5 takeaways from Chargers’ 23-12 win over 49ers

The Chargers wrapped up their preseason on Friday night with a 23-12 win over the 49ers.

Los Angeles rushed for more yards against San Francisco (267) than they had in either of the last two preseasons in their entirety (208 and 227, respectively).

Here are the main takeaways from the Bolts’ performance.

Joshua Kelley, RB2

Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley and second-year pro Isaiah Spiller have been battling back and forth for the primary spot behind Austin Ekeler at running back. The former UCLA Bruin and incumbent RB2 had already taken the lead in the competition with a strong training camp, but until Friday, the one thing Kelley was missing was a big play.

Spiller had a 70+ yard touchdown run called back against the Rams due to a holding penalty and seemed to have a bit of extra juice compared to his rookie season. Kelley responded on Friday with a 75-yard touchdown of his own, including a cut in the open field to avoid a 49ers safety and speed to pull away to the end zone.

Despite Spiller’s emergence this offseason, that run should be the final piece of Kelley’s successful bid to keep his role.

Tough cuts coming

Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Just about every player on the roster bubble played well on Friday night. Elijah Dotson improved his runs in structure and played with sure hands in the receiving game. Stone Smartt had a few nice blocks on the outside in the run game, plus a reception. Keelan Doss hauled in all three of his targets. Max Duggan was up and down but showed some capability as a play extender and threw his first NFL touchdown.

On defense, both Tiawan Mullen and Cam Brown had strong games at corner. Mark Webb Jr. played well in limited action as the starting safety opposite JT Woods. David Moa and Christopher Hinton were part of a defensive line that struggled a bit against the 49ers run game, but both had their moments.

There are not many roster spots available for all these players. Only four or five will make the team, but all nine have shown they’re NFL-caliber players. It makes for a difficult decision for the Chargers, who have until Tuesday to trim their roster to 53 players.

Prevailing health

Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Knock on every wood surface in a twenty-mile radius, but Los Angeles has escaped the preseason without many new significant injuries. JC Jackson, Otito Ogbonnia, and Jalen Guyton are still recovering from injuries from 2022, with Ogbonnia and Guyton likely to start the season on the PUP list.

Coming into Friday night’s game, the Chargers’ only player on injured reserve was offensive tackle Andrew Trainer. (Tackle Nic Melsop and corner Kemon Hall were also waived from injured reserve earlier in training camp.) Only three teams have no players on IR, and only three others have just the one player on the list.

Los Angeles did have a bit of a scare when CJ Okoye left Friday’s game with an elbow injury, but he only missed a series or two before returning to the game. That leaves Trainer and linebacker Blake Lynch seemingly the only Chargers with multi-week injuries incurred during training camp. Such is the benefit of Brandon Staley’s approach to preseason: Big players are much less likely to get injured if they’re watching the game from the sideline.

Run-heavy approach

Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

The Chargers attempted just 20 passes on Friday, 11 of which came from Easton Stick in the first half. Ten different players, however, took a carry, and the Chargers racked up 267 yards on the ground.

There are a few different reasons LA could have taken this approach. For one, the offensive line struggled to pass protect on Friday. Stick routinely had little time to throw when matched up with San Francisco’s starting defense. The 49ers ended the game with six quarterback hits and two sacks, both of Stick.

LA also has more to evaluate on the ground. Kelley and Spiller are in the aforementioned battle on the depth chart. Dotson has a roster spot to fight for. Tyler Hoosman and Aaron Shampklin, who had barely seen any snaps before Friday, are potential practice squad additions. Derius Davis and Darrius Shepherd took jet sweeps, a play the Chargers need to evaluate for implementation in their regular playbook. It’s the same with zone read, which Duggan executed well several times after Stick took it for a touchdown last week.

Third rounders making the leap?

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles needs young players to take the next step on defense to compete with the upper echelon of the AFC. On Friday, their third-round picks from the last two drafts showed they might be ready to take that leap.

JT Woods continued his strong offseason with a seven tackle performance on Friday night. Woods started at safety and thus was asked to play two series’ worth of reps against San Francisco’s starting offense (sans George Kittle and Christian McCaffrey). I thought he played the run with great effort and looked much improved as a downhill player. His work in space is still coming along, but he’s shown ability in coverage, namely last week against the Saints. Woods will be a key rotational piece at safety and may even be asked to start Week 1 if Alohi Gilman misses any regular season time with a knee contusion.

Chargers fans have been eager to name rookie Daiyan Henley a starter next to Eric Kendricks, and perhaps his time is coming. It won’t be to open the season, given LA’s comfort in letting Kenneth Murray sit out the entire preseason. But Henley has flashed in the Chargers’ three preseason games, securing his first career interception on Friday night. He overran a few reps in run defense, but he’s shown a quicker trigger than Chargers linebackers of yore. With a little more time to hone those skills, Henley will see the field on defense sooner rather than later.

Story originally appeared on Chargers Wire