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Here's How the Chargers Have Improved Their Run Defense

FTP 10.26.23

Below are three takeaways from Chargers Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore, Chargers Defensive Coordinator Derrick Ansley, outside linebacker Khalil Mack and defensive tackle Nick Williams following their media availability on Thursday:

Chargers run defense holding up

The Chargers run defense has turned it around in a big way throughout the first part of the season compared to a season ago.

A big emphasis coming into the year following last season's struggles, the unit has shown massive strides through six games so far. The Bolts defense was ranked 28th a season ago, allowing 145.8 yards per game on the ground.

But so far this year, the numbers have turned around a significant amount.

Entering Week 8, the Chargers defense ranks 11th in the NFL in yards allowed per game with 96.8 — nearly a 50-yard decrease from just a season ago.

Whether it was the returning players from last season or even the new additions to the defensive line, the entire unit continues to try and emphasize stopping the run, as it can lead to favorable situations on that side of the ball.

"I feel like we have gotten a lot better in our run defense," defensive lineman Nick Williams, who's in his first year with the Bolts, said. "You can look at the stats and it'll show you, but it's just all the guys buying into what we're trying to do here, and you can see the results in how we've stopped the run."

"We take a lot of pride in stopping the run because we know that'll give us some wins," Williams later added.

Against some of the big-named running backs in the league over the last three games — Josh Jacobs, Tony Pollard, Isiah Pacheco — the unit has been stout. That trio combined to run 45 times for just 120 rushing yards, good for a 2.67 average per carry.

And they will be tested again this Sunday against a Bears team that has sustained success on the ground.

Chicago comes into Sunday night averaging 171 yards per game on the ground over their last four contests, including the last game and a half without their quarterback Justin Fields, who is a rushing threat himself.

Chicago starting running back Khalil Herbert is on Injured Reserve, and the Bears played in Week 7 without rookie Roschon Johnson — and yet still had a big day on the ground. Led by D'Onta Foreman, the group finished their last game with 173 yards.

No matter who will be out there in Week 8 for the Bears, Chargers Defensive Coordinator Derrick Ansley knows the run defense will need to be stout once again to limit the Chicago offense.

"They were first in the league in rushing offense last year with Justin [Fields]," Ansley said. "That trend has kind of continued this year even with Justin being out.

"Again, they had over 180 yards against the Raiders, and the Raiders have a really good front," Ansley added. "We've got to do a good job of battling, we've got to strike blocks, we've got to set edges and we've got to get the secondary support and get multiple hats to the ball. It'll be a fun challenge."

Chicago ranks fifth overall in the league in that department and have made it work with whoever is in the backfield so far.

It'll take an all-around effort to stop the Chicago run game from not only the defensive line, but also a big game for the edge rushers, as the Bears mix it up and get their wide receivers involved as well.

"They mix power, gap schemes and zone. They do a good job of mixing it up," Ansley said. "They get the receivers involved, too, with the jet sweeps. They have a bunch of guys that can run. From our breakdown, they have four guys that have toted the ball from the jet-sweep position, so we have to do a good job of setting edges and running to the ball because they have guys that can run."

Williams added: "They get a lot of skill players to touch the ball over there, so they're able to run it. It's just up for us to play all of our keys and knock it out."

Check out the best photos from the Chargers Wednesday practice at Hoag Performance Center

Growing roles for Johnston, Davis

The pair of rookie wide receivers out of TCU have each provided another element for the Chargers offense so far.

First-round pick Quentin Johnston and fourth-round pick Derius Davis have come in and played their roles, with Johnston on the outside and Davis doing it on the ground and through the air.

Fellow wide receiver Joshua Palmer has not participated in practice this week so far with a knee injury, meaning both Johnston and Davis could be relied upon a bit more on Sunday depending on Palmer's availability.

The numbers aren't eye-popping for the two TCU products on offense so far, but they have each provided a nice jolt in the quick game — something Chargers Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore hopes to get Johnston involved in more as he goes as well.

"I think Derius has done an excellent job," Moore said. "He started in a smaller package and it's kind of gotten a little bigger each week.

"He's certainly earned those opportunities because he's made plays, he's converted things into first downs," Moore added.

Moore continued: "Q is another guy that we'd like to utilize in that same realm. Certainly, he's a guy that we'll continue to build things for as he develops in his career, but he's done a nice job as well."

And even though the receptions and yardage for Johnston haven't been there on paper to start his NFL career, Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley added some praise for the rookie receiver earlier in the week pointing to specific aspects of his performance in Week 7 where he showed growth.

"Improvement from Dallas to Kansas City," Staley said Monday. "Felt him on the completion, beating press."

"I feel like his alignment and assignment are improving. He's playing with confidence," Staley later added. "I thought that yesterday was a step forward for him. If he continues to take the practice field the way that he has, you're going to continue to see the improvement. Like I said, that is all that he needs to be focused on."

The Chargers offense as a whole, in the run game and in the pass game, has not been as consistent as they'd hoped over the last three weeks due to a myriad of factors, allowing opposing pressure to mess with the rhythm of the unit.

But it's part of the way an NFL season goes — it's about how you solve any problems that may arise.

"It's certainly a thing that you evaluate the process from a schematic standpoint," Moore said. "I'm going to spend most of my time on the schematic aspect of it. Can we help give ourselves better opportunities? From a play-calling standpoint, can we help our guys out?

"There are some things that we've considered this week that potentially could help us," Moore added. "That's part of the process throughout the season. It's a problem-solving job. Things come up throughout the season and it's about addressing those things. Then, something else will come up. That's just how seasons go. Certainly, we would like to clean this thing up a little bit based off the last two weeks."

Mack set to face another former team

For the second time in four games, Khalil Mack will see some familiar colors on the opposing sideline.

In Week 4, Mack put up a franchise-record 6.0 sacks against the Raiders, the team that drafted him fifth overall in the 2014 NFL Draft.

This week, the Bears are in town as the Bolts outside linebacker gets ready to face the team he spent four seasons with from 2018 to 2021.

Mack racked up 36.0 total sacks in 53 career games with the Bears, but noted Chicago's roster has turned over quite a bit since he was traded to the Chargers in the spring of 2022.

"I don't think it's emotions," Mack said. "You're just familiar with certain guys on the other side. Of course, I have the relationships … those are my brothers over there. A few of them, anyway."

Mack mentioned safety Eddie Jackson, cornerback Jaylon Johnson, wide receiver Darnell Mooney, quarterback Justin Fields as his "little brothers."

Mack is tied for fourth in the NFL with 7.0 sacks this season. He added that he wants to beat the Bears not because it's a former team, but because it's the Chargers next opponent and the team needs to snap a two-game skid.

"It's always good to see them, but we've got a job to do on Sunday," Mack said. "That's to win the ballgame."

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