COSTA MESA — Running backs coach Derrick Foster didn’t resort to a power-point presentation to illustrate the middling state of the Chargers’ ground game during a meeting earlier this week. He merely showed the running backs two photos of chicken bones – one with more meat left than the other.
“He said, ‘This is how I feel our run game is – we’ve got some meat on the bone still,’” Chargers running back Austin Ekeler said, recalling the poultry portion of the meeting to a group of reporters clustered around him. “I thought that was pretty cool. That’s where we are in the situation now.
“OK, how can we make these runs better?”
The Chargers rushed for a season-high 80 yards in their 34-24 victory over the Houston Texans on Sunday, with Ekeler scoring their first rushing touchdowns of 2022 on runs of 10 and 20 yards. Overall, the Chargers are averaging 64.5 yards rushing per game and just 2.7 yards per carry.
Ekeler is averaging 35 yards per game on 3.1 yards per carry.
“Personally, just having a 2-yard average, getting hit in the backfield and not really getting anything going was pretty discouraging,” Ekeler said of his feelings going into last Sunday’s game. “It’s not necessarily where we need to be (after Sunday’s win over the Texans).
“(But) I was able to put a couple in the end zone in the run game for one game. But can I do it for another game? That’s what I want to see, the week-to-week improvement of us getting better in the run game. We still had 80 yards on the ground, which isn’t great. It’s an upward trajectory. We’re a work in progress.”
Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi agreed that there is still work to be done before the Chargers can say they’re satisfied with their ground game.
“We probably have to come up with better plays and execute them better,” Lombardi said. “We had some important runs in that game (Sunday). The way it felt during the game, I was a little surprised at the final stats because we had some bigger runs.
“We’ve been saying it all year – just more consistency.”
Kicker Dustin Hopkins has an injured quadriceps muscle that prompted the Chargers to sign Taylor Bertolet to their practice squad in case Hopkins isn’t sound enough to play Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. Bertolet last played in the USFL this past season with New Orleans.
“He’s a veteran kicker,” special teams coordinator Ryan Fiken said. “I know he doesn’t have very much experience in the regular season, but we like his ball-strike, his leg strength. He’s a pro with the way he approaches the game. So, it’ll be exciting to see what he can do if we end up going that route.”
Hopkins has converted five of six field-goal attempts and each of his 11 extra points. He also made a tackle on one of his kickoffs during the Chargers’ victory Sunday over the Texans, but it wasn’t clear whether he was hurt on the play. Coach Brandon Staley said the injury was “unrelated to the game.”
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“Dustin has really earned his stripes in our locker room because he has that athlete vibe,” Staley said of Hopkins’ tackle Sunday. “I know that he’s not scared to mix it up. He’s probably more eager than most. We would prefer it not to get there, but it’s good to know that you have an athlete back there.”
RETURN OR NOT RETURN
DeAndre Carter is averaging 19 yards per kickoff return through the first four weeks of the season, which is near the NFL leaders with five or more returns. Eno Benjamin of the Arizona Cardinals leads the league with an average of 25.2 yards per return going into Week 5.
Fiken acknowledged the fine line between letting a kickoff sail into the end zone for a touchback and catching the ball and running it back for a possible big return. Carter’s longest return among the eight he has fielded to date has been 30 yards, a relatively modest gain.
“We discuss it on every kick,” Ficken said. “It depends on the situation. It depends on the time of the game. It depends on what the score is, what the coverage unit is, so a lot of that is all factored into each specific kick. We’ll talk about that. He and I will talk specifically … about the situation.”