Chargers offense searching for second-half answers; Cameron Dicker’s opportunity


The Chargers (5-5) head to Glendale, Ariz., to take on the Cardinals (4-7) on Sunday.

The Chargers are on a two-game losing streak and have lost three of their last four games. They are in ninth place in the AFC and currently out of the postseason. The margin for error is pretty much nonexistent. They will likely have to win five of their final seven games to make the playoffs.

To put it simply: They have to win the games they are supposed to win down the stretch. That starts this weekend at the Cardinals.

This is the Friday Notebook.

Injury report

Wide receiver Mike Williams (ankle) has been ruled out for Sunday. Williams suffered a high ankle sprain against the Seahawks in Week 7. He returned four weeks later for last week’s matchup with the Chiefs, but he re-injured the ankle while making a catch along the sideline in the first quarter.

“Felt like resting him this week would be the best course of action,” Brandon Staley said.



Chargers WR Mike Williams out vs. Cardinals

Starting safety Nasir Adderley (thumb) is doubtful. Adderley injured his thumb in the second half Sunday against the Chiefs. He left the game briefly but returned. Staley said Adderley’s thumb injury, which is also affecting the middle part of his hand, did not improve enough during the week. Adderley did not practice Friday.

“I don’t think he can grip his hand the right way to be able to tackle,” Staley said.

Alohi Gilman and rookie JT Woods are both options to replace Adderley in the starting lineup.

Cornerback Michael Davis injured his knee in practice while defending a pass down the sideline, Staley said. Davis, who was limited in Friday’s practice, is officially questionable for the game, but Staley said he is expected to play.

Punter JK Scott, who was limited Wednesday and Thursday, practiced fully Friday and came off the report.

Running back Joshua Kelley, who has not played since Week 6, was designated to return from injured reserve this week. He was back in practice Wednesday. Staley said the Chargers will make a decision on whether to activate Kelley on Saturday. The Chargers have a 21-day window from when they designated Kelley to return to activate him back to the active roster, so they technically have some wiggle room if they want to give Kelley more healing time.

For the Cardinals, wide receiver Rondale Moore (groin), starting left tackle D.J. Humphries (back), tight end Zach Ertz (knee), cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. (back) and safety Charles Washington (chest) have been ruled out. Wide receiver Greg Dortch (thumb) and reserve quarterback Trace McSorley (illness) are both listed as questionable. Starting quarterback Kyler Murray (hamstring) will return Sunday after missing the last two games.

Second-half offense

The Chargers offense has not scored enough in the second half of games, and the persistent droughts present one of the more concerning trends for the team.

The Chargers are third in the NFL in first-half scoring this season with 152 points, according to TruMedia. They are 28th in the league in second-half scoring at 70 points. And these figures are not fluky. The play-to-play efficiency metrics are aligned with the scoring. The Chargers are fifth in first-half expected points added per play on offense and 25th in second-half EPA/play on offense, according to TruMedia.

The discrepancy is jarring and really paints a clear picture of the inconsistencies the Chargers have battled offensively this season. They are still searching for that complete offensive performance. The closest the Chargers came was in Week 5 against the Browns, but even in that game, they settled for two field goals from inside the Cleveland 10-yard line in the second half.

I went searching for answers this week and posted the question to two offense captains — running back Austin Ekeler and center Corey Linsley — as well as Staley.

What is going wrong in these second halves?

Staley pointed to two primary shortcomings. First, the Chargers have not produced enough explosive plays in the second half. And second, they have incurred far too many negative plays. That combination, Staley said, “has inhibited our progress in second halves this year.”

The stats back this up. The Chargers rank 28th in the league in the percentage of second-half offensive plays that have gone for zero or negative yards at 36.9 percent, according to TruMedia. And they rank 26th in second-half explosive play rate at 9.2 percent, according to TruMedia, which defines an explosive run as any rush of 12 yards or more and an explosive pass as any reception over 15 yards.

These are both relatively significant drop-offs from first halves. The Chargers’ negative play rate is 31.9 percent in the first half and their explosive play rate is 10.3 percent in the first half, according to TruMedia.

When asked if he felt like the Chargers were failing to deal with second-half adjustments from defenses, Staley said, “I don’t think that is the case.”

