The Los Angeles Chargers are coming off the best moral victory in team history. I’m normally not one for moral victories, but the value of discovering just how high of a ceiling Justin Herbert has is exponentially higher than losing this past week to the defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs. Now, Herbert will look to get the first actual win of his career against the Carolina Panthers.
We all knew that the Panthers were going to look much different than in years past. Obviously, they hired head coach Matt Rhule away from Baylor, but most of their core from past teams is gone as well. Outside of Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, and Shaq Thompson, this is a completely different cast of characters for them. And now McCaffrey is dealing with a high ankle sprain and will miss the next four to six weeks.
You never root for injuries to happen, but McCaffrey’s absence is a HUGE break for the Chargers this week. He is arguably the most versatile offensive player in the league, and the Chargers scheme tends to give openings to running backs in the short passing game. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that there was a possibility to see McCaffrey get over 100 yards receiving in this game.
They will have to move forward with Mike Davis, who has mostly been a backup so far in his career. His best season happened in 2018 with the Seattle Seahawks when he had 112 carries for 514 yards (4.6 per carry) and four touchdowns. He also added 34 catches for 214 yards (6.3 per receptions) and one touchdown. No offense to Mr. Davis, but to say that’s a big step down is an understatement.
For the Chargers this week, a lot of their success will depend upon the progress of their rookie quarterback. Offensive Coordinator Shane Steichen said in his press conference on Wednesday that they had to cut the playbook in half once they found out Herbert was going to start last week. Maybe that was a good thing, as it made it simpler for the young quarterback, but now he will have a full week of preparation and reps as the starter. How much they open things up for him will be very interesting to watch.
That being said, here are the three most important matchups of the week.
Austin Ekeler and Joshua Kelley vs the Panthers’ Linebackers and Safeties
The Chargers seem to have found their preferred running back duo going forward. Justin Jackson missed this past week’s game with a quad injury and rookie Joshua Kelley stepped up in a big way. He wasn’t super efficient on the ground but he had 23(!!) carries for 64 yards and added two catches for 49 yards, including a 35-yard catch and run on the opening drive.
Austin Ekeler was back to his hyper-efficient self, he gained 93 yards on 16 carries and added four catches for 55 yards. That adds up to 261 total scrimmage yards for the duo last week. That kind of success should continue against the Panthers.
The Panthers knew that with Teddy Bridgewater and their supporting cast that they would be able to put up points. The defense, however, is going through a total rebuild. They spent all of their draft picks on that side of the ball, and it has shown through two weeks so far. Specifically, they have really struggled against running backs. On opening day they were absolutely gashed by Josh Jacobs. Jacobs totaled 139 scrimmage yards and scored three times. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it was more of the same. Leonard Fournette has never really been an efficient running back and he had over 100 yards on just 12 carries last week.
That is the result of having such a young group on defense. They have really struggled to make tackles in space, particularly against Jacobs. I like Jeremy Chinn and Derek Brown a lot, but they need time to develop and that will take time. For now, I expect Ekeler and Kelley to both have big days this week. Kelley’s efficiency should return to the norm, I’d be shocked if he averaged under three yards per carry again this week. Also, I’d expect a few more designed runs for Herbert as well.
Casey Hayward, Chris Harris, and Michael Davis vs D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson
The development of the relationship between Bridgewater and his two main receivers has actually been quite impressive. The Panthers’ passing game has gotten off to a scorching start, and a lot of that has been due to the addition of Robby Anderson. He has brought a new level to this defense, and Bridgewater is showing a willingness to take more shots deep to his new toy at a higher frequency than we’ve seen in years past.
Anderson leads the team in receiving so far, but D.J. Moore is not far behind. Together the pair have a combined 27 catches for 397 yards and a single touchdown from Anderson. They’re going to be hyper-productive all season long, especially as this team leans on the passing game during McCaffrey’s absence.
The two each present their own challenges to opposing defenses. Moore is one of the better route runners in the league and has improved each season. He makes a living with the intermediate routes and works the middle of the field particularly well. They like to move him around a lot to try and find mismatches, whether that be in the slot or out wide.
Anderson is a known commodity as a field stretcher. His speed is right up there with the best of them. He’s explosive after the catch and the Panthers do a good job of giving opportunities to use his speed with the deep routes as well as the short catch and run routes. Anderson works primarily out of the slot for the Panthers, similarly to how the Chargers have used that Jalen Guyton/Travis Benjamin role.
It’s going to be very interesting to see how the Chargers go about defending this duo. Michael Davis has improved a lot this season, but his tackling in space still makes me nervous and both of these receivers are very explosive after the catch. Chris Harris Jr. and Casey Hayward are a spectacular cover duo in their own right, but both have had their struggles against legitimate deep threats like Anderson, and that worries me a little. The Chiefs were able to take control of the game on Sunday after Patrick Mahomes got Tyreek Hill going and they capped that off with a huge 50+ yard touchdown, which gave them all the momentum. The Chargers HAVE to do a better job against Anderson this week, otherwise, the game will be in danger.
Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and Uchenna Nwosu vs Russell Okung
I couldn’t write about this game and NOT talk about Russell Okung. The former Wakanda Tech (Sunday Night Football joke) standout had a really up and down tenure in Los Angeles. He was fantastic in 2017, his first season for the Chargers. That year he returned to the Pro Bowl for the second time. In 2018, he was pretty inconsistent, but still played 15 games and was a stalwart for the team. Then, of course, he had a pulmonary embolism and was never truly healthy this past season. The Chargers had a vision to build a younger offensive line in 2020, which seems to be paying off, and part of that included trading Okung to the Panthers in exchange for Trai Turner. So far, Okung has been solid. When you watch the film you can tell he’s certainly got his struggles, he’s given up one sack and five pressures so far.
The matchup is going to be incredible to watch because the Chargers trio of edge rushers have gotten off to such a hot start. Joey Bosa leads the league in total pressures, with 17. Uchenna Nwosu seems to be getting his legs under him as well, he’s got eight total pressures. Melvin Ingram hasn’t had a great start in terms of pass-rushing, but he’s continually making plays in the run game and has an interception and another pass break up.
Matchups with former teammates, especially older offensive linemen, tend to go in favor of the defense because they know how to attack that specific matchup. I expect the level of play for the Chargers to continue and for them to have another good day on Sunday. The key thing for this unit is carrying the first half production over to the second half, which is an area where I would love to see the Chargers blitz more often. The blitz calls have been sprinkled in but without McCaffrey, I would hope that defensive coordinator Gus Bradley would ramp things up a bit more.
Overall, the Chargers should win this game. The loss of McCaffrey is huge. That being said, as well as Herbert played on Sunday you just never know with rookie quarterbacks sometimes. IF they are able to keep up the kind of offensive efficiency from this past week and the defense is able to limit Anderson a little bit, I like their chances. I’ll say the Chargers win, 24 to 20.