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Playoff-hungry Chargers, in an offensive slump, need to hit the ground running

Denver Broncos inside linebacker Kenny Young (41) tackles Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

It is now December, and the Chargers’ second-leading rusher remains Justin Herbert.

Even though Herbert has notable mobility, this doesn’t reflect well on a running game that — as with the 2021 Chargers in general — has struggled to maintain consistent production.

This offense ranks 22nd in yards rushing, averaging 103 per game. Individually, Austin Ekeler also is 22nd, at 54.9.

After Ekeler, the team’s next three running backs — Justin Jackson, Joshua Kelley and Larry Rountree III — have combined to rush for only 231 yards, which is 12 fewer than Herbert has managed.

Of that total, 75 came on one rush by Jackson against New England. Take away that play and the trio has carried 61 times for 156 yards, an average of 2.6 per attempt.

Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi was asked Thursday how much the lack of a dependable second running back has hindered the Chargers’ efforts on the ground.

“We feel really good about how Austin has been playing,” he said. “Just waiting on those guys to see who emerges with that second group. That’s certainly a part of it.”

On Sunday in Denver, the Chargers ran just 17 times, their second-lowest single-game total. They are passing on 65% of their snaps for the season, which is third in the NFL and up from 58.6% a year ago.

For added perspective, the Chargers never threw that frequently over a full season with Philip Rivers as their quarterback.

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert sets to pass against the Denver Broncos.
Justin Herbert has been throwing on a Chargers record pace this season. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

They didn’t throw at that pace when Dan Fouts led the league in passing yards four straight seasons, from 1979 to 1982.

They didn’t throw that often a half-century ago when John Hadl topped the NFL in attempts for a season twice.

Yes, the Chargers are relying on their quarterback’s arm at a historic clip.

At this rate, Herbert would finish with 677 passes, which would be a franchise record and represent the second-highest per-game average for a season in team history. (Remember, the NFL added a 17th game this season.)

Part of the explanation is the Chargers’ scheme, which features the sort of quick passes that coaches like to characterize as an extension of the running game. But their inability to sustain a ground attack certainly is involved too.

“I think overall I trust the run game,” Lombardi said. “There are times where I wish maybe we would have run it a little bit more. Overall, I think it's good. But we always wish it was going better.”

With no one emerging behind him, Ekeler already reached a single-season career high in attempts (135) last weekend. He also eclipsed 600 rushing yards for the first time.

He has played 67% of the Chargers’ offensive snaps, which also would be a personal high for a season.

“It definitely starts catching up with you,” Ekeler said. “I've had conversations with the coaches making sure my balance is good, making sure I'm not getting overused so we can make it the entire route.”

Chargers coach Brandon Staley prioritized player health from the day he was hired and structured the team’s offseason program and training camp accordingly.

Ekeler said Staley and his staff recently tweaked the practice schedule again in an attempt to keep the players as fresh as possible for the season’s final stretch. The 6-5 Chargers are currently the No. 7 seed in the AFC.

“The NFL is no joke, like this stuff hurts,” Ekeler said, smiling. “It's what actually makes part of the grind just that much better. I feel like I love it more because it's hard. I gotta keep pushing, keep pushing … just for my mental and physical strength. I think it's great. Yeah, it hurts, but I kind of like the hurt.”

Etc.

The Chargers did not activate starting defensive tackle Linval Joseph on Thursday when he became eligible to come off the COVID-19 reserve list. His status for the game Sunday in Cincinnati remains uncertain. Joseph, who also is dealing with a shoulder injury, has missed the last two games.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.