“You got to get explosive plays, and you got to stay away from negative plays,” Staley said. “I think that in the second half, our execution just needs to be better. It’s not any facet of the run game or the pass game or what type of plays.”

The Chiefs loss in Week 11 is a good example. The Chargers opened the second half with the ball. Ekeler rushed for 4 yards on the first play behind a solid double-team block from Linsley and right guard Zion Johnson. Justin Herbert then hit Joshua Palmer on a slant route for 16 yards, making a great throw with pressure in his face from defensive tackle Chris Jones. On the ensuing first down, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi dialed up a play-action boot shot play to Palmer on a post route. The Chiefs had two safeties deep, bracketing Palmer, so Herbert checked down to DeAndre Carter for a 5-yard gain.

Then on second-and-5, Isaiah Spiller took and handoff and was dropped for a 2-yard loss. Lombardi said the play was not blocked correctly. Tight end Richard Rodgers missed a block on linebacker Willie Gay on the right edge, and Gay blew up the play. Trey Pipkins III was called for a false start on the next play, setting up a third-and-12. Herbert was then sacked to end the drive. Left tackle Jamaree Salyer and left guard Matt Feiler did not pass off a stunt, and defensive end Mike Danna got home.

On the next drive, the Chargers ran a fake pitch play-action bootleg on first down. The Chiefs were not fooled, and Herbert had to throw the ball away. On second down, the Chiefs brought a corner blitz. Herbert adjust well and connected with Keenan Allen out of the slot on his hot read. That set up a third-and-1. Herbert handed to Ekeler out of shotgun. The rush was designed to go to the right side, with Feiler pulling from left to right. Jones got immediate penetration in between Pipkins and Johnson and then cut off Feiler on his pull block. Ekeler was dropped for no gain.

Two drives completely derailed by negative plays.

Linsley said he went back this week and rewatched the third quarter on film.

“I’m like, man, what did we do?” Linsley said. “What went wrong? And it’s just those little details.”

Linsley gave an example of one of those little details. After the loss to San Francisco in Week 10, Linsley said he and Johnson discussed a minor technique adjustment on a specific combination block. The duo changed their footwork on the block, and the tweak produced results against Kansas City.

“It’s little stuff like that where we just got to keep at that,” Linsley said. “That’s the stuff that makes the big-picture difference, because when you start saying, ‘Oh, it’s that guy’s fault, it’s that guy’s fault,’ you stop looking within and you stop looking within your room and you stop looking within each other, and you lose focus of what you can just do better. And just like that example. We made a tiny change — literally a different footwork on a single block on a single play, and it gave us the opportunity to run the ball better. So we just got to keep doing little stuff like that, over and over again, and stay committed to it.”

Ekeler provided a more bird’s-eye view of the second-half struggles.

“We got to reemphasize the urgency of continuing to score points — that whatever we have isn’t enough,” Ekeler said. “One thing that I think we need to do a better job at, just as leaders on the field, is just getting us to lock back in as far as coming out in the second half. We do have some slumps where it’s like, we’re just playing but we don’t feel the same urgency. I don’t feel the same urgency that I do at the beginning of the game.”

“It’s nothing in the effort or anything,” Ekeler added. “It’s just the demeanor and the messaging coming out.”

Austin Ekeler says the Chargers need to play with more urgency in the second halves of games. (Robert Hanashiro / USA Today)

The Chargers offense looked markedly different with Allen back on the field. He is the type of player who can make a difference late in games and win one-on-one battles in key moments. Allen fumbled on the Chargers’ third drive of the second half against Kansas City, but he also made an excellent catch on a 46-yard completion to convert a third-and-18. That set up a Chargers go-ahead touchdown.

Allen’s return has given the offense more confidence.

“You see what we’re like when we’re healthy,” Linsley said.

The Chargers, though, cannot afford to keep making mistakes on these little details if they want to reach their potential as an offense, even with the injuries. Their 2022 season is dependent on an elite offense returning to form.

“Now it’s a sense of urgency,” Linsley said. “Full steam ahead. There’s no more waiting.”

