The wait for Week 1 is nearly over.
Here are five final thoughts as the Chargers get ready for Sunday's season opener against the Raiders:
1. A new-look defense
The Chargers focus was clear as they entered the 2022 offseason.
Knowing the defense needed to be revamped, the Bolts did just that over the spring and summer.
Khalil Mack was acquired via trade, while J.C. Jackson, Sebastian Joseph-Day, Austin Johnson, Kyle Van Noy and Bryce Callahan were brought in during free agency.
Add that with returning players such as Joey Bosa, Derwin James, Jr., Nasir Adderley and others, and the Bolts believe they have the players to have a special group in 2022.
Entering Week 1, that unit hasn't played a full game together yet. (And with Jackson listed as doubtful with an ankle injury, they might not have the complete set Sunday).
But the majority of the defense will be out there. And even though they didn't play together in the preseason, they've had plenty of practice time to gel.
"Our defense has played at a really high level throughout training camp," said Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley. "I think we've been able to see a lot of different people fit the pieces in the right roles.
"I think, when we got Derwin back, and some of those linebackers healthy, it allowed us to really practice and kind of optimize where we were headed for Week 1 and for the beginning of the season," Staley continued. "I have full confidence in our group."
Mack said there's an obvious uptick in environment from practice to a game, but noted he feels good about where the unit is at.
"That's the thing, man, practice is so much different than the game," Mack said. "Even though you try your best to mimic and create that muscle memory as far as pass rushing and getting off run blocks and all those different things, everything heightens.
"The nerves go up a little bit," Mack added. "But it's all the same, and I'm just looking forward to seeing these guys go out and have fun. Play loose and ball just like it is practice."
Check out the best photos from the Chargers Thursday practice at Hoag Performance Center.
2. Herbert enters Year 3
Justin Herbert has taken the league by storm in his first two seasons, setting a record for most passing yards (9,350) and touchdown passes (69) by a quarterback in that timespan.
Now, as the quarterback enters his third year, those around him say he doesn't need to change despite plenty of outside hype.
"No one's expectations will exceed our own, that's No. 1. I just expect Justin to be himself," Staley said. "He's continuing to improve in all ways. I think that the player that you're seeing now on that football field is so much different than the player that you saw a year ago.
"He just needs to put needs to play his game. We're really excited about his progress as a player," Staley added. "Really, really excited about his progress as a leader of this football team. I think that, for me, I told you guys last year, I really thought he led beautifully."
Herbert was recently voted a team captain for the second straight year, as he also enters a second consecutive season in Joe Lombardi's offensive system.
That should allow Herbert to combine his physical tools with an evolving mental game, which includes a stronger grasp of the scheme.
It all could lead to another dynamic season for Herbert.
"I feel like we're kind of steps ahead of where we were at this point last year," Herbert said. "I think the timing with the receivers has been great, the protection, it's all been blocked up.
"We're going to do everything we can to continue to develop, get better at that because there's still plenty of room for improvement," Herbert added.
Said Lombardi: "Just operating in a more confident fashion and a smoother fashion. I think we've said it before, going through it a second year, the play calls, getting in and out of the huddle, his comfort level with what he's looking at, his comfort level with the offense, it takes the stress off of everybody. Just going through it again, you just keep getting better and better."
Tight end Gerald Everett said it best.
"Justin, it starts with him," Everatt said. "Then it trickles down to the offense and the rest of the team. That's our guy."
3. Be ready for adjustments
Week 1 is a bit different than any other game throughout the NFL season.
Yes, there are adjustments that need to be made each game. But there's a different feel about it for Week 1, simply because teams have had a full offseason to churn over their roster and make changes to their schemes.
For the Raiders, those changes have been ever more drastic, as Las Vegas has a new head coach and coordinators … plus the usual assortment of fresh faces.
Staley said Friday that even though changes will be needed on the fly Sunday, he's instilled that mindset in his team from the spring.
"You have to practice like that. You have to start from the first OTA, from your first meeting in Phase I," Staley said. "You have to have the agility in your football team to be able to compete like that.
"You have to create a foundation in football where you can draw from things, and that your players have a foundation in those types of contingencies so that when you do need to make that adjustment quickly, they can go perform it," Staley added. "It's not theory to them, it's application."
Herbert said the Chargers have watched all sorts of different film to try and get an idea of what to expect Sunday. But even then, he added, nothing will be known until the ball is snapped.
"That's kind of what you find out after the first drive. You spend this week and last week as well, just preparing, watching as much film as you can," Herbert said. "Maybe it's what we saw, maybe it's not. You're going to have to adjust and come back to the sidelines and say, 'Hey, this is what they're doing. This is what we're going to need to do.' It takes a team effort to do that."
"If I was defensive coordinators, too, I wouldn't show anything," Herbert later added. "I'd do my best to hide or disguise and make the opponent think as much as they can. It's part of the challenge and going into this week, just watch as much film as we can and just see whatever they do and adapt to that."
4. A look at the rookies
The Chargers have eight rookies on their roster, a group that includes all eight selections from the 2022 NFL Draft.
It remains to be seen how many of them will make their NFL debuts Sunday, although Zion Johnson certainly will as the starting right guard.
"He's got a maturity about him that is a little bit more so than your average rookie," Lombardi said of the first-round pick. "When he gets on somebody, he stays on them. He is a very sticky blocker and he's got power.
"I'm sure there will be some rookie things that we'll have to work through, but probably less than most rookies just because of his maturity," Lombardi added.
As for the rest of the group, some players may be inactive in Week 1. Fullback Zander Horvath likely won't be among them, as the seventh-rounder offers flexibility on special teams, too.
"Feeling pretty good about [my debut]," Horvath said. "I mean, I've put in a lot of work to get to the position I'm in today, but at the end of the day there's still a lot of work to be done, it's just the start.
"So, I think just keeping that mindset is going to help me over time, but just ready to get after it can't get too caught up in the moment," Horvath added. "Just [focus on] fundamentals, do what you're supposed to do when you're on the field and get it done."
5. An eye on special teams
All eyes will be on special teams Sunday, and not just because there are numerous new faces with that group.
Chargers Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken is in his first year with the team. Punter JK Scott is new, as is long snapper Josh Harris, returner DeAndre Carter and core player Troy Reeder.
"I'm excited about the guys that we have. Coming into the first week, we haven't been able to play with all these guys as a unit," Ficken said. "I'm excited to see them go out there and compete. It's what we've been waiting for."
Staley said the group has "earned our confidence" over the spring and summer, but added regular-season games will be a different evaluation, especially from a unit that is looking for more overall consistency in 2022.
"Now, they get to go prove themselves to everybody else," Staley said. "Really excited for them to be able to show people what they've been working on, helping us create a culture in that phase.
"That's the challenge that's in front of them, is to help create a culture in that phase for us because it hasn't been there," Staley added. "There's a great opportunity. I'm excited about all those guys. They've worked really hard. They fit right in, they're Chargers all the way. Now, we have to go prove ourselves."
Keep an eye on Carter, who flashed as a wide receiver in training camp but didn't return kicks in preseason play.
"He definitely can be a dynamic player with the ball in his hands. His first step is really encouraging. We think we've got a gem with him," Ficken said. "Having a dual-returner, it's been awhile since I've been around one. A guy that does both phases, and then just the knowledge that he has, and instincts, it's fun to be around."
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