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Final Thoughts: Bolts Focused on Fast Start Against 49ers

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Welcome to Week 10 in primetime.

Here are five final thoughts ahead of the Chargers-49ers matchup:

1. Start fast

Get off the bus and be ready to go.

That's the message the Chargers have preached all week in advance of Sunday's primetime game against the 49ers on Sunday Night Football.

The Bolts have been hampered by slow starts over the past month, falling behind by double digits in four consecutive game. The Chargers have been outscored 51-3 in the first quarter in the past four games.

Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley said this week that the focus on starting fast has been brought up in practice, where the Bolts have altered things a bit in the hopes of a faster start.

"I think I made the point after the game, but just structuring your practice," Staley said. "Making a couple of adjustments where we are out there as a team faster and making a couple of adjustments that way where early in the practice, you are in team [drills] and you are going. Maybe do that a little bit more, I think.

"Starting [Wednesday], we made a couple of adjustments that way to focus on it, just like we had some adjustments that we made coming out of halftime," Staley added. "I want to make sure that our players know that we're going to make that a point of emphasis. Hopefully, we can start faster. I know that hasn't happened in the last four games and I think our guys know that."

Chargers Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi said: "We're getting into team periods earlier and just reinforcing that idea of like, 'Hey, let's go. It's time to go and let's be ready to play.'"

Is there a reason for the slow starts?

Staley and others said this week that it simply comes down to execution.

"Play better and call better plays," Lombardi said. "I don't know if there is a magic formula. You just have to get off the bus ready to go. I'm not saying that they haven't been ready.

"It may just be random," Lombardi added. "It's hard to put a finger on it and say, 'This is why it has happened.' The better you play early, the less that will happen and just finding a way to make that happen."

The Bolts have managed to survive their slow starts of late, winning three of the past four games where they trailed early.

But they know that's a dangerous game to play against San Francisco, a team that prefers to run the ball offensively and generate a pass rush on defense with a lead.

If there was a week for the Bolts to start fast, this is it.

Check out the best photos of the Chargers Thursday practice at Hoag Performance Center

2. Ekeler's recent surge

Lombardi gave Austin Ekeler a little bit of a history lesson this week … but in a good way.

The Bolts running back has been red-hot over his past five games, scoring 10 total touchdowns and racking up 589 yards from scrimmage.

Lombardi this week was asked about Ekeler's recent touchdown surge, noting that all but one of them came inside the red zone.

Lombardi recalled hearing about Hall of Fame running back Paul Hornung, who also had a nose for the end zone inside the 20-yard line. (Hornung scored 62 career touchdowns, 52 of which came in the red zone).

"I think that he's stronger than you think for his size. Good feel, smart player," Lombardi said of Ekeler. "He had never heard of Paul Hornung — I remember my grandfather saying that Paul Hornung was a good back — but when he got inside the 20, he was the best back in the NFL.

"Something comes alive in that guy when he gets inside the 20," Lombardi continued. "He's just an all-around good player.

"I don't know if you can put your finger on it. I told him that he didn't have to wait until we were inside the 20 to do some of those special things," Lombardi later added. "He's a good back everywhere. It's been fun to watch him make those plays inside the 20, for sure."

Ekeler, for his part, said he didn't start watching the NFL until his junior year of college so he wouldn't have known who most football players were.

He's just happy his touchdown have allowed the Bolts to win four of five games and be in contention.

"We're finding a way to get these games won, and that's what it comes down to," Ekeler said. "The NFL is hard. It's not like you're going to come out and win every game by two scores.

"That's not how this league works, especially when you have some injuries and are a little inconsistent," Ekeler added.

3. A pair of premium matchups

Keep your eye on a pair of high-caliber matchups Sunday evening when the Chargers on defense.

The first is safety Derwin James, Jr., against tight end George Kittle.

The two know each other well from joint practices last summer, when their 1-on-1 matchups were must watch.

"Man, it was fun. Every 1-on-1 rep we had, — run game or pass game — it was a battle," James said. "We both even said it to each other, 'Let's keep going and challenging each other to get better.' I respect his game and he respect my game."

Will the two see a lot of each other at Levi's Stadium?

"I can't give you the gameplan," James said with a smile. "But I hope."

In the trenches, keep an eye on outside linebacker Khalil Mack against left tackle Trent Williams.

Both are elite players at their respective positions, and Mack said Friday that he's amped up to face Williams.

"It's going to be good to go up against a guy like that," Mack said. "There are all types of intangibles when you think about football, and I feel like he has all of them.

"He can exert his will on everybody," Mack added. "He's a hell of a competitor. It's always fun going up against other good guys. It's going to be fun. I can't wait."

Mack faced Williams in 2017 when he was with the Bears, but the sack he registered wasn't to Williams side.

The battle between those two should be intense.

"Trent is one of the best in the game. I've competed against him in the past," Staley said. "He's as good as it gets. He's playing as well as he ever has. He's one of those rare NFL players who has rare engineering."

All four of those players, by the way — James, Kittle, Mack and Williams — have made at least one All-Pro Team in their respective careers.

4. Dicker to be the kicker

Good thing Ryan Ficken has his ducks in a row.

The Chargers special teams coordinator said Thursday that he always keeps a list handy of potential free agents that could be looked at if the team is in a pinch.

That was the case last week when kicker Taylor Bertolet, who was already filling in for Dustin Hopkins, injured his quad in practice.

Ficken checked his list and the Bolts added Cameron Dicker, who promptly made two extra points and two field goals against Atlanta — including a 37-yarder at the buzzer to win it.

"We have our rankings," Ficken said Thursday. "You turn over every rock you can.

"We watched him in the offseason coming out and thought very highly of him," Ficken added on Dicker.

Dicker, by the way, will kick again this week with both Hopkins and Bertolet still banged up.

"I'm excited for our guys to go out there and compete and hopefully contribute to another win," Ficken said.

5. Who starts at right tackle?

The Chargers have used four different starting offensive line combinations this season through eight games.

Half of them have featured the group of Jamaree Salyer, Matt Feiler, Corey Linsley, Zion Johnson and Trey Pipkins III.

But the Bolts could be in line for a fifth starting unit, as Pipkins is questionablefor Sunday night's game against the 49ers with a knee injury.

Staley said Friday that Pipkins worked off to the side Friday and has a chance to play.

"We wanted to at least get him out there so he would have a chance to play and see how he feels," Staley said. "Definitely questionable, game-time decision, but I'm proud of the way he's given himself a chance."

If Pipkins can't go, either Storm Norton or Foster Sarell will start.

"We have a direction that we're leaning, but we have a lot of time between now and Sunday night," Staley said. "We'll use all that time and make a decision before game time."

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