The Chargers have a make-or-break divisional game next for their second straight Sunday Night Football appearance.
Realistically, they must win this week versus the Chiefs to keep their hopes of winning the division alive. It’s a tough ask against a Kansas City team that is 6-3 against Los Angeles since 2018.
Here are four reasons to be concerned about the Bolts’ ability to get it done.
Vulnerable to the explosives
This is a Chargers defense that cannot seem to get out of its way and a Chiefs offense that has thrived on the explosive play since Patrick Mahomes became the starter in Kansas City. The Chiefs are third in the league with 6.4 yards per play, which has propelled them to the top of the leaderboard in offensive DVOA. While the rushing attack is just 20th by DVOA, Los Angeles gave up 9.3 yards per carry to Clyde Edwards-Helaire when these teams met in Week 2. That was before Jerry Tillery was waived and Austin Johnson, Otito Ogbonnia, and Christian Covington were lost for the season with injuries. The pass defense looks competent except for a few plays a game where they lose track of a receiver, and quarterbacks like Mahomes rarely miss those chances.
Joe Lombardi has been lambasted by Chargers fans this season, and I get why. I’ve tried to take the middle road because of the injuries plaguing this team on offense. Justin Herbert has been dealing with his rib cartilage fracture. RB2, WR1, WR2, WR3, WR4, TE1, TE2, and three starters on the offensive line have missed time. But Lombardi does deserve blame for one thing, and that’s Los Angeles’ inability to craft a cohesive game plan. Sometimes, the offense brings out some genuinely creative run concepts and schemes Austin Ekeler into advantageous situations despite the OL situation. Those games are also the ones in which the passing game feels stagnant, and Herbert has to do everything himself to even give the offense a chance. When Lombardi fixes those issues, as he did last week against the 49ers, the run game immediately evaporates. It’s almost as though what this team wants to do running the ball and what they want to do passing it are fundamentally incongruent. If that continues on Sunday, it’ll be hard for L.A. to overcome.
The Chargers are 26th in the league in opponent time of possession; Los Angeles’ opponents have the ball, on average, for 51.63% of the game. That’s resulted in some obvious moments of exhaustion for the defense, perhaps no more evident than down the stretch last week when each of the three healthy defensive linemen were visibly gassed. There are a few reasons for this, of course: injuries have decimated this team’s depth, so starters have to play more snaps. Sebastian Joseph-Day set a career-high in snap count last week, for example. The Bolts give up 5.8 yards per play, 26th in the league, allowing offenses to sustain long drives. The offensive playcalling has resulted in many three-and-outs, forcing the defense back onto the field with short rest. If L.A. can’t find a way to get their defensive personnel a break on Sunday, they will be gasping for air, trying to keep up with the Chiefs.
Justin Herbert’s bodyguards
The last time these two teams played, Herbert still had All-Pro Rashawn Slater protecting his blindside. Still, all it took was a poorly timed Corey Linsley injury for the Chargers’ protection to fall apart, causing the rib injury Herbert has been dealing with ever since. Slater has since torn his biceps, leaving sixth-round rookie Jamaree Salyer as the next man up. Linsley is finally back healthy after missing time with knee tendinitis and a case of food poisoning so bad that he was in the hospital. But now, right tackle Trey Pipkins is injured, having sprained his MCL and then aggravating it against Atlanta. He practiced in a limited capacity on Wednesday. Zion Johnson held his own against Chris Jones in Week 2 and made Chargers fans think he was on pace for a Slater-like rookie campaign, but he’s been up and down since then. This offense does not work in any fashion if Herbert doesn’t have time to let downfield routes develop. We saw that last week against San Francisco. If Pipkins is still not 100% and Johnson or Matt Feiler has a down game, it will be a long night.