The vibes around Jack Hammett Sports Complex were electric Thursday morning as the Chargers welcomed the Saints for the first of two joint practices.
The teams practiced against each other for roughly two hours in full pads in Costa Mesa.
The Chargers got a jolt at the start of the session when Austin Johnson made his training camp debut. The defensive tackle passed his physical and is now off the Physically Unable to Perform List.
"Yeah, you saw him out there today. It's a big addition to the group. He has worked really hard to come back. It's been a fight," said Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley. "He's just wired the right way. Now, we just have to build back up and make sure that we take our time, but definitely a good sign for us that he is back."
Here are three observations from today's practice:
1. Bolts defense shines vs. Saints
The Chargers defense came ready to play Thursday.
The effort, energy and play making skills from the unit was evident throughout the entire session but was highlighted in a few key areas.
The teams worked on third-down plays near the middle of practice as the Bolts stepped up for three straight plays.
First, Sebastian Joseph-Day crashed into the backfield to stop a Saints third-and-2 run short of the sticks.
Khalil Mack pressured Derek Carr on the ensuing play, which was third-and-5, forcing the quarterback to throw the ball away.
Mack was back in his former teammate's face again on third-and-7 as Carr floated up a pass that was picked off by Derwin James, Jr.
The Bolts defense also looked stout in the red zone later in practice.
With the ball at the 20-yard line, Carr hit Jamaal Williams on a pass but the running back was tackled for a loss of two yards by Chris Rumph II.
Kenenth Murray, Jr. then stuffed a Saints run for a minimal gain before Morgan Fox got to Carr for a sack on third-and-goal from the 7. The Bolts put an exclamation point on the sequence on first-and-goal from the 4 as outstanding coverage forced Carr to throw the ball away.
The Chargers top defense then earned a win in the 2-minute drill to wrap up practice.
Eric Kendricks had a pass breakup early in the drive but the Saints were able to march into field goal range.
But a 51-yard try from Blake Grupe was no good as the Bolts held on for a 23-21 win in the drill.
"Our guys were connected out there. I thought that we were physical," Staley said of the defense. "I thought that we played hard. The technique was good for the most part and the communications was good for the most part."
2. Dicker, Hopkins both kick
The kicking battle between Cameron Dicker and Dustin Hopkins is back on again.
Both kickers took part in practice on Thursday for the first time all camp. Hopkins has been dealing with an undisclosed injury and kicked for the first time since the second day of camp on July 27.
"It was good to get Dustin back," Staley said. "There is still going to be time to let those two duke it out. Now that he's back into practice, that's going to be good for the evaluation, for sure."
The two each attempted six field goals in team periods, beginning with a 33-yard try. The kickers also attempted kicks from 38, 43, 46, 50 and 53 yards out.
Dicker kicked first and made all six of his tries for a perfect day. He has now made 58 of 64 kicks (90.6 percent) of his attempts in camp.
"Cam has been consistent since he first got here on a Thursday last season," Staley said with a laugh. "He is kind of the same guy every day, still improving as a player because he's a young player. He's been very consistent for us."
Hopkins hit his first two tries but was wide left from 43 yards out. He later was good from 46 and 50 yards away but his 53-yard try was no good.
The Chargers offense later ran a 2-minute drill as Justin Herbert moved the unit down to the 30-yard line with just four seconds left.
Hopkins trotted on to attempt a 48-yard try but the Saints called a time out to try and ice him. Hopkins got the kick away anyway and it hit the crossbar.
Given another chance, Hopkins' 48-yard try came up short as the offense lost the drill by two points. Hopkins has now made 10 of his 15 kicks in camp.
3. Chargers offense shows ups and down
Thursday was a mixed bag of results for the Chargers offense.
Besides not being able to win the 2-minute drill, the offense also did not score in the red-zone period of practice.
"Still an area that we need to work on," Keenan Allen said. "Obviously, we need to score in those situations and be able to get our guys the ball."
The Bolts also couldn't convert a fourth-down try earlier in practice. The offense faced third-and-3 from the Saints 42 but a pass to Joshua Palmer near the right sideline came up just short.
The Bolts went for it on fourth-and-1 but were called for holding, which likely would have led to a punt.
Allen was among the standouts, however, as his acrobatic one-handed catch was the play of the day.
The wide receiver, fired up after the catch, tossed the ball into the stands where it was caught by a fan. He was later given a new ball to the crowd's delight.
"Hell of a ball. Herbert put in on a spot, a one-hand catch," Allen said. "It got the juices flowing a little bit. Seemed only right that you give it to a fan."
The Chargers offensive line also looked solid in both 1-on-1 drills and team periods.
Jamaree Salyer was a standout in 1-on-1 drills as he stood up Bryan Bresee and Nathan Shepherd on his pair of reps. Rashawn Slater also won both of his reps against Carl Granderson and Peyton Turner.
Trey Pipkins III and Will Clapp both split their reps. Clapp filled in for veteran center Corey Linsley, who participated in other parts of practice.
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