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Chargers Mailbag: How the Bolts Can Get Back on Track in Week 3


Welcome back to the Chargers Mailbag!

We'll be running one of these every week during the regular season, so send in submissions for the Mailbag here on Twitter or by sending me an email.

Off we go...

We might as well start here: the fact that the Chargers are 0-2 right now is disappointing.

Coaches aren't happy with it, players are frustrated by it. To a man, however, everyone said after the game they all believe things can be fixed. 

When the schedule comes out each spring, it's only natural for people to go through and pick games and divide the schedule into chunks. Every team has the intention of getting off to a perfect start, but that has not happened so far, and the only thing they can do is fight out of it. 

Let's dive into why that's the case, and how the Bolts can get back on track.

To start, the Chargers have lost two games by five combined points. Losing close games surely doesn't count for any moral victories, but it's also worth noting that the Bolts aren't getting blown out, either.

Right now, they seem like a good team that simply isn't doing enough in all three phases to get a win.

"You've seen the level that we've played at in terms of how hard we've played," said Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley. "Two tough losses. All the way down to the very last play. This is a really mature group. It's a connected group. Again, we're just at the beginning."

I've always held the belief that while it's tough to win games in the NFL, it's easy to lose them … if that makes sense.

Put another way, teams have to do so many correct things to get a victory, while one or two mistakes can erase all of that hard work in the blink of an eye.

Take last Sunday for example.

The Bolts went up 11-0 and immediately gave up a 70-yard pass play. In the second half, the Chargers had opportunities to put the game away, but you have to give credit to the opponent. The Titans did more in the end to win, but the Chargers know with tweaks this can turn. 

If you're looking for an optimistic take (and why wouldn't you be), I'll offer this:

There's still a lot of football left to be played. And despite the 0-2 hole, the Bolts remain within one game in the AFC West entering Week 3.

Not all 0-2 teams are created equal in my mind. For example, the Chargers being 0-2 is probably different than the Bengals having the same record with a minus-24 point differential, a two-game disadvantage in their division and a quarterback who re-injured his calf muscle.

Josh's inquiry above brings up the slow starts of the past, but this is also the first time the Chargers have been 0-2 since 2017.

Can the Bolts turn it around? Of course. As Sky mentioned in his tweet above there is plenty of talent on this roster.

Look, the Bolts defense hasn't lived up to expectations so far through two games. Nobody is denying that.

"It's always tough to lose. I don't think there's some magical answer that people keep asking," Joey Bosa said. "I think it's the little things that every single one of us needs to do a little better.

"Few plays here, few plays there, being a little smarter, some penalties or whatever it is, I think we come away with a victory. 

And the biggest area that need to be fixed are the explosive plays allowed by the defense, something that Staley and others have said so far.

The Bolts led 21-17 late in the fourth quarter, and a final defensive stand might have been enough to seal the deal. Instead. It took just one play for Tennessee to get into the red zone and take the lead six plays later.

Again, the Chargers defense isn't playing poorly all game long. There are just lapses here and there that are making it tough for the team to put it all together and get a win.

Here is what Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley said Monday when asked about defending deep passes.

"When we talk about defensive football or just football in general, explosive plays are one of the biggest determining factors of winning and losing," Staley said. "Respecting the deep part of the field is at the very core of how we play. Then, trying to get there on offense.

"[Sunday], both of those plays were tough lessons where we're in a split-safety defense. We just didn't play with the right technique and leverage on those two particular plays," Staley added. "I said it after the game, it's just knowing the players on the field who can get there and making sure that we respect it accordingly. Those were the two big plays in the game that we gave up. We have to make improvements there."

That won't be an easy task against the Vikings and Justin Jefferson, who is perhaps the league's most dynamic receiver.

But I'll end with this tidbit and some much needed perspective (isn't that what I am here for?!)

A year ago, national pundits expected the 49ers to run all over the Bolts in Week 10, and for the Dolphins to chuck it all over the field against the Chargers in Week 14.

Both times, Staley delivered a masterful game plan.The NFL is a week-to-week league, I have full confidence in the people in this building and all the players and coaches have full belief this is going to turn.

There is no doubt Kenneth Murray, Jr. took a strong step in the right direction on Sunday.

And his performance carried even more weight considering the fact that he wore the green dot and was playing without Eric Kendricks next to him.

Murray tallied 10 total tackles and two tackles for loss along with a sack and quarterback hit, drawing praise from Staley for his all-around effort.

"I thought that it was Kenneth Murray's best game since I've been the coach," Staley said. "I thought that he had a winning performance. I thought his communication was outstanding in the game.

"His physicality and toughness were outstanding in the game. I thought he gave us pass rush. There was just a lot of positives to take away from his performance," Staley added. "One of those performances — especially considering the running back, I felt like that was a really good matchup in the game, him matching up against [Derrick] Henry. I have a lot of respect for the way that he played yesterday."

Hopefully this will be a building block for Murray going forward. He's always had the talent and work ethic to play like he did Sunday.

