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Down-trodden Chargers run defense needs to approach Ravens on another level

Cleveland Browns guard Joel Bitonio (75) reacts in the end zone after Kareem Hunt (27) scores.
Cleveland guard Joel Bitonio (75) reacts in the end zone after Kareem Hunt scores on a fourth-down run against the Chargers. The Browns ran for a whopping 230 yards against the Chargers.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Poor execution led to the Chargers’ feeble performance in Week 2 against the rushing attack of the Dallas Cowboys.

On Sunday, the Chargers were even worse when matched against the Cleveland Browns.

After surrendering 230 yards on the ground, safety Derwin James Jr. suggested fixing the latest issue was a bit more straightforward than dissecting any Xs or O’s.

“It’s about whooping the man in front of you,” James said this week.

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Entering Week 6, the Chargers ranked last in the NFL in rushing defense, giving up an average of 157.6 yards. And that high average includes limiting Las Vegas to 48 yards in Week 4.

The Chargers’ run defense looked middle of the pack in its opener at Washington. The group yielded 186 yards on the ground against Kansas City, but that was at least partially because of a specific scheme designed to thwart big plays.

Chargers coach Brandon Staley told the team before the season that fourth down won’t always mean a punt is coming, and the offense has come through with first downs on all seven attempts.

The efforts against Dallas and Cleveland were more alarming as the Chargers were pushed around and overwhelmed at times against teams that feature powerful runners.

“What we need to do at the first level of our defense is play more fundamentally sound,” coach Brandon Staley said. “That’s what happened [Sunday] on the first level. We weren’t fundamentally sound at the point of attack.”

With defensive tackle Justin Jones on injured reserve, the Chargers have been relying more on veteran nose tackle Linval Joseph, who just turned 33 and is in his 12th season.

Jerry Tillery, a 2019 first-round pick, continues to show signs of production but remains inconsistent. He ranks 105th out of 116 defensive linemen league-wide, according to Pro Football Focus.

Christian Covington, who signed as a free agent in May, has been playing more in Jones’ absence. On the interior, the Chargers also have used Eric Banks, a player they’ve since lost on waivers, and Forrest Merrill, an undrafted rookie.

Browns running back Nick Chubb runs for a touchdown past the tackle attempt by  Chargers cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. (26).
Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb runs for a touchdown past the tackle attempt by Chargers cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. (26).
(Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

The results — from dominating the Raiders to being flattened by the Browns — have been wildly erratic. No Chargers defense had given up as many as 230 rushing yards in a game since Dec. 20, 2014.

“What we’ve got to do is play more consistently,” Staley said of the play at the line of scrimmage. “Then behind it, make sure that we have little alignment things that I think can help our guys. Then, we have to go tackle. There were a couple of times where we had an unblocked defender that misses.”

The Times’ Sam Farmer analyzes each matchup and predicts the winners of Week 6 of the 2021 NFL season.

Staley explained that when the line struggles, the uncertainty causes the players on the second level to hesitate rather than attack. Linebackers playing downhill is supposed to be a trait of this defense.

On Sunday, the Chargers will face a Baltimore team that has been decimated by running back injuries but still features Lamar Jackson, a quarterback Staley said presents “danger on every snap.”

Jackson is the Ravens’ leading rusher for an offense that tops the NFL in total yards. Baltimore is fourth overall in yards on the ground. Two of the teams ahead of the Ravens are the Browns and Cowboys.

“Run defense is an 11-man operation,” Staley said. “You have to play team defense. … For us, it really starts up front, playing better at the first level. What happens is your second- and third-level players will play better because they’re going to be more sure of where to go.”

Simply getting Jackson to the ground will be a key Sunday. He rushed for 62 yards and threw for 442 more Monday in a 31-25 overtime victory over Indianapolis.

When considering the Jon Gruden news, Chargers coach Brandon Staley says he is saddened by all the people the derogatory emails hurt and that coaching is about trust and leadership.

Jackson is about as elusive as any player in the league, and the Chargers have struggled at times tackling. Bringing down Jackson will matter plenty, especially with the game taking place in Baltimore.

“When you miss tackles — I would challenge you guys to watch the TV copy of a game — when you miss tackles, just see the response,” Staley said. “See the energy on the opposing sideline or the opposing crowd. It just creates a lot of energy.”

Etc.

Wide receiver Mike Williams, who leads the team in receiving yards and touchdowns, sat out his second consecutive practice Thursday because of what the Chargers are listing as a knee injury. Starting safety Nasir Adderley (hip) also didn’t practice after being projected to be a limited participant in a walk-though Wednesday. ... Linebacker Drue Tranquill remained out because of a chest-muscle injury suffered late in the Chargers’ 47-42 victory over Cleveland. Tranquill is not expected to play Sunday. ... According to the Ravens’ injury report, Jackson didn’t practice Thursday because of an undisclosed illness.


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