Dicker’s opportunity

Kicker Dustin Hopkins was placed on injured reserve this week after he suffered a setback with his hamstring injury. Hopkins has not played since a heroic performance in a Week 6 win over the Broncos. He strained his hamstring on his first kick attempt, an extra point, in that game and still went on to make four field goals, including the game-winner.

Hopkins was on the field kicking field goals after practice Friday of last week. Staley said this week that Hopkins suffered a setback during that after-practice session.

That means rookie Cameron Dicker is the kicker for the foreseeable future — at the very least the next four games, which is the minimum time Hopkins will have to miss after being placed on IR. Staley said this week that he does not know if Hopkins will return this season.

“I’m not going to speculate on that at this point,” Staley said.

Dicker is the third kicker the Chargers have used this season. Hopkins’ first replacement was Taylor Bertolet, but Bertolet suffered a quad injury in practice ahead of the Chargers’ Week 9 win over the Falcons. Dicker then replaced Bertolet and hit a game-winner as time expired in Atlanta.

Dicker has earned this spot. He has made all seven of his field goals and all six of his extra points since joining the Chargers. Dicker also kicked for the Eagles for one game in Week 5 — against the Cardinals — and made both of his field goals, including a game-winner in the fourth quarter, and both of his extra points.

“You hope for these opportunities. You prepare for these opportunities,” Dicker said in the locker room this week. “Just got to go out and keep doing what I’ve been doing.”

Dicker has gotten a crash course in the life of an NFL kicker in his first season. After filling in for the Eagles, he was cut from their practice squad two weeks later. Six days after that, the Chargers signed him to their practice squad, and he kicked in Atlanta that week.

Now he is potentially auditioning for a long-term role with the Chargers.

The Chargers signed Hopkins to a three-year extension this offseason, but they will certainly have a decision to make if Dicker continues to perform at this level.

“It’s just crazy. It kind of just shows the business of it all,” Dicker said. “You get opportunities, and you hope to take advantage.”

Matchup notes

• The Cardinals, overall, are not a good team. They rank 31st in DVOA, Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric. And even on the road, with Murray returning from injury, this is a golden opportunity for the Chargers to put together their first true complete performance of the season in all three phases.

• Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph runs a blitz-heavy scheme. Arizona enters this game with the third-highest blitz rate in the league at 38.2 percent, according to TruMedia. Moving the ball efficiently and scoring on offense will come down to dealing with these blitzes effectively. Herbert is having an uncharacteristically bad year against the blitz this season. Herbert ranked eighth in EPA/dropback against the blitz as a rookie in 2020, and he ranked 12th last season, according to TruMedia. This year, Herbert ranks 31st among qualified quarterbacks in EPA/dropback against the blitz. The only quarterbacks who are worse: Zach Wilson, Baker Mayfield and Mac Jones. Teams have largely avoided blitzing Herbert this season. Only six qualified quarterbacks have been blitzed less, according to TruMedia. But I expect Joseph to turn the heat up on Herbert. How he responds will go a long way in determining the offensive performance. The Cardinals are bad against the run. They are bad against the pass. They are bad on third down. They give up a high rate of explosive plays. And, perhaps most importantly, they rank 30th in red zone efficiency this season. The Chargers need to rectify their sloppy second halves, and this is a great matchup for them to achieve that.

• Defensively, the Chargers must limit Murray as a scrambler. Murray is eighth in the NFL in total EPA produced off scrambles, according to TruMedia, despite missing the past two games with that hamstring injury. A bulk of the Cardinals’ offensive production comes from Murray scrambling. He has not produced as much as an outside-the-pocket passer. Murray ranks 28th in EPA/dropback outside the pocket. The Chargers, overall, have done a solid job limiting scrambling this season. They are sixth in the league in total defensive EPA on scrambles. But they have broken down at crucial times — like on Jacoby Brissett’s 20-yard scramble on a third-and-9 in Week 5 and Patrick Mahomes’ 16-yard scramble on the game-winning drive last week. They have to prevent the explosive scrambles from Murray, who has four scrambles of more than 15 yards this season. Said Staley: “He’s faster than most of the people on the field. He’s a legitimate 4.3 guy.”

(Top photo of Cameron Dicker: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)


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