X marks the Chargers' spot for Mike Williams' good start

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Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams (81) breaks away from Washington Football Team cornerback William Jackson (23) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams had eight catches against the Washington Football Team in their season opener, this one before William Jackson pursues. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

The Chargers’ new offense has put Mike Williams in the “X receiver” position, a spot that typically gets a lot of opportunities.

When assured by the coaching staff that the ball would find him this season, Williams said he expressed his gratitude.

“I was like, ‘I appreciate you,’ ” he recalled this week. “It can’t happen at a better time.”

Williams is in the final year of his rookie contract, meaning a big season would translate into a big payoff. Asked specifically if that was the good timing to which he was referring, Williams smiled.

“I wasn’t saying it as that,” he said. “I was just saying for this team and this offense it couldn’t come at a better time for us to make plays, go on a playoff run and win the Super Bowl.”

Either way, the Chargers would be just fine with Williams producing more performances like the one he had Sunday in their season-opening 20-16 victory at Washington.

The fifth-year wideout set a career high with eight catches for 82 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Justin Herbert targeted Williams 12 times, which was one shy of tying the most in his career.

“It felt good to have the ball in my hands,” Williams said. “So, I mean, we got to continue to keep it rolling.”

That production came on a day that included Williams dropping what would have been another touchdown pass, in the third quarter.

“It was a missed opportunity,” he said. “I made up for it, made a couple plays after that. But, coming out this week, you gotta make those plays. … That one play might change the game.”

Coach Brandon Staley said Herbert’s response to the dropped pass also was key. Herbert and Williams connected on what turned out to be the winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

“The way he is at quarterback, he ignites you when you have a drop,” Staley said. “He’s going right back to you. … He kept going back to Mike, and Mike ended up making a bunch of big plays.”

The “X receiver” typically lines up on the short side of the field, meaning there is less room to maneuver. This puts an emphasis on the receiver playing with more physicality.

Williams is 6-foot-4, 218 pounds. His ability to jump above defenders is well chronicled. This new position allows him to use his body in other ways to create space and give Herbert a target.

“This guy’s going to be a weapon,” Staley said. “This guy’s going to be a featured player.”

New offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi spent 12 years as an assistant with New Orleans. The “X receiver” for the Saints, Michael Thomas, has had at least 92 receptions and 121 targets in each of his first four seasons.

Williams’ career highs are 49 catches and 90 targets, both coming in 2019. He also set a career best with 1,001 yards that season.

Under the Chargers’ former coaching staff, the offense struggled at times to involve Williams, especially on shorter routes. He was featured right from the start against Washington.

“It’s a new team, a new staff,” Williams said. “Things are getting preached to us different. I feel like we got great leaders at the top. … I feel like Coach Staley is doing a good job with putting the situations in our hands to go out there and be successful.”

On Sunday, the Chargers open their home schedule against Dallas at 1:25 p.m. at SoFi Stadium. The Cowboys are coming off a 31-29 loss at Tampa Bay on Thursday night.

Williams was asked this week about Dallas’ defense, particularly how the Cowboys defend the pass. They finished 11th in the NFL last season.

“I watched some of their game,” Williams said. “Tampa Bay’s receivers looked like they were having some fun out there, though.”

Staley game ball

Staley presented three game balls after the victory in Washington — to Herbert, safety Derwin James Jr. and wide receiver Keenan Allen.

Herbert then gave a fourth game ball to Staley. It was the ball Herbert kept after taking a knee to run out the clock.

Sunday marked Staley’s head coaching debut.

“I thought it was a good idea to go get that one and give it to him because the first one’s always special,” Herbert said. “So I was really happy for him.”

Staley called the exchange in the locker room “an amazing moment.”

“I think that it’s particularly special when your players give you one,” he said. “That means the most to me, when our starting quarterback was able to give me one. … A dream come true that way.”

Injuries

James did not practice Wednesday because of a toe problem, according to the team’s injury report. Staley spoke to the media before practice and did not mention James’ injury. The head coach won’t address reporters again until Friday. ... Two other starters in the secondary, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. (shoulder) and safety Nasir Adderley (groin), also didn’t practice. Adderley left the game Sunday but was able to return.

Defensive lineman Justin Jones (calf) and edge rusher Kyler Fackrell (knee) also sat out practice. Jones missed time Sunday because of cramping. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga continues to deal with a lower-back problem and did not practice. He was replaced against Washington by Storm Norton, who is expected to start Sunday if Bulaga is unavailable.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.