Credit new linebackers coach Jeff Howard for helping Murray play a great game. That tandem should continue to improve going forward.

No, I don't think that is in the cards. Nor should it be.

Let me as clear as I can here: one of the strengths of this team is the offensive line.

The other team gets paid too, and Jeffrey Simmons, Tear Tart and Denico Autry are all extremely talented. Did they get home in some instances? Yes.

But a few things on that:

First, Keep in mind that the interior trio of Zion Johnson, Corey Linsley and Jamaree Salyer have still only played two games together in their current spots.Johnson and Salyer are in new positions than a season ago, which means they also have to keep developing a respective rapport with Rashawn Slater and Trey Pipkins III at tackle.

The Chargers offense currently ranks fifth in EPA per play at 0.102. And Linsley's pass-block win-rate was 100 percent Sunday. Slater and Pipkins, meanwhile, were tied for the third-best run-block win rate at 91 percent in Nashville. In 86 pass-blocking snaps this season, Slater has allowed a total of 1 pressure coming off a season-ending injury. 

What does this all mean? That this is a very strong unit. Let's give it time.

My guess here is that you are referring to a pair of fourth-downs against the Titans.

The first was when the Bolts had fourth-and-1 at the Titans 44 and punted it away early in the second quarter. And the second was when the Chargers had fourth-and-2 at their own 42 early in the fourth quarter.

Staley was asked Monday about the latter of the two, where a Bolts punt was followed up by a three-and-out from the Chargers defense.

"We felt like field position was critical in the game. Just kind of outside the fringe of us being able to go for it," Staley said. "It was a long two. We felt like it was a long two, almost three. Our defense was playing at a high level.

"We felt like flipping the field there based on the point in the game would give us an advantage. I thought we executed the punt," Staley added. "Defensively, we were able to get the three-and-out and get the ball back to Justin [Herbert] with good field position."

We're at the point now where every decision Staley makes on fourth down is going to be overanalyzed simply because of his history on the down.

And while those plays can be debated all day, the Chargers did go for — and were successful on — three other fourth-down calls throughout the game.

So, it's not as if the Bolts have abandoned their aggression on that down all together. They are simply just being a little choosier about when they leave their offense on the field.

I'd chalk that up to the fact that the Chargers have a better special teams unit than they did back in Staley's first season, and that he believes in his defensive players to get the job done after they punt it away.

Multiple questions about both of these players so let's tackle it here.

With Austin Ekeler out Sunday, Spiller was active against the Titans and ended up playing four snaps on offense and none on special teams. He had one carry for four yards.

Elijah Dotson, meanwhile, had six total touches that went for 19 combined yards and played nine offensive snaps, plus 10 on special teams.

At this point, I think it's safe to say that the coaching staff believes Dotson offers more on special teams, which is one way for a player to be active on game days.

Dotson also seems to be making as case to be the Bolts No. 3 running back, but we'll have to keep monitoring the snap counts and playing time as we go.

As far as Johnston goes, he played 22 snaps against Miami and 10 against Tennessee.

For those of you wondering why he's not playing 50 snaps a game, it shouldn't be a surprise because that was never going to be his role, especially this early in the season.

The Chargers have three proven NFL receivers in Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Joshua Palmer. They are clearly the top three on the depth chart and in the rotation.

Johnston will be relied upon in certain packages, including the red zone, where he nearly came down with his first NFL score with one hand in Nashville.

Staley on Monday said that he wasn't concerned with Johnston and that bringing him along at his own pace was always part of the plan.

"He is continuing to improve," Staley said. "Like I said, we have three outstanding receivers and we're going to feature those guys.

"He's going to continue to improve as we go on," Johnston added. "He'll earn more and more playing time the more that he continues to show up on the practice field and in the games, getting into a rhythm. I like where he has progressed."

Not all rookies come in and flash right away, especially at receiver. The best long-term plan for Johnston is for him to keep adapting and growing his role as his rookie season goes along.

I wouldn't miss this game for the world.

For those of you who don't know, I spent almost seven years with the Vikings before joining the Chargers organization 15 months ago.

And while making that move was one of the best decisions I've ever made both personally and professionally, that doesn't mean I don't miss certain things about Minnesota.

There are wonderful friends and co-workers I spent a half-dozen years with that I can't wait to catch up with Saturday night and Sunday morning before the game.

There are players who let me tell incredible stories that I hope to say hello to if the timing is right. And U.S. Bank Stadium will always hold a special place in my heart.

So many monumental things happened when I was with the Vikings that I really did grow up during my time in purple.

There were some tough life moments like when my mom passed away. But I also got engaged and married, plus had my daughter all while working for the Vikings.

I do not miss the brutal winters and am very happy this game was scheduled in September. I do expect there to be some laughs and maybe a few emotions on Sunday.

But I will proudly be rocking a powder blue tie and a Chargers lapel pin on my suit. Bolt Up!

Bolt Up!

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