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Final Thoughts: Chargers Have Chance to Make Primetime Statement


Welcome to Week 14.

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

1. All eyes on primetime

For the third time in five weeks, the Chargers will take the national stage on Sunday Night Football.

That primetime slot hasn't been kind to the Bolts, who came up just short in SNF games against San Francisco and Kansas City.

The Chargers are 1-3 overall in primetime this season, with a win over the Broncos in Week 6 being their only victory in the spotlight.

Chargers running back Austin Ekeler said this week that the team is looking to get on the winning track when all eyes are on them.

"We keep getting these primetime games … trying to get over the hump," Ekeler said. "It's like, 'The Chargers didn't win that game.' But they have been battles and it's like we're in this fringe area.

"People want to see us because we're in the hunt and want to see if we can get into the top seven of the [conference]," Ekeler continued. "But for us, it's everything. Everything is in front of us and depends on us getting wins.

"Primetime or not, that's what we're focused on," Ekeler added. "Get 1-0 for the week because it's been a lot of tight games."

Entering Week 14, the Bolts sit at 6-6 and are in the No. 9 spot in AFC playoff race.

A lot can change on a week-by-week basis across the league, but if the Bolts want to make a run, a win in primetime would go a long way in helping their case.

Especially since the 7-5 Jets, who occupy the seventh seed, have a tough road game in Buffalo on Sunday.

All it takes is one win to get things back on track.

"I like the group that we have out there," said Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley. "I do think we have the experience, the caliber of players, to win this week … and to win these games down the stretch that we need to win."

2. Shorthanded on defense?

The injury bug has hit the Bolts defensively, as three starters — Derwin James, Jr., Sebastian Joseph-Day and Bryce Callahan — are all listed as doubtful for Sunday night.

James, of course, is the headliner of that group. If he can't go, the Bolts would likely start Nasir Adderley and Alohi Gilman at the safety spots.

Staley said the potential absence of James, who can play anywhere, would be a big one.

"You may scale back some groupings, for sure, that are specific to Derwin," Staley said. "We'll see if that happens. But our guys that are going to go out there have played in games and we know how to use them.

"Give them a gameplan where they can compete and execute," Staley said. "I've been really pleased with the way we've practiced this week."

Chargers Defensive Coordinator Renaldo Hill expressed confidence in Adderley and Gilman if they are the starting duo.

"Very confident in those guys. They have game experience. I think that they play well together," Hill said. "You can hear their communication out there with those two, they're echoing it.

"I think that they know that they need to do a little bit more of that if Derwin is not there, so the more that they can emphasize it and have everybody on the same page, I think that is going to allow those guys to play at a high level this week," Hill added.

Don't underestimate the potential loss of Callahan, who has been dealing with a core muscle issue for a few weeks.

If he can't go, rookie Ja'Sir Taylor could be in line to make his first NFL start. He has played 11 defensive snaps so far this season but has thrived on special teams.

"I feel like I'm well prepared. Been watching film and studying these guys," Taylor said. "Coaches and players are making sure I'm prepared. Any questions I have, they answer it … and make me feel comfortable out there.

"I'm ready to go to war with these guys and put my all out there and help this team get a win," Taylor added.

Taylor played a hefty amount of snaps on defense in the preseason and said he's mixed in with the first-team defense in practice a fair amount throughout the season.

The 23-year-old credited Callahan as a key player who has helped him develop as a rookie.

"Bryce has helped me a lot," Taylor said. "He's been in this system since he stepped in the league. I sit next to him in meetings so I get to pick his brain about every little thing.

"He's like a big brother, a mentor," Taylor said. "Everything he does, I try to emulate."

3. Bolts getting healthy on offense

While the Chargers defense is banged up, the offense is on the mend.

Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams practiced in full Thursday and Friday and does not have a game designation for Sunday.

The trio of Keenan Allen, Williams and Joshua Palmer have all been active for just three games this season, and even then it's been spotty to have all three on the field together.

