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Final Thoughts: Browns Run Game is Bolts Top Priority in Week 5


Welcome to Week 5.

Here are five final thoughts ahead of the Chargers-Browns matchup:

1. Stop the run

Each week, teams usually say there's a few items on a checklist they must accomplish in order to get a win.

For the Chargers, it's clear what's at the top of that list entering Week 5 against the Browns.

Stop the run.

Let's take a look at some basic numbers before we dive in.

Cleveland ranks second in the league with 187.3 rushing yards per game, with running back Nick Chubb ranking second in the NFL with 459 rushing yards.

The Bolts, meanwhile, are tied for 14th in rushing yards allowed at 109.8 per game.

Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley said besides having a great running back tandem in Chubb and Kareem Hunt, not to mention a stout offensive line, the Browns deploy a unique scheme, too.

"There are a lot of gaps in the running game. [Cleveland] plays with a lot of tight ends," Staley said. "[Browns Offensive Line Coach] Bill Callahan, being the line coach, if you take a look at where Bill has been, wherever he's been — the Jets, Cowboys, Washington, here — they utilize big people in order to run the ball, which isn't normal in today's NFL, where everything is getting smaller, three-receiver groupings. They go the opposite way.

"They are very proficient running the ball with bigger guys in the game. They have a lot of variety in terms of how they run the ball," Staley added. "Then, they have the backs — not only is the scheme good, but then the backs that are hard to tackle. You put that all together and you have a difficult running scheme to defend."

Chargers defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day added: "I just think it challenges us in a way that we just have to be really technique sound. You have to make sure you that we follow our keys and you can't really tee off on anything, you know, you just have to play football and that what makes it challenging. Maybe some teams they give you some hints on how they do things, but they do such a good a good job at keeping it balanced. They do a really good job so you can't really tee off on anything you just got to play true football with them."

Through four games, Cleveland is tied for the NFL lead with 25 explosive runs, which is carries of 10 yards or more.

That's an area the Bolts will be aware of, as the Chargers have allowed a run of at least 50 yards in each of the past two games, with two of them going for touchdowns.

Chargers Defensive Coordinator Renaldo Hill said tackling as a team will be key against Cleveland.

"I think that we have to do a good job of creating levels, too," Hill said. "A lot of times, you see those big runs, you see that everybody is stacked at one level, and when he breaks that level, he's off to the races.

"We have to make sure that we do a good job from the front end to the linebackers stacked back behind him, and then make sure that we keep a triangle on the ball on the back end," Hill added. "Some of those balls that they do pop, we're hoping that we can get it down for eight yards and not let it be a home run."

As we head into Week 5, priority No. 1 for the Chargers will be stopping the run.

Check out the best photos of the Chargers Friday practice at Hoag Performance Center

2. Be strong in the second half

Another area of focus for the Bolts heading to Cleveland?

Trying to get some second-half improvement on both sides of the ball.

Through four games, the Chargers have outscored their opponents 61 to 33 in the first half. But the final two quarters have been flipped, as the Bolts have been outscored 75 to 31 through four games.

Staley said he has a specific eye on the third quarter.

"The third quarter, for us, is where my focus has been because, certainly, in the first quarter of the game, the first half of games, I thought that we've been outstanding," Staley said. "In the third quarter, as a team — not just defensively, as a team — we haven't played well enough, and each of those games has a little bit of a different story.

"We definitely need to take control when we make those adjustments in the second half, making sure that we take the to the field, making sure that we execute," Staley added.

Here's a quick recap of the Chargers third quarters thus far:

Week 1: Chargers 7, Raiders 10

Week 2: Chargers 7, Chiefs 7

Week 3: Chargers 3, Jaguars 15

Week 4: Chargers 0, Texans 7

Offensively, the Bolts have two touchdowns and a field goal so far, but Chargers Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi said he hopes for more consistent production going forward.

