Slow-starting Chargers can't recover from Mile High deficit in Denver

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  • Denver Broncos
    Denver Broncos
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  • Los Angeles Chargers
    Los Angeles Chargers
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  • Brandon Staley
    American football coach
Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws as Denver Broncos cornerback Kyle Fuller (23) pursues during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Cornerback Kyle Fuller (23) and the Broncos defense kept the pressure on s Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

They began the game in the worst of all positions — their one-yard line — looking at a destination that couldn’t have been farther away.

That desperate starting point proved to be fitting on an all-uphill day when the Chargers set out on a reasonable enough journey but instead came up well short.

Too many crushing mistakes, blown opportunities and empty possessions doomed them in a 28-13 loss to Denver.

“We had a chance to make winning plays today,” coach Brandon Staley said, “and we didn't make enough of them.”

The loss dropped the Chargers to 6-5, leaving them in a three-way tie for second place in the AFC West, one game behind Kansas City.

They fell behind 14-0 barely 17 minutes into the game when their offense generated nothing and their defense made enough errors to escort the Broncos into the end zone.

The Chargers went three-and-out on their opening two series, leading to Denver’s initial scoring drives. Trailing 14-0, the Chargers had been outgained in total yards, 157-16.

On defense, they allowed Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to scramble 11 yards for a touchdown and then couldn’t stop the running back duo of Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams as Denver pounded its way downfield.

Facing third-and-goal at the nine, the Broncos ran the ball again and Williams scored — Staley: “That was a killer.” — to make it a two-touchdown difference. At that point, the Broncos had all 12 of the game’s first downs.

The latter series included a pair of cruel near-misses for the Chargers. A blitzing Derwin James Jr. sacked Bridgewater to cause a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Kyzir White. A replay review, however, ruled the play an incompletion.

“I thought it was a fumble,” James said. “But review came back and they said it was incomplete. So I just gotta live with what they say.”

Broncos cornerback Pat Surtain II (2) intercepts a pass in the end zone in front of Chargers tight end Jared Cook.
Broncos cornerback Pat Surtain II (2) intercepts a pass in the end zone in front of Chargers tight end Jared Cook in the second half. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Just two snaps later, Joey Bosa sacked Denver’s other quarterback, Drew Lock, who had replaced Bridgewater after the James hit. Lock also fumbled, but Denver wide receiver Tim Patrick recovered.

The Chargers’ offense found some much-needed success just before halftime following James’ second interception of the season. His diving grab set up the offense at Denver’s 47-yard line.

Justin Herbert completed passes to Keenan Allen for 18 yards and 14 yards as the Chargers moved into the red zone. Herbert then hooked up with Austin Ekeler for a 12-yard touchdown to make it 14-7.

About to receive the second-half kickoff, the Chargers were in position to extend whatever momentum they had just seized. And they dominated the third quarter, running 22 plays to the Broncos’ three.

Yet, the Chargers failed to score when Dustin Hopkins missed a 52-yard field goal and Herbert was picked off in the end zone by Patrick Surtain II two plays into the fourth quarter.

The interception was one of the poorest throws of Herbert’s young career. He attempted to find tight end Jared Cook but threw short.

“He's trying to make a play,” Staley said. “He's trying to be aggressive. Their corner made a good play on it.”

Asked if he thought he was being too aggressive, Herbert said, “No, I think I just need to throw a better ball.”

Herbert faced steady pressure all game as Denver made him uncomfortable mostly using only four-man rushes. Herbert was sacked three times and hit 10 times.

He was operating behind an offensive line missing left guard Matt Feiler, who had played every offensive snap entering Sunday. The veteran missed the game because of an ankle injury.

He was replaced by Senio Kelemete, a free agent the Chargers signed off San Francisco’s practice squad in October. Kelemete, in his ninth NFL season, struggled much of the afternoon and was called for two penalties.

On the right side, the Chargers continue to start Storm Norton at tackle and Michael Schofield at guard. Both are injury replacements, for Bryan Bulaga and Oday Aboushi, respectively.

“We’re playing a lot of different combinations in there,” Staley of the patched-together offensive line. “The continuity up front, that's a real thing.”

Herbert finished 28 for 44 for 303 yards and two touchdowns. He had a second interception when he and Ekeler failed to connect and the ball ended up in Surtain’s hands again.

This time, the rookie cornerback returned the pickoff 70 yards for a touchdown as the Broncos scored twice in fewer than 90 seconds of the fourth quarter to put the game away.

“I thought Justin navigated [the pressure] well,” Staley said. “He made a lot of big plays throwing it. But we just have to play more complete offense around him and play cleaner football.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.