COSTA MESA, Calif. — The Los Angeles Chargers held their 12th practice of training camp Thursday at Jack R. Hammett Sports Complex. They were in pads for the second straight day. The team has a day off from practice Friday ahead of their preseason opener Saturday night at SoFi Stadium against the Los Angeles Rams.
Here are my notes, takeaways and observations from Thursday’s practice.
Herbert leads comeback
This week, with the preseason opener days away, the Chargers have transitioned into more specific and defined game situations in their 11-on-11 periods. Through the first two weeks of camp, the starting offense was facing the starting defense. In the game simulation periods this week, the starting offense has been facing the second-team defense, while the starting defense has been facing the second-team offense.
This structure — the starters against the backups — more closely resembles how the Chargers practice during the season, when the starting units face the scout teams. Those scout teams are comprised of primarily reserves and practice squad players, and they do their best to resemble whatever team the Chargers are facing that week in terms of schematics and personnel.
The game situations have varied day to day this week. On Tuesday, the Chargers focused on the beginning of the game and starting fast. On Wednesday, they focused on the “middle eight,” which is the last four minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half. On Thursday, they focused on an end-of-game situation in which the starting units trailed by multiple scores late in the fourth quarter.
For Thursday’s practice, the starters congregated on one sideline, while the second-team players stood on the opposite sideline. The starters trailed 28-14 with 7:11 remaining in the game. The goal was to stage a comeback. Justin Herbert and the first-team offense started their first possession at their own 35-yard line.
Chargers hoping Kellen Moore-Justin Herbert combination will pay huge dividends
Herbert hit Austin Ekeler in the flat to open the drive before he overthrew an open Mike Williams on a deep corner route. That set up a third-and-short. Keenan Allen got open on a quick out route, and Herbert hit him for a conversion.
On the next set of downs, the Chargers faced a third-and-5. Herbert drew the defense offsides. He saw the defender jump and pointed it out to the officials, who threw flags. Herbert then collected the snap with one hand. With the free play, Herbert fired a strike to Allen on a post route, moving the offense deep into opposing territory.
Herbert drew the defense offside again on the next play. That set up a first-and-5 from the plus-19-yard line. Tight end Gerald Everett beat Deane Leonard off the line on a post, and Herbert found him for an easy touchdown with 5:18 remaining.
That cut the lead 28-20. The starting offense then attempted the two-point conversion. Herbert took the snap, and pressure came up the middle. He escaped to his right. Everett broke toward the sideline in the scramble drill. Herbert threw a pinpoint pass, and Everett hauled it in while top-tapping both feet down to cut the lead to 28-22.
TE appreciation post pic.twitter.com/gl4tOdA2ir
— Los Angeles Chargers (@chargers) August 10, 2023
After a simulated kickoff, the first-team defense got off to a hot start. A sack on second down and a delay-of-game penalty set the second-team offense, led by Easton Stick, well behind the sticks. Facing a third-and-13, Stick handed off to running back Isaiah Spiller on what should have been a wave-the-white-flag draw. Spiller, though, bounced the run to the left and found open grass. He exploded up the sideline and gained the first down, getting out of bounds with 3:06 left.
This was a backbreaker. The defense should have gotten off the field here. But the unit responded. Larry Rountree III was stuffed on a first-down run. The starters took one of their three remaining timeouts after this play. Defensive lineman David Moa created pressure on second down, forcing a Stick incompletion. And then linebacker Eric Kendricks stopped wide receiver Pokey Wilson short of the first down marker after a third-down completion.
After a simulated punt and the two-minute warning, Herbert and the first-team offense took over from their own 30-yard line. They needed a touchdown to win.
The drive started slowly. A false start moved the first-team offense back 5 yards. On first-and-15, Chris Rumph II came free on a rush off the left edge and sacked Herbert. That set up a second-and-24.
Herbert took the snap, and Williams ran a go route down the left sideline. Herbert lofted a jump ball. Rookie cornerback Amechi Uzodinma was in good position and got his hand to the ball. But Williams, in trademark fashion, made a circus catch on the tipped pass, grabbing it while he was on his back. It resulted in a 29-yard gain.
Williams caught another pass on the ensuing first down, on an out route. Running back Joshua Kelley then found a hole on second down. After two more completions — one to Allen and one to Kelley — the starting offense faced a first down from the plus-34-yard line. They stopped the clock with a timeout with 33 seconds remaining.
