COSTA MESA — At first glance, it would seem like the Chargers are caught in a nightmare scenario, with two rookies starting on an offensive line that hasn’t given their running backs sufficient opportunities for big plays. After all, after three games, the Chargers have zero rushing touchdowns.
A deeper dive into what appears to be a dire situation reveals a great appreciation for what rookies Zion Johnson, a right guard, and Jamaree Salyer have accomplished in their short time since the Chargers drafted them in the first and sixth rounds in April.
There was little doubt that Johnson would become the Chargers’ starter at right guard after a standout training camp. Salyer’s accession took a bit longer and required a shift from left guard after left tackle Rashawn Slater suffered a season-ending rupture to his left biceps Sunday.
“He and Zion – all of our rookies – they’ve come in and taken it like a work day,” said Chargers center Corey Linsley, a nine-year NFL veteran. “They’re extremely professional. They’re committed. They work hard. Nothing has really fazed them. Ups and downs, they’ve stayed even-keeled. We expect nothing less.”
Protecting quarterback Justin Herbert and his fractured rib cartilage is the primary assignment for the Chargers’ offensive linemen when they face the Houston Texans on Sunday, but it’s not the only one. They also must open holes for running backs Austin Ekeler and Sony Michel.
Through three games, Ekeler is averaging more than twice as many yards receiving (6.6 yards per catch) as he is rushing (2.5 yards per carry). He leads the Chargers with 21 receptions for 139 yards and with 32 carries for 80 yards. Neither Ekeler nor Michel has scored a TD.
The Chargers’ ground game ground to a halt in their 38-10 loss Sunday to the Jacksonville Jaguars, when they gained only 26 yards on a combined 12 carries, with the Chargers behind early and trying to play catch-up through the passing game. Michel had 22 yards on five carries.
“I think that in this last game, I didn’t call it enough,” offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said of running plays. “Some of that was because we were three-and-out, three-and-out and then a couple of turnovers. We just didn’t have the opportunities. Then, pretty soon, we were in a pass-only mode. I think some of it is giving it an opportunity to get going. I think we did a decent job in the first two games. This last game, we didn’t. It’s just executing a little bit better.”
Lombardi admitted he was cautious to start Sunday’s game, uncertain as to how much Herbert’s ribs might affect his play. Knowing what he knows now, that Herbert can be effective without limiting his throws, Lombardi said he would be as aggressive as usual Sunday against Houston.
“I think that if we are a little more efficient in the running game that will help,” Lombardi said. “It will make it not as hard in the passing game. I think executing on third downs will be a big thing, as well. It hasn’t been up to what we are used to. I think getting the running game going a little bit more and getting a little more explosiveness in the passing game and converting on third down will lead to more points.”
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Lombardi said he had no concerns about Salyer, believing his transition from left guard to left tackle to replace Slater could be seamless. Salyer played left tackle at the University of Georgia, helping the Bulldogs win the national championship last season. He also played left guard while at Georgia.
“I think they are pretty high for him,” Lombardi said of the expectations of Salyer. “He’s another one of these guys we talk about, like Rashawn and Zion. He’s cut from the same cloth. He’s mature beyond what you would expect from a guy of his age. … I know it’s not too big for him. I think he’s going to handle it just fine.”