"I don't think there is a common thread per se, but I bet you by Week 9, we're going to say things have averaged out," Lombardi said. "That's what you hope. It's something we're emphasizing, that, 'Hey, we have to come out of the half a little more ready to go.'

"It's something we certainly have recognized as being an issue and we're working to fix it," Lombardi added.

3. Herbert thriving on the road

Justin Herbert continues to feel better from his ribs injury, as he threw all three days in practice this week.

That's the first time the Chargers quarterback has done that since he suffered the injury in Week 2.

"It's awfully tough when I don't get to throw. I love throwing the ball more than anyone," Herbert said. "Just not being out there throwing all the time is definitely something that I've had to adjust to.

"I'm getting more comfortable, feeling better and just continuing to get my treatment and my rehab so that I feel my best on Sunday," added Herbert, who ranks third in the league with 1,250 passing yards.

On Sunday, Herbert will look to continue his recent success on the road.

He has thrown for 300-plus yards in seven straight road games, which is one shy of tying the NFL all-time record held by Rich Gannon.

"I just think he is a very mentally strong guy that doesn't let all of the outside noise get to him," Lombardi said this week. "We get a lot of practice on [cadence] stuff and he handles it well.

"I think for his age and experience level, he does a good job handling all of the silent cadences and communicating with guys in a loud environment," Lombardi added. "I can't say that I've got in my mind the difference between him at home or on the road, but, obviously, he does well on the road. It's been good."

A year ago, Herbert and the Chargers played the Browns at home, when the quarterback threw for 398 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.

4. An update on Hopkins

Chargers kicker Dustin Hopkins will be a game-time decision Sunday in Cleveland.

Staley said Friday that Hopkins' quad issue, which popped at the beginning of the week, will be monitored going into the weekend.

"He's been out here. He did some kicking today," Staley said of Hopkins, who was limited all week. "We'll see how it feels before gameday. It will be a game-time decision."

Staley said he is glad Hopkins was able to get some work in this week.

"He did some kicking today. He went through his routine in the morning," Staley said. "It's still a little tight, but we're going to see tomorrow, and then on gameday."

Staley added the Chargers could potentially elevate kicker Taylor Bertolet from the practice squad on Saturday.

Hopkins has made five of six field goals so far this season, and is perfect on 11 extra points.

5. Ficken to face former boss

Speaking of special teams, the Chargers are in the middle of the pack through four games by one metric.

The Bolts currently rank 17th with an overall special teams grade of 77.8, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus.

There has been both good and bad from the Bolts so far, but Chargers Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken likes the direction the unit is headed.

"I think we're doing some good things," Ficken said. "There's some things we have to improve on obviously. and I think that's just as a whole, us together, working together right now.

"It's only been four weeks, didn't have that work in preseason, but these guys work real hard. They're professionals, I think they do a great job, they take their job really seriously and it's very important to them, which is very encouraging," Ficken added. "But we're still a work in progress and I expect that to be. I never see it as a finished product. We got to be able to get better at something, at some phase [of the game]."

PFF has Cleveland's special teams with a grade of 61.6, which ranks 24th among all teams.

But there is a unique twist to this one, as Ficken and Browns Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer have some history.

Priefer was Minnesota's special teams coordinator from 2011-2018, which Ficken serving as his assistant for the final six of those seasons.

This isn't the first time Ficken will be on the opposite sideline as Priefer (the Vikings played the Browns in 2021 when both were coordinators), but Ficken noted that he always relishes the chance to go against his former boss.

"It's not anymore special like, 'We got to go and get them'. You still attack it, still our opponent on Sunday, but it is going to fun to see some of those old faces and see those guys," Ficken said. "But again, we got to make sure our guys are ready to go and prepared and I believe they are. Those guys are eager to go back out there and continue to work hard and do good.

"I know Coach Priefer and I go back a long way," Ficken added. "He means the world to me, he's a phenomenal coach, great man and family guy. It's weird seeing him on the other sideline, but it's fun too."

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