Takeaways from Chargers’ win over Titans: ‘The real turning point’


INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The Chargers beat the Titans, 17-14, on Sunday afternoon at SoFi Stadium to improve to 8-6 on the season.

They have won two straight games and three out of their last four.

The Chargers now hold the sixth seed in the AFC playoff race after the Dolphins lost to the Bills on Saturday night and the Patriots lost to the Raiders on Sunday.

Justin Herbert engineered the 13th game-winning drive of his career to seal the victory. The Chargers got the ball with 44 seconds remaining, and Herbert only needed three completions to move the offense into field goal range. Rookie kicker Cameron Dicker drilled his second game-winning field goal since he joined the team in Week 9. This one was from 43 yards.

Here are my takeaways.

Two-week ‘turning point’

What a difference two games can make.

The Chargers’ season was very much in flux as they prepared to host the Dolphins on Dec. 11. They were losers of three of their last four. They had not won consecutive games since mid-October. They were coming off a listless road defeat at the Raiders that dropped them back to .500.

The Chargers, in that week leading up to the Miami game, did not feel like a playoff team. They had too many issues, too many injuries, too much going wrong. The old saying “one step forward, two steps back” had never felt more applicable. The season was slipping away, and they had two brutal games back-to-back against teams trending toward postseason berths.



Late FG lifts Chargers past Titans, keeping LA in playoff hunt

And yet Brandon Staley’s team responded with two of its most valiant, spirited and energized performances of the season. The Chargers ousted the Dolphins on national television. Herbert put to rest any questions about his trajectory as a quarterback — at least for those willing to live in reality. The defense, down six starters, dominated a high-powered Miami offense emphatically and thoroughly. The group then carried that into Sunday’s game against the Titans. The defense showed up once again, giving up just 14 points while matching Titans running back Derrick Henry in physicality. And while the offense struggled for most of the game, Herbert did what franchise quarterbacks do, winning the game in crunch time.

On the surface, this might seem like a dramatic, surprising turnaround. But this is who the 2022 Chargers have proven to be — not necessarily in terms of the on-field product, but in terms of how players and coaches have answered challenge after challenge.

The Chargers have baked in the oven of adversity all season, and now, in this crucial home stretch, the timer is finally beeping. They have emerged hardened. And their identity has crystallized: Resiliency is the lifeblood of this team.

So many moments could have derailed this Chargers season. Two blowouts home losses. A seemingly never-ending cascade of gut-wrenching injuries. Blown fourth-quarter leads in back-to-back losses to the 49ers and Chiefs.

Instead, Staley, his coaches and his players have kept this train on the tracks. Every time the Chargers have needed a response, they have conjured it. That, more than anything, is why they are standing in this position.

“You got to be a connected team because you’re going to go through so much,” Staley said after Sunday’s win. “It can’t just be your offense lighting it up and you’re kind of just watching them play, or maybe it’s your defense lighting it up, and you’re just kind of watching them do their thing. You got to have a team in all three phases that’s playing together. You got to have coaches, players, an organization that believes in each other, the way you practice, the way you compete every single day. I think that, because we’re connected, it’s allowed us to endure all that has happened this season, because that is the only explanation. There’s no other way to explain it.”

It culminated in this two-game stretch, and it might very well be what catapults the Chargers into their first postseason appearance since 2018.

“We have to still do the things that we have to do,” center Corey Linsley said in the locker room Sunday. “We have to practice hard. We have to put together a great game plan. We got to execute. But in terms of building that camaraderie, building that energy, that confidence, these two weeks could end up being the real turning point in the season.”

Cameron Dicker delivered his second game-winner this season for the Chargers. (Kiyoshi Mio / USA Today)

Defense is jelling

Defensive dominance has been the through-line in this two-game winning streak.

Staley’s defense has only given up 28 points over the last two weeks, and seven of those came on Tyreek Hill’s flukey fumble return touchdown in Week 14. The Chargers played a near-perfect defensive game against the Dolphins. Staley, defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill and the whole defensive staff put together a masterful game plan, and the players executed it. But is difficult to put a ton of stock in one performance. Was it merely an outstanding game plan? Or had the Chargers turned a corner?

