Takeaways from Chargers’ 22-17 preseason loss to the Saints

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The Los Angeles Chargers lost to the New Orleans Saints, 22-17, in their second game of the preseason Sunday evening at SoFi Stadium.

Here are my takeaways.

Defensive rookies making plays

The most positive development from Sunday’s loss was the play of the three rookie defenders the Chargers drafted in April — edge rusher Tuli Tuipulotu, a second-round pick, linebacker Daiyan Henley, a third-round pick, and defensive lineman Scott Matlock, a sixth-round pick.

Henley got the start at linebacker. Eric Kendricks and Kenneth Murray Jr. both had the night off. Nick Niemann and Amen Ogbongbemiga both sat out with injuries. According to coach Brandon Staley, Henley had the green dot for most of the night, meaning he was relaying the plays to the defensive huddle. Henley made an impact against the run, in coverage and as a pass rusher.

Henley’s best play against the run came early in the second quarter. Saints quarterback Jameis Winston handed off to running back Kendre Miller on a first-and-10 rush to the right side. Henley read the play well, using his athleticism and quickness to shoot a gap. He then finished with a strong wrap-up tackle, dropping Miller for no gain.

In coverage, Henley showed off his sideline-to-sideline range on several tackles in space. Late in the second quarter, Winston rolled out to his right on a bootleg off play action. Fullback Adam Prentice had sprinted to the flat to that side. Winston hit Prentice in stride. But Henley, again, had read the play well. He was not fooled by the run action and closed the gap on Prentice before Winston delivered the throw. Henley then tackled Prentice after a 2-yard gain. Henley was consistent all night making these types of one-on-one tackles in the open field. He led the Chargers with nine tackles.

Later in that drive, Henley got home for his first sack as a Charger. Winston took a shotgun snap on a third-and-3. After the snap, Miller cleared on a flat route. That left no one in protection to pick up Henley, who blitzed in between the left tackle and guard. He combined with edge rusher Carlo Kemp on the sack.

“I liked the way Daiyan played,” Staley said. “I thought he was aggressive. I think you see what an outstanding tackler he is. He can really feel the run game. He’s physical, outstanding in the blitz game. He just needs to keep improving because he’ll learn a lot from it.”

Henley did have one hiccup in coverage early in the second quarter when he lost Miller on a wheel route up the left sideline for a 27-yard gain. But overall, Henley played well.

Tuipulotu, meanwhile, had a tackle for loss in run defense in the first quarter. It was a dominant rep against Saints starting left tackle Trevor Penning. Tuipulotu shed Penning with a quick move to the inside before tackling Miller for a 4-yard loss. The rookie out of USC has been creating this type of penetration often during training camp, and now it is showing up in the games, as well.

“He’s really instinctive,” Staley said of Tuipulotu. “He kind of knows where the plays are going before they happen. And then he’s really physical. This guy is going to come off and he’s going to dominate a tight end one-on-one. He’s proven that’s a mismatch, which is a good thing for an edge player. That’s what we’re looking for. And then he’s outstanding in the movement game. And then against the bigger O-linemen, he can strike and shed and win at the ball.”

On the play after his tackle for loss, Tuipulotu had a third-down pressure on a pass rush against Penning, forcing a bad throw from Winston.

Matlock had a tackle for loss on a run play early in the second quarter. Later in the game, he made one of the plays of the night for the defense. The Saints set up a screen to running back Ellis Merriweather on third-and-10. Merriweather had room and blockers in front of him. But Matlock showed off impressive athleticism to track the running back down in space.

“You want to talk about a big-time play,” Staley said of Matlock’s screen tackle.

Preseason is about refining and discovering depth. All three of these players are already looking like legitimate depth pieces at important defensive positions.

Backup quarterback Easton Stick played the best game of his career in the first week of the preseason against the Los Angeles Rams. He did not carry over that level of performance into Sunday night.

Stick finished the game 21-for-41 passing for 233 yards. He was not nearly as accurate as he was against the Rams. Stick threw two interceptions, one of which was a really ugly throw in the second quarter. The play design was excellent from offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Stick rolled out to his left on a play-action bootleg. He had multiple receivers running open on routes toward the sideline. But he did not pull the trigger early enough. Stick hesitated before throwing it directly to cornerback Isaac Yiadom.

“It came out really clean and honestly wasn’t expecting it to be that clean,” Stick said of that play.

The Chargers had backups at both offensive tackle spots in Foster Sarell and Austen Pleasants. Backup guards Jordan McFadden and Zack Bailey played most of the game. So did third-string center Brenden Jaimes. The pass protection did not hold up. Stick was under a lot of pressure, and that seemed to rattle his rhythm and timing as well as how he was seeing the field.

“It was an uneven performance in the passing game for us,” Staley said.

Stick ended up playing the whole game. Third-string quarterback Max Duggan did not see the field. Staley said that was because of the “flow of the game.”

“It was a tight game, and we were trying to work our way back,” Staley said. “I really want Easton to get the work. Easton needed to play in a game like this. He was able to fight through some things.”

Stick did have a couple of bright moments. He led a successful two-minute drive at the end of the first half that he capped with a 6-yard touchdown run. Stick had a 21-yard scramble earlier in that drive and finished the game with 63 yards rushing on seven attempts.

Later in the game, Stick engineered another touchdown drive to bring the Chargers within five points. He converted a third down on an accurate throw over the middle to rookie receiver Derius Davis. He converted a fourth down near the New Orleans red zone on a scramble before scoring his second touchdown of the game on a sneak.

But he just never looked comfortable in the pocket, and it showed in his passing statistics.

This was the first full game Stick has played since college.

“I’m excited to go back and watch it,” Stick said. “It’ll be good learning for me.”

News and notes

• Chargers running backs went off for 173 rushing yards last weekend against the Rams. Sunday, the running backs — Isaiah Spiller, Joshua Kelley and rookie Elijah Dotson — mustered just 57 rushing yards on 15 carries. The blocking up front was inconsistent. Spiller had the longest run out of the trio — a physical 18-yard carry up the middle into the red zone. That was the lone highlight of the night from the running game.

• Dotson had a breakout game against the Rams. He came back to Earth a bit against the Saints. Dotson had two big drops on the final drive of the game, including on a third-and-4 from the New Orleans 28-yard line. He rushed for 21 yards on six carries.

• Safety JT Woods had a solid game. He had two pass breakups while in coverage on tight end Lucas Krull. Woods mostly tackled well. He had a strong tackle on receiver A.T. Perry on a bubble screen in the first quarter. He also chased down Krull from behind in the second quarter on a play-action screen. Woods took a bad angle on a missed tackle on a screen to Lynn Bowden in the second quarter. That was his only big miscue of the game.

• Rookie receiver Quentin Johnston caught all three of his targets for 37 yards. He ran a great dig route on the final play of the first quarter for his longest reception of the day, a 16-yard gain.

• Dustin Hopkins and Cameron Dicker both got chances to kick. Hopkins made a 25-yard field goal and an extra point. Dicker made an extra point.

(Photo of Daiyan Henley celebrating his sack of Jameis Winston: John McCoy / Getty Images)

The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.

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