They all played in Week 1, but Allen tweaked his hamstring and was limited to just 23 snaps.

By the time Allen returned in Week 7, Palmer was inactive … and Williams hurt his ankle in the second half of that game.

All three players were back for Week 11, but Williams played just six snaps when he re-injured his ankle.

Finally, in Week 14, all three wide receivers appear healthy and ready to make an impact together.

"Hopefully when we can get his group back together, we can finish the season playing our best football," Staley said. 

Allen added on Williams: "It'll be good. We have another weapon, another guy who can make big plays for us. When it comes down to it, he could be one of the guys who can make a big play."

The person who could benefit the most from all three players lining up together? 

Quarterback Justin Herbert.

"It's always a tough situation when you don't have those guys out there," Herbert said of Allen and Williams. "They're two of the best to do it. Anytime you have both those guys out there, something special is going to happen.

"Having one is better than having none," Herbert added. "Those guys have fought and competed. They're both trying to get out there as best as they can so, whatever happens, happens."

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

4. Linsley's return should help protection

Speaking of Herbert, he's been under pressure a bunch in the past three games.

He was sacked five times against the Chiefs, four times against the Cardinals and five more times against the Raiders.

"There were a couple of pressures that when you don't handle them well, people are going to try to keep doing it," Chargers Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi said. "It's something that were going to have to show that we can handle.

"We have had some good reps of it and then just a couple of times where the running backs have to fit in inside and take that A or B gap rusher out, which two weeks in a row, we have kind of failed at that," Lombardi added. "We have to prepare the guys better and get that part fixed."

While center Corey Linsley played the full game against the Chiefs, he missed the second half of the Arizona game and did not play against Las Vegas.

Linsley, who is out of the concussion protocol and will play, should provide a calming force up front.

"He is a leader. He has done such a great job with that offensive line group. He has seen so much football," Herbert said. "He has seen so many different fronts, coverages, that he has such a great feel for the game, especially in our run game.

"He's able to get up to the line of scrimmage and get going," Herbert added. "That's one of the biggest things for our offense of just going up there and playing fast and playing fearless. It's definitely good to see him back out there practicing this week."

The majority of the Bolts starting offensive line should be in there, save for right tackle Trey Pipkins III, whom Staley said is likely another week away with a knee injury.

But keeping Herbert upright should be a top offensive priority, especially against a Miami defense that ranks third in the NFL with a blitz rate of 36.1 percent.

The Dolphins feature Pro Bowler Bradley Chubb, former Charger Melvin Ingram (6.0 sacks) and 2021 first-round pick Jaelan Phillips (5.0 sacks).

"We have to prove that we can handle it," Lombardi said of Miami's pass rush.

5. Find a way to pressure Tagovailoa

And on the flip side, the Chargers sack numbers are toward the bottom tier among NFL teams.

The Bolts currently are tied with the fifth-fewest sacks with 22, which is undoubtedly a byproduct of Joey Bosa missing most of the season.

Khalil Mack leads the Chargers with 7.0 sacks, followed by James (4.0) and Drue Tranquill (3.0).

Morgan Fox, who is fourth on the team with 2.5 sacks, said the Bolts might have to pull out some tricks to try and bring down Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

"I think in general; you have to get creative, get guys open," Fox said. "You understand who's rushing with you and who's on your team, what teams are going to do to try to affect that rush. 

"We obviously have an extremely special player in Khalil, he's a gold jacket guy and teams have to figure out how to block him, or else he's going to break the game," Fox added. "It's being able to move him, and move other guys around to get open and create havoc when we can."

Tagovailoa is among the game's quickest quarterbacks in terms of getting the ball out to his playmakers.

Mack knows it will be a team effort to slow down the Dolphins high-powered offense.

"He's a quick-release guy. He knows where he wants to put the football," Mack said. "The challenge, I feel like it would be for the defensive backs, is to get him off of his first ready and try to give us a little time to get there because he does get rid of that ball quick."

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