Sunday answered those questions: The Chargers defense, even with the injuries, is a unit to be reckoned with.

The Dolphins and Titans could not be more different stylistically on offense. The Chargers stymied both. Against the Dolphins, it came down to aggressive, physical pass coverage and effective post-snap disguises. Against the Titans, the Chargers showed that they can win in the trenches against the most physically imposing running back in football in Henry.

And they are doing this without Derwin James Jr., who is central to Staley’s defensive system in so many ways.

“We’ve got the guys in the right roles,” Staley said of this two-game stretch from his defense. “There’s been some continuity. I know that there’s still people out, but we got the right guys doing the right jobs, and we’re playing team defense. Since I’ve been here, you’ve heard me say it. Team defense last week against Miami is much different than team defense this week, but we’re playing team defense. You’re seeing all 11 players connected to the game plan, executing their assignment, their technique and their effort. They’re playing with the right energy. I felt like we’ve played as hard as we’ve ever played, since I’ve been here, on defense. You can feel the energy, where you get the playmaking, and we needed all of it today because our defense won us the game today. They gave us a chance. I just am really proud of the way that group is coming together.”

Henry certainly had his moments Sunday. He accounted for all 63 scrimmage yards and the touchdown on the Titans’ lone scoring drive of the first half — 26 on the ground and 37 in the air, all of which came on a busted coverage on a swing pass. Henry also got loose on a few runs in the fourth quarter, rushing for 32 yards on the Titans’ final two drives of the game, including their tying drive that quarterback Ryan Tannehill capped off with a sneak touchdown with 51 seconds remaining. Those two possessions were the blemishes in an otherwise fantastic performance. The Chargers busted two coverages on the Titans’ final drive, as well.

Overall, though, the Chargers met Henry with force and tenacity. That was the key to this game. Their front won consistently at the point of attack. The edges played stout and disciplined. They tackled well on the second level.

The Chargers were able to match the physicality of the Titans and their Derrick Henry-led running game. (Kiyoshi Mio / USA Today)

“I like to compare it to baseball,” said defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko, who had five tackles, including a tackle for loss in the third quarter. “You can’t let a pitcher get into this rhythm. Even if he throws you a pitch that you don’t want to hit, you got to keep fighting pitches. You got to show him that, hey, I saw that knuckle curve, I saw that splitter. Even though that’s your best pitch, I am going to keep fighting it off, so that even though you think you got something, you really don’t. And that’s the same thing with Derrick Henry.”

The whole defensive game plan had to start with defending Henry. And the Chargers achieved that goal, even if he ran for 104 yards on 21 carries.

“We were coming to hit him today,” Staley said.

The Chargers stopped the run on first down. The Titans had an average distance to gain of 9.13 yards on second and third downs, according to TruMedia. As the game progressed, the Chargers pass rush came to life. All four of their sacks came in the second half, and three were in obvious passing situations. Chris Rumph II’s sack was on a third-and-9. Kyle Van Noy’s sack was on a second-and-17. Drue Tranquill’s career-high fourth sack of the season was on a third-and-9, as well.

With Joey Bosa sidelined, offenses have keyed their protection plans on Khalil Mack. In this game, the Chargers’ supporting pass rushers provided that consistent spark.

“The only way that you get to rush in this league is by defending the run,” Staley said.

The Chargers were stellar on third down, holding the Titans to 3-for-11 on conversion attempts. In the past three weeks, the Chargers have held opposing offenses to a 28.1 percent conversion rate on third downs, fourth-best in the league in that span.

Sebastian Joseph-Day, who returned Sunday after missing the Dolphins game with a knee injury, said the defensive surge is rooted in “a belief in ourselves.”

“Tired of hearing how bad we are,” he added, “when we know we aren’t bad.”

Right now, this Chargers defense is a sound unit. And with James and Bosa both nearing returns, the best could be yet to come.

“You want to make sure that you’re getting improvements, making the improvements, so that you can play your best at the end,” Staley said. “It’s been a fight this season, as you guys all know, to get into a spot where you can say that.”

