tyrod Taylor was knocked out of the lineup just before kickoff in Week 2, Herbert grabbed the starting job as if it should have belonged to him all along.

He is fourth in the NFL with an average of 303.3 passing yards per game and eighth in passer rating at 104.5. For the month of October, he led the league in passer rating and touchdown pass percentage.

Herbert already has set or matched numerous franchise and league records for rookies, each touchdown pass seeming to arrive in the context of history.

He has connected for scores with four wide receivers, three tight ends and a fullback. Three of those targets — Tyron Johnson, Donald Parham Jr. and Gabe Nabers — never had caught a touchdown pass in the NFL.

Herbert also led the Chargers in rushing in one game and has scored two touchdowns on the ground. That’s the same number as Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the NFL’s third-leading rusher.

Despite all the production, Herbert is 1-5, not unlike a baseball pitcher with a sub-2.00 ERA and a dreadful record. He has stood tall and shined, while, all around him, a failure storm has swirled.

What’s not?

On defense, the Chargers repeatedly have gone from dominating to doubled-over. After halftime, it’s as if they’ve collapsed under the weight of too much prosperity.

The Chargers have outscored their opponents 101-72 in the first half but been outscored 113-78 thereafter.

They have surrendered several big plays and at least as many long drives in a cacophony of bad execution and poor communication. When the Chargers make mistakes, each seems to blow up spectacularly.

An example: a main reason they gave up the deciding touchdown on the final play Sunday in Denver was because one of their defensive ends lined up on the wrong side of the formation.

“Our issue is maybe you have 10 guys executing and one guy might not execute a certain play,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “And it’s not one particular guy. Maybe guys are taking turns a little bit. That’s what we’ve got to work on.”

The Chargers will be without safety Derwin James all season and have had linebacker Drue Tranquill for only five snaps.

Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is on injured reserve and defensive end Joey Bosa has battled four separate injuries.

Edge rusher Melvin Ingram has missed three games and so has defensive tackle Justin Jones.

Beyond that, only the defense’s collective performance has been ailing, especially in the second half, where the Chargers’ leads have gone to die.

“Just a couple Xs and O’s we gotta clean up,” Ingram said. “Make the little plays…if we do that, we’re going to be all right.”

What’s next?

The Chargers will take another shot at ending their AFC West losing streak Sunday against Las Vegas at SoFi Stadium. This franchise hasn’t won a division game since the regular-season finale in 2018.

An eighth straight loss came last weekend against the Broncos, matching the NFL’s current longest streak. Detroit also has dropped eight division games in a row.

Coach Anthony Lynn says the Chargers might simplify some defensive schemes to avoid late-game collapses before taking on Las Vegas this weekend.

After traveling to Miami to play on Nov. 15, the Chargers return home to face the New York Jets, the league’s only winless team.

They then travel to Buffalo in Week 12 before returning home for consecutive games against New England and Atlanta, two teams that today look quite beatable.

What about the division?

The Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs lost at home to Las Vegas in Week 5, a result that still sounds like a typo. Patrick Mahomes and the rest remain very much in charge of the division, sitting at 7-1.

The Raiders are next at 4-3 and Sunday at SoFi Stadium will play only their second AFC West game.

The Broncos (3-4) and Chargers (2-5) are looking up at a long road back into contention.

Etc.

Herbert appeared on the Chargers’ official injury report Thursday because of a right shoulder problem but was a full participant in practice. Still, his situation is notable.

Bosa did not practice and remains in concussion protocol, putting in question his status for Sunday.

Running back Troymaine Pope also is still in concussion protocol.

Bulaga (back), right guard Trai Turner (groin) and defensive end Isaac Rochell (neck) all were limited.


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