Chargers defense commands joint practice with Saints: ‘Thought we were physical’

Chargers linebacker Khalil Mack battles  Saints offensive tackle Trevor Penning during a joint practice.
Chargers linebacker Khalil Mack, left, battles Saints offensive tackle Trevor Penning during a joint practice.
(Ryan Sun / Associated Press)
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After 14 practices against Justin Herbert and his collection of weapons, the Chargers’ first-team defense welcomed a new opponent to training camp Thursday.

The group responded by largely punching the New Orleans Saints in the chops.

In the first of two joint practices between the teams, the Chargers throttled Derek Carr and a Saints offense that includes running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas.

“I thought we were physical,” coach Brandon Staley said. “I thought we played hard. I thought the technique was good for the most part. I thought the communication was good for the most part.”


Safety Derwin James Jr. intercepted Carr during one 11-on-11 drill, and defensive linemen Morgan Fox and Sebastian Joseph-Day applied repeated pressure and stout run defense throughout.

Chargers linebacker Khalil Mack (52) hugs  Saints quarterback Derek Carr (4) after their joint practice.
Chargers linebacker Khalil Mack (52) hugs Saints quarterback Derek Carr (4) after their joint practice.
(Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

Linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. had perhaps the most active day, stuffing multiple runs and continually penetrating through the middle. On one play, he also provided snug pass coverage on fourth-year tight end Juwan Johnson.

“He has grown a lot,” defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley said of Murray this week. “Kenneth is physically more talented than most people. He is big, strong, fast. …This is really going to be the year that, I think, he can break out.”

Entering his fourth season, Murray is playing on the final year of his contract after the Chargers declined the option on his rookie deal. His business affairs have had no negative impact on his performance.

Starting along side veteran Eric Kendricks, who joined the Chargers in March as a free agent after eight years with Minnesota, Murray has been a camp standout.

Chargers linebacker Joey Bosa (97) congratulates defensive tackle David Moa (50) during a joint practice with the Saints.
(Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

“He has been somebody that I looked up to in this league,” Murray said of Kendricks. “I love what he’s done in this game. Having the opportunity to be able to play next to him, it’s been something that I look forward to every day.”


Other highlights from Thursday:

Samuel surging

The defensive standouts also featured cornerback Asante Samuel Jr., who has impressed Staley throughout the summer with his improved play inside. Samuel has been an outside corner during his first two NFL seasons.

Staley praised Samuel’s instincts and his ability to diagnose plays, two qualities necessary to play inside because of the increased pace of the game when defending the slot position.

“In the slot, everything’s happening faster, so you have to have someone who can think in there,” Staley said. “Then, from a physical standpoint, you have to have the quickness to stay with quicker players.

“But the thing about Asante is that he is a strong guy. He’s not some peanut in there. He’s a 186-, 187-pound guy. He’s packed up. He does have the strength to play in there.”

Brandon Staley watched his parents battle cancer and then had his own bout, but the Chargers coach believes the experience can help him be a stronger coach.

July 30, 2023

Johnson returns

The Chargers received a boost along their defensive front when veteran starter Austin Johnson passed his physical and was able to participate in the opening portions of practice.

Johnson, who had been on the physically unable to perform list, suffered a season-ending knee injury in early November.


“He’s worked really hard to come back,” Staley said. “It’s been a fight. Now, we just got to build him back up and make sure we take our time.”

Alive and kicking, again

When training camp began, the expectation was the Chargers would have a spirited battle between kickers Dustin Hopkins and Cameron Dicker.

The showdown failed to materialize, however, as Hopkins dealt with an unspecified ailment, allowing Dicker to seize the opportunity.

Daiyan Henley inspired his father to change his life and steer his son away from the L.A. streets and to a life in football that led Daiyan to the Chargers.

Aug. 6, 2023

Hopkins finally returned to kicking Thursday, setting up a sprint to the finish before rosters are trimmed to 53 on Aug. 29.

“There’s still going to be time to let those two duke it out,” Staley said.

Jackson back in action

J.C. Jackson was a full participant as he continues to progress in his return from a ruptured patellar tendon. The cornerback has taken a significant step forward this week.

“I thought he had a good day today,” Staley said. “He’s been more available, so I think he’s increasing his stamina.”


Those absent

Safety Alohi Gilman did not practice because of what Staley called a knee contusion. … Reserve linebacker Nick Niemann, a key special teams player, also did not practice because of undisclosed injury.