The drive nearly ended two plays later when Herbert tried to hit Everett on a post route. Safety JT Woods read the play perfectly and broke on the pass. He nearly picked it off, but it rattled off his hands. On the next play, third down, Herbert connected with Allen on a shallow out route for the conversion. The third timeout for the starters stopped the clock with 16.1 seconds left.
That set up first down from the plus-20-yard line. Herbert delivered a dime to Allen in the front corner of the end zone with 1.2 seconds remaining. That tied the game at 28-28, and the starters took the lead on the simulated extra point. The second-team defense argued that Allen did not get in for the score. But they were overruled.
“You’re going to have to do that at some point in the season, when you’re down by two scores in the second half and time is not on your side,” Staley said after practice. “I felt like they really executed that situation well, managed the time and the clock.”
Brandon Staley’s path to Kellen Moore and why he could be the Chargers’ difference-maker
Players to watch Saturday
A few players I will be watching closely in Saturday’s preseason opener…
S JT Woods: Woods’ biggest improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 must come as a tackler. And it is impossible to make that full evaluation without seeing him tackle to the ground. Woods should get that chance against the Rams.
RB Isaiah Spiller and RB Joshua Kelley: These two are battling for the second running back spot behind Austin Ekeler. Both have run well so far in camp, but this competition will heat up considerably on Saturday. They will actually be able to break tackles and finish runs in the live action. Will either player create separation in the battle?
DL David Moa: Austin Johnson and Otito Ogbonnia remain on the PUP list with no timetable for return. If Johnson and/or Ogbonnia are not ready for Week 1, the Chargers will have to turn to some young pieces to fill out their interior defensive line depth. Moa has flashed repeatedly this camp — especially this week and especially as a pass rusher. If he can perform well in the preseason games, Moa might find his way onto the 53-man, depending on what happens with Johnson and Ogbonnia.
OL Brenden Jaimes: Jaimes is in danger of being left off the 53-man. Jordan McFadden and Zack Bailey have been playing ahead of him at guard. Jaimes needs to have some impressive performances in the preseason games and down the stretch of camp to change that pecking order.
News and notes
• WR Joshua Palmer left practice after falling hard while making a touchdown grab in seven-on-seven drills. He went to the medical tent and did not return. Staley had no update on Palmer on than to say: “We’ll know a little bit more after practice.”
• DL Sebastian Joseph-Day (quad contusion) worked back into individual drills Thursday. He was in pads and a helmet. That is a promising sign. Barring any setbacks, I would be shocked if Joseph-Day is not ready for Week 1.
• Chargers who did not practice Thursday: K Dustin Hopkins, WR Darrius Shepherd, DB Kemon Hall, RB Tyler Hoosman, LB Nathan East, WR John Hightower.
• CB J.C. Jackson worked back into team drills for the first time since Aug. 2. When Jackson was in for 11-on-11, Asante Samuel Jr. got the bulk of the reps at Star/nickel over Ja’Sir Taylor. Samuel picked off Herbert on a tipped ball during red zone seven-on-seven. That was his fourth interception in team drills through 12 practices. Overall, Samuel has 16 passes defended.
okayyyy zont pic.twitter.com/zZVTXxOo3R
— Los Angeles Chargers (@chargers) August 10, 2023
• The Chargers have been trotting out their first-team special teams unit during the simulated-game 11-on-11 periods this week. Where those core-four units stands heading into the preseason opener:
Punt return: WR Derius Davis, Taylor, S Raheem Layne, Rumph, LB Nick Niemann, FB Zander Horvath, TE Stone Smartt, LB Amen Ogbongbemiga, Leonard, Woods, LB Daiyan Henley
Punt: Kelley, Ogbongbemiga, Rumph, TE Tre’ McKitty, Henley, Taylor, Leonard, Niemann, Horvath, LS Josh Harris, P JK Scott
Kick return: Davis, Horvath, Kelley, McKitty, Rumph, Layne, S Mark Webb Jr., Ogbongbemiga, Leonard, Niemann, Taylor
Kickoff: S Alohi Gilman, Niemann, Leonard, Horvath, Taylor, Layne, edge rusher Tuli Tuipulotu, Ogbongbemiga, Webb, Woods, K Cameron Dicker
(Photo of Justin Herbert: Paul Bersebach / MediaNews Group / Orange County Register via Getty Images)
“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Preorder it here.