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Why Nick Niemann Has Been A Vital Piece of the Bolts Defense Early On


Below are three takeaways from Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley, quarterback Justin Herbert and more following their media availability on Wednesday:

Niemann shining on defense

Linebacker Nick Niemann has embraced the "next man up" mentality in a big way.

Primarily making his mark on special teams since entering the league as a sixth-round pick in the 2021, the third-year linebacker has been heavily relied upon over the last two games with fellow linebacker Eric Kendricks recovering from a hamstring injury.

And over the last two games, Niemann has already played more defensive snaps than he had in his whole career so far, including one of the biggest plays of the game in the team's first win of the season.

With time winding down late in the fourth quarter and the Chargers defense needing a stop, Niemann read a pass intended for former Iowa roommate T.J. Hockenson and made a break towards the ball. The linebacker broke up the pass into the air as fellow linebacker Kenneth Murray, Jr., came down with it, ending the game and securing the win.

It was just one of the plays Niemann has made in his two big starts, as Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley had praise for his contributions in relief.

"Winning performances in both performances," Staley said Monday. "I felt like, as a backup player, he gave us a chance in both games to win the game. I thought he was physical [in Week 2]. I think, looking at the stat line, he had eight tackles.

"Certainly, to come up big there in the clutch, we knew that was one of their top red-zone routes against one of their top red-zone targets," Staley continued. "I think, to make that play on [Vikings TE T.J.] Hockenson in a got-to-have-it-moment — he's a guy that we trust.

"I think he's made a lot of plays these last two weeks. I'm really proud of his performance with EK [LB Eric Kendricks] being out," Staley added.

Plays like the one in Minnesota are huge to Niemann as he continues to try and develop with playing time on defense.

"It was big. Making a play like that makes you feel good for sure," Niemann said. "Awesome for the defense, the linebacker room and once again, being able to show the coaches that you can go out there and compete with some of the best guys in the NFL when the money is on the line in a hostile environment. Definitely big."

In the Weeks 2 and 3, Niemann played a total of 113 defensive snaps, recording nine solo tackles and a pass defended. According to Pro Football Focus, Niemann had the second-highