What Austin Ekeler sees as big upside to Chargers defensive front, an issue last year

Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) runs with the football during drills.
Running back Austin Ekeler (30) has noticed the improvement in the interior of the Chargers’ defense.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Only two teams were worse against the run last year than the Chargers, who spent considerable time and money in the offseason rebuilding their defense.

Observers around the NFL clearly noticed. Having missed the playoffs each of the last three seasons, the Chargers are a popular pick to perhaps make a Super Bowl run.

On Friday, someone else noticed too. Austin Ekeler, the team’s No. 1 running back and a player coming off a 20-touchdown season, said the front of the Chargers’ defense appears to be decidedly more formidable.

“I see a lot bigger bodies in the box,” Ekeler said. “I like to see that too. As a runner, I’m like, ‘Man, we got a lot of people in there, a lot of big bodies that we gotta try to run through.’ It’s a little bit tougher on the run game.”


The Chargers signed free agents Sebastian Joseph-Day (6-foot-4, 310 pounds) and Austin Johnson (6-4, 314) to start on their interior line.

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They also traded for edge rusher Khalil Mack, whose ability to combat the run is something coach Brandon Staley has touted since Mack arrived from Chicago in mid-March.

“We’re figuring out his play style,” Ekeler said of Mack. “He’s going to jump around and try to get inside our tackles and our tight ends and set an edge on you really quick. So we’re going to have to have a plan to deal with him.”

The Chargers gave up 138.9 yards rushing per game last season. Only Pittsburgh and Houston were worse.

Their defense was the poorest in the league on third down, surrendering first downs 49.5% of the time.

The Chargers infamously missed the playoffs last season when they twice failed to stop Las Vegas on third down in overtime in a Week 18 loss.

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“I expect us to play team defense,” Staley said. “Last year, that was a weakness of our football team. And I don’t expect that to be the case.”

Offensive rebounds

After the defense controlled the first two days of training camp, the offense offered a bounce-back Friday as the Chargers emphasized third-down plays.

In seven-on-seven, Justin Herbert hit Keenan Allen on an inside route when Allen slipped past safety Alohi Gilman. Then, in 11-on-11, Herbert connected with tight end Gerald Everett for a 20-plus-yard gain.

Backup quarterback Chase Daniel and Jalen Guyton teamed for a long gain in 11-on-11.

“There was definitely a response today,” Staley said. “I think what happened out there is our group on offense came out and really delivered in the first team period. What that did for the rest of the practice is set off a bunch of really high-level football on both sides. And that’s what I expect.”

Chargers tight end Gerald Everett (7) performs a drill at practice.
The Chargers say Gerald Everett (7) will not only help the passing game but is also a willing blocker as tight end.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Everett is expected to bring more versatility to tight end. The Chargers signed him as a free agent after he played with Seattle last season. Staley and Everett spent the 2020 season together with the Rams.

“One thing that people don’t realize about him is that he is a really willing blocker,” Staley said. “He has real toughness at the point of attack. He has the versatility to move in different places. He has a good run-after-catch ability. He’s fit right in with our group.”

More Webb hits

The defense still made plenty of plays Friday. Michael Davis intercepted Herbert on a pass that was tipped by Bryce Callahan, who broke up another earlier. Mark Webb picked off Daniel.

Webb has had a solid start to camp after his rookie season was cut short by a knee injury. Staley repeatedly said Webb would have continued receiving increased playing time had he not been hurt in Week 9.

Originally a receiver at Georgia, Webb was shifted to defensive back and played a variety of roles for the Bulldogs. Staley said all that experience — plus being part of a deep college secondary — helped increase Webb’s NFL potential.

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“It showed us that not only does he have the skill set but also how his mind works,” Staley said. “Just because you have the skill set doesn’t mean that your mind can allow you to play in there. He has that combination.”

Asante Samuel Jr., Kyle Van Noy and Raheem Layne, an undrafted rookie out of Indiana, all broke up passes.

Safety Nasir Adderley had rookie running back Isaiah Spiller lined up for a massive hit along the sideline on a pass play. But, since the Chargers weren’t tackling, Adderley simply flew past Spiller.

James watch

Safety Derwin James Jr. again was on the field but not practicing as negotiations continued on his contract extension. Staley said he is not worried about James missing time.

“Derwin has played so much NFL football,” Staley said. “He’s probably the least of our concerns.”

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James was scheduled to address reporters for the first time in training camp Saturday, but he’s not expected to be available until his contract is settled.

Asked about how James is handling the situation, Staley said: “He’s himself. That makes it really special for me in not making it a tough situation.”


Backup defensive lineman Andrew Brown (ankle) missed practice. Staley said he is considered day to day. … The Chargers will practice in helmets only again Saturday before taking Sunday off. Their first workout in pads is Monday.