Herbert’s drive lifts woeful offensive day

Herbert’s game-winning drive was a thing of beauty. He connected with Mike Williams on the opening play on an out route for 16 yards. Herbert then hit tight end Gerald Everett on a shallow cross for a 6-yard gain before the highlight play that put the Chargers in field goal range.

Herbert took the shotgun snap on second-and-4 from his own 45-yard line. His protection broke down off the right side, and he escaped, stiff-arming Titans edge rusher Rashad Weaver on his way to the edge.

As he approached the sideline, Herbert set his eyes on Williams down the right sideline. Williams pointed to the sky when he made eye contact with Herbert, indicating he wanted the jump ball. Herbert uncorked a dart on the run to Williams’ inside shoulder. Williams adjusted and made the catch with Titans cornerback Greg Mabin draped all over him. He landed in bounds. The clock was ticking under 25 seconds. Williams jumped to his feet and sprinted back to the middle of the field.

The offense set up, and Herbert spiked the ball with 14 seconds remaining at the Titans’ 20-yard line. After a delay of game — a bad time management mistake in that situation — and a deep shot to milk some more clock, Dicker made his 43-yard field goal to win the game.

Williams making a mind-blowing clutch catch in the fourth quarter. What else is new?

“You can really put it anywhere around the defender,” Herbert said. “He’s going to go up and get it.”

Herbert and his offensive teammates made the plays they needed to on that final drive. As Staley said of his quarterback after the game, “He had his best when his best was required.”

But this was a really ugly showing from the offense overall. Herbert threw two bad interceptions. One came at the end of the first half in the end zone. Titans cornerback Roger McCreary made a heady play, leaping out of bounds to catch Herbert’s pass. He shoveled the ball to defensive back Joshua Kalu before touching down out of bounds. Herbert should have thrown this much further out of bounds. The Chargers, according to Staley, were trying to drain clock on that play. The second interception was a bad decision, late over the middle, intended for Williams in the third quarter. Titans safety Kevin Byard jumped the route.

“Can’t turn over the ball like that,” Herbert said.

The Titans entered this game ranked 28th in pass defense DVOA, Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric. They were down several contributors in the secondary, including safety Amani Hooker and cornerback Kristian Fulton. The Titans were also without their top edge rusher in Denico Autry.

And yet the Chargers passing game failed to take advantage for most of the afternoon. The interior protection was a major issue. The offensive line failed to contain superstar defensive lineman Jeffrey Simmons. Herbert was sacked three times, including once by Simmons in the first quarter. The pressure really limited the Chargers’ ability to attack downfield.

The Chargers tried to lean into their running game because the Titans prefer to play with light boxes. Their running backs, Austin Ekeler and Joshua Kelley, finished with 82 yards on 22 carries.

The one bright spot, outside of the final drive, was the Chargers’ red zone production. They converted both their red zone trips into touchdowns. The Chargers ran eight designed rushes on their eight red zone plays. Kelley and Ekeler both scored red zone rushing touchdowns. Ekeler, in particular, showed some impressive balance and power on back-to-back red zone runs in the fourth quarter. The first went for 12 yards. The second went for 3 yards and a touchdown.

“I felt the physicality down there,” Staley said.

But the defense carried the offense in this game.

“We got to make the improvements,” Staley said, “because it wasn’t a clean game offensively for us.”

The Chargers are getting healthier on offense. Williams and Keenan Allen (eight catches for 86 yards in this game) are both back. They had four of their five starters on the offensive line. The only piece missing was left tackle Rashawn Slater, who remains on injured reserve. Tight end Donald Parham Jr. played in his first game since Week 6 and had three catches for 35 yards.

Injuries can no longer be an explanation. This team needs more from offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. The Chargers still have not scored a third-quarter touchdown since Week 5.

If the Chargers are going to be truly dangerous down the stretch and into the postseason, the offense needs to rediscover something close to its 2021 form.

“We need to improve,” Staley said.

(Top photo of Justin Herbert: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)


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