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If Chargers hope to make playoff run, it starts on the ground vs. Raiders

Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) eludes Raiders Clelin Ferrell (99) and Nate Hobbs (39) in October.
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) eludes Raiders Clelin Ferrell (99) and Nate Hobbs (39) in October. Ekeler ran 15 times for 117 yards and a score against the Raiders.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
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They still aren’t averaging as many rushing yards per game as Derrick Henry did before he got hurt.

And the Chargers are only one yard ahead of the weekly pace being set by Jonathan Taylor, the NFL’s leading rusher.

But, over the past several weeks, they’ve become much more effective running the ball, something that could prove significant in Las Vegas on Sunday night when the Chargers play for their postseason lives.

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“We truly have the threat of running the football now,” coach Brandon Staley said Monday. “You can’t just say, ‘Hey, this team has got people out there that would suggest they’re going to run it and then they’re going to throw it.’ ”

Of the Chargers’ top five rushing games this season, four have come since they were off during Week 7. They are averaging 134 yards on the ground — 25 above their season average — over their last four games.

Justin Herbert broke Philip Rivers’ single-season record for most touchdown passes in Chargers history Sunday, showcasing how much he continues to improve.

They’ve moved up to 20th in the league, which still ranks in the bottom half but at least offers a counter to quarterback Justin Herbert and a passing attack that is among the NFL’s top five.

“What we wanted to be able to do is not live in that high-volume-throw world all the time,” Staley said. “Justin is one of the few guys, if you do have high volume, that can take care of the football. But when you get high-volume throwing numbers, there’s more risk in what’s going on.”

In their first meeting against the Raiders, during Week 4, the Chargers finished with 168 yards — their second-best output of the season — in 34 carries. Austin Ekeler ran for 117 of those yards, a career high.

The Chargers opened a 21-0 halftime lead on that Monday night at SoFi Stadium before winning 28-14. The ground game helped them to a nine-minute advantage in time of possession while they ran 19 more plays than Las Vegas did.

A similar showing this weekend at Allegiant Stadium could thrust the Chargers into the postseason. The winner of this AFC West showdown advances to face one of the conference’s top seeds.

Ekeler likened the evolution of the team’s running game to “a work of art” after the Chargers beat Denver over the weekend 34-13. He gave credit to the offensive line and assistant coaches and noted the time everyone has invested.

As the NFL heads into the final week of the regular season, here are three games that could offer bettors plenty of value.

“It’s just getting more familiar with how our guys are blocking different schemes,” Ekeler said. “It’s really helped slow the game down mentally for us, just playing together as long as we’ve been playing now.”

Staley said the time together was necessary because of various personnel changes throughout this season. The Chargers lost right tackle Bryan Bulaga in Week 1 and then right guard Oday Aboushi in Week 5.

Those injuries forced Storm Norton and Michael Schofield III, signed in mid-September, into the starting lineup.

The Chargers also began to incorporate rookie tight end Tre’ McKitty into the run scheme after their off week. The team drafted McKitty in the third round out of Georgia largely because of his potential as a blocker.

 Chargers head coach Brandon Staley shows his frustration to officials during the second half against Denver.
Chargers head coach Brandon Staley didn’t have much to complain about in the 34-13 victory over Denver, but he did have some words for the officials.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

With all the shifting pieces, Staley said it took time for the players to grasp the system and for the coaches to identify the strengths of each individual and the group as a whole.

“I feel like we’ve been able to establish some continuity here in the second half of the season,” he said. “I think you’ve seen that in how we’ve run the football the last three, four games. That has been a strength of ours. It makes us a much more difficult offense to defend.”

Takeaways from Chargers vs. Broncos: Andre Roberts has made many key returns since he was added to the roster, and ran 101 yards to score against Denver.

After Ekeler, veteran Justin Jackson has given the Chargers the second running back option they had been lacking for much of the season. Four of Jackson’s five most-productive games have come since the start of December.

A major run-game story for the Chargers entering Week 18 is the health of center Corey Linsley, who missed most of the game against Denver after his back tightened up.

With the Pro Bowl player out, the Chargers struggled on the ground against the Broncos, Staley calling it “a bloody day” but noting that his offense did manage to rush 35 times.

On Monday, Staley called Linsley’s injury “a game isolation incident” and said he believed the veteran would be able to practice this week. The Chargers return to the field Wednesday.

“Cory is a hell of a center,” Ekeler said. “He definitely is the focal point of our run game. … He’s the leader out there of the O-linemen, gets everything going.”

The NFL has added Saturday games to its final week, with Chiefs-Broncos and Cowboys-Eagles moved up a day. Season closes with Chargers and Raiders facing off.

Linsley’s availability Sunday could be a major factor in whether or not the Chargers are able to extend their season.

Etc.

The Chargers activated edge rusher/linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. off the COVID-19 reserve list Monday. With Drue Tranquill dealing with an ankle injury, Murray’s return against Las Vegas could be pivotal. ... Veteran tight end Jared Cook remains the only Charger on the COVID list. Staley said Cook should be able to rejoin the team this week. ... Staley praised the performance of Trey Pipkins III, who filled in at right tackle against Denver with Norton coping with the effects of COVID. When Norton is healthy, Staley said he will return to the starting lineup.


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