Below are three takeaways from Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley, wide receiver Keenan Allen and running back Austin Ekeler from Monday's win over the Colts.
Critical down defense leads the way for the Bolts
On a fourth-and-1 from the Chargers 12-yard line, the Colts were knocking on the door of the end zone to start the fourth quarter. The Bolts led 13-3, but an Indianapolis touchdown would change the momentum of the game completely.
The Chargers defense stood tall, stopping the Colts quarterback sneak attempt, forcing a turnover on downs.
The play encapsulated the defensive showcase that the Chargers put on display on Monday Night Football — and that the team has been showing the last three weeks, as they rode to a 20-3 victory over the Colts and clinched their first postseason berth since 2018.
Entering the game, the Bolts defense held their last three opponents to 9-of-32 on third-down opportunities. On Monday, they managed to one-up themselves, as they did not allow the Colts to convert a single third-down attempt in 10 tries — only the second time in the last 30 years the franchise has done so.
"Just got a unit that's really connected out there, a team that's playing extremely hard," Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley said after the game. "Playing extremely disciplined, doing all the things you need to do to put in a dominant effort like that.
"That's certainly what our expectations are in the run game and the pass game, pass rush, gotta-have-it situations, third downs, fourth downs. It was a complete performance," Staley added.
The defensive success on third and fourth-downs have been crucial to the recent surge on that side of the ball, as they are bringing opposing drives to a halt. And they're setting themselves nicely by creating third-and-long situations that require the opposition to pass the ball.
It was evident Monday, as two of the three Chargers interceptions came on third-and-10 plus yards. Being able to put opponents in difficult situations and pouncing on turnovers has been the recipe for success in recent weeks for the team.
The third-down success has also given the offense more wiggle room, as wide receiver Keenan Allen points out that despite the offense not playing as well as they'd like, the defense is giving them a shot to compete.
"0-10 on third down, that just kind of speaks for itself. That's just amazing," Allen said after the game. "It's hard to score points when you can't move on third down. We didn't score as many points as we wanted to, but it didn't matter because the defense played so well.
"If we can just keep complimenting each other like that, keep getting better week-in and week-out, we'll be a tough team to deal with," Allen added.
Complimentary football — that's what the Chargers are playing right now.
The defense is hitting its stride at the right time in many aspects and continues to come together as postseason play awaits them.
"They've been playing lights out these last couple of weeks," running back Austin Ekeler told NFL Network about the defense. "They've been the reason we've been in these games the way we have been, because they've been holding our opponents."
"It's been great. We're going to need that going into the postseason, because we got some good teams in front of us," Ekeler added.
Ekeler's multi-touchdown game
The stat line didn't pop off the page, but Ekeler did what he does best — find the end zone.
Ekeler, who was part of the last Chargers team to make the postseason in 2018, led the way on offense by scoring both touchdowns enroute to the win. His two scores on Monday night put him atop the NFL in total touchdowns with 16.
"I'm thankful because the organization has put trust in me to put the ball in my hands down in the redzone," Ekeler said after the game. "That's from the players, to Joe Lombardi calling the plays.
"I take all that responsibility to make sure I score, so I take it personal when I don't score," Ekeler added.
Both of Ekeler's scores were 1-yard runs, as the team went 2-of-4 scoring touchdowns in the red zone. The veteran running back has a nose for the endzone, he continues to find ways to score.
Despite the two scores, Ekeler finished the game a bit disappointed in his play, but credited the offensive line for making both touchdowns happen.
"I was actually a little disappointed in my play," Ekeler told NFL Network after the game. "But the O-line got us an opportunity and I was able to capitalize a couple times in the redzone.
"Struggled in the middle of the game, getting down there, we had a couple more opportunities," Ekeler added. "But like I said, the O-line opened up a few gaps enough for me to get in there twice, so shout out to the O-line."
In recent weeks, there has been an emphasis on not only on being able to run the ball, but also run the ball in the red zone. This is the second consecutive game that the Chargers offense has scored two touchdowns on the ground inside the 20-yard line, a development that the team has been looking for.
And although they were able to do it again, Ekeler is still looking for ways to maximize even more opportunities, as he notes it is a key component if they want to make a run in the playoffs.
"Need to be more efficient down in the red zone," Ekeler said. "The O-line gave me a couple of opportunities that I need to take advantage of and that I'm going to have to if we're going to make a run we want to run."
Get an inside look at the Chargers celebrating their Week 16, 20-3, win over the Indianapolis Colts that clinched a playoff spot for the Bolts!
Defensive front keeps pressure up
Third downs weren't the only area the Chargers defense dominated in.
The defensive front in particular kept the heat on Colts quarterback Nick Foles the entire game, as they finished with a season-high seven sacks in Monday night's game. It was the most sacks for a Chargers defense in a game since 2016.
Foles and Colts offense found it difficult to do much all night, as the defensive line caused havoc on many of their drop backs.
It was one of their more impressive performances on that front, and Staley believes that it is a cause of the defense coming together at the right time.
"It was a dominant performance," Staley said. "And certainly one that we expect. But I'm really proud of the guys because they've come together and they made it happen.
"Our players deserve all the credit," Staley added.
Defensive lineman Morgan Fox led the way with a pair of sacks, but Khalil Mack, Kyle Van Noy, Kenneth Murray, Jr., Drue Tranquill and Chris Rumph II also each had a sack.
Whether it has been a four-man rush or a timely extra rusher, the defensive line has lived in opposing backfields over the last couple of weeks. During the Bolts three-game win streak, they have sacked the opposing quarterback a total of 13 times.
In all facets of the game, Staley has liked what he's seen from the team—but believes that there is still work to be done on defense and the team as a whole.
"I don't think we've played our best as a team yet," Staley said. "That's still out there for us. But we're exhibiting a lot of the toughness, a lot of the things you need in order to be successful. Taking the football away, being good on third down on defense, keeping a roof on the coverage and tackling well."
"We won the takeaway battle 3-2, which was huge in the game," Staley later added. "We've still got work to do. But I like where we're going."
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