Welcome to the Chargers Mailbag! I'm Senior Writer Eric Smith, and I answer questions from the Bolt Fam each and every week.
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Off we go…
Yes, the Chargers can potentially clinch a postseason spot Monday night.
Not many people would have thought that after a Week 13 loss to the Raiders. But back-to-back Bolts wins over the Dolphins and Titans — combined with losses from other teams — means the Chargers could punch their ticket in Indianapolis.
The full breakdown of how they can clinch can be found here, and that also includes a full breakdown of the AFC playoff picture.
Do I expect Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley to rest players if we clinch? No.
There's still seeding to be sorted out, and I imagine players and coaches would want to end the year with momentum rather than with players on the bench. But that's just my take.
Now, as for the most improved player, a few names come to mind, including Joshua Palmer, Kenneth Murray, Jr., Joshua Kelley, Alohi Gilman, Drue Tranquill and Breiden Fehoko.
But I'm going to go with Michael Davis.
That might be odd considering he's played in 87 career games, including 58 starts, and earned a multi-year contract after his rookie deal.
But Davis had an up-and-down 2021 campaign and said in training camp that he wasn't happy with how he played.
He then had to battle for a role in camp and the preseason due to a crowded cornerback room and wasn't a starter on the depth chart once the season began.
But he's been pressed back into a starting role over the last two months and has thrived of late, rising to the occasion and being one of the Bolts best defensive players. Since Week 9, he leads all NFL cornerbacks with 10 forced incompletions.
I chatted with Davis a few weeks ago about what he was focusing on and he gave a simple answer: Effort.
If you play hard, he said, good things usually happen. That's been the case for Davis, and the entire Chargers offense, in recent weeks.
I know it feels like they haven't scored a point in the third quarter all season, but they have. As recently as Week 14 with a field goal against Miami.
But if we're talking touchdowns, then yes, that streak is a bit lengthy. It goes back to Week 5 against the Browns, which feels like forever ago over the course of an NFL season.
Have the Chargers talked about it? Of course.
They've gone over it in meetings, on the practice field and have also addressed it during media availabilities.
It's no secret the Bolts want to break that streak ASAP.
I actually thought they had a chance to do so Sunday, especially after an interception gave them the ball in Titans territory, but the offense turned the ball over a few plays later.
The key to ending the skid, as Staley said Monday, is to play clean football by eliminating penalties and mental miscues.
I'll end with a bit of a bold prediction: the Chargers will find the end zone in the third quarter against the Colts.
I got a few variations of this question from multiple fans.
And I get it. The expectation was that a healthy offense was going to light up a Titans defense that was ranked second-to-last in passing yards allowed.
First off, Mike Vrabel is an excellent coach and isn't going to let that happen to easily. Second, the Titans played a scheme with two deep safeties that took away the deep part of the field … and long pass attempts.
Staley said the offense could have played better in Week 15. But here's how he described how the Chargers adapted as Sunday wore on:
"You can't go broke making a profit. I think that's something that every player has to have the discipline to play the game the way you need to play it — not the way you want to play it," Staley said. "It's not a secret to everybody in the NFL that Justin Herbert can throw the football down the field. Everybody is watching the same movie you are. They don't want to give up a knockout punch.
"We have to be patient. We have to keep scripting for success. We're searching for the explosions the best way we know how, but if they're not there, we're heading to Plan B fast," Staley added. "That's going to add up to a lot of yardage for us and that's going to add up to us scoring the football better. That's what we have to do moving forward."
If teams are going to eliminate the big play, the Chargers will have to pick up shorter gains to get down the field. That's OK though, Herbert is talented enough to win that way, too.
Speaking of Herbert…
There's a whole list of plays to choose from here. Given that this is my first season with the team, I'm going to limit it to 2022, even though his highlight reel grows by the week.
Obviously, his throw to Mike Williams at the end of the game Sunday is up there. As is his touchdown pass to DeAndre Carter in Week 1.
But I'm going to go with a non-touchdown pass. And that's his dart deep over the middle to Carter in the fourth quarter of Week 2 in Kansas City.
The guy could barely run and was in an immense amount of pain. Yet he uncorked a throw that only a handful of people on the entire planet could make.
My jaw dropped after that one.
I can't speak to what the punt coverage plan was like a year ago since I wasn't here.
Yet I can tell you that the Bolts entire punt coverage operation is among the best in the league, with Deane Leonard and Ja'Sir Taylor playing a key part in that.
Entering Week 16, the Bolts rank first by allowing 3.4 yards per punt return. And they are a full 2.2 yards better than the Steelers, who are in the second spot.
Josh Harris has been vital to that operation as the long snapper, and JK Scott is having a Pro-Bowl season in my mind with his combination of accuracy and hang time.
But Leonard and Taylor are the final pieces with their coverage ability. Both have been excellent at gunner this year, and the fact that they're both rookies is incredible.
If the Chargers do make it into the playoffs, winning the field position battle on punt coverage can sometimes be the edge a team needs to get a tough win.
I love this question!
Ficken is my guy, and I've now worked with him for all seven of my seasons in the NFL.
When he called me this spring to say he was going to the Chargers, I was crushed.
But when I called him to say that I was also going to the Chargers, he was fired up.
Off the field, he's just a great dude and has always been welcoming and helpful to me.
On the field, he's evolved into a great special teams coordinator after so many years as an assistant.
I think he's brought a level of accountability and trust to that phase, and is someone the players really respect and can relate to.
When I wrote this story on him last month, numerous players said they simply appreciated how Ficken's door is always open and he's always available for them.
And Ficken himself said the credit needs to go to the players, now him.
"I wanted to make sure we created an environment where we're very transparent and honest. But the biggest thing I wanted to do was create leadership on special teams," Ficken said in early November. "This is about them, not me or anyone else. It's about the team and the players. I wanted them to have a say in it."
Creating a strong culture is about making it about the people around you, not yourself.
Ficken has done exactly that this season — not to mention guide three different kickers — all while transforming the culture for the Bolts.
No update on Bosa as of Monday afternoon.
Again, Staley has said he's recently looked good in individual drills and that the next step is a return to practice.
The earliest that could happen is Thursday, as the Bolts have an altered practice schedule this week with a Monday game.
It remains a waiting game with Bosa's status.
That will do it for this week.
As always, you can find me on Twitter at @Eric_L_Smith and submit your questions for the Chargers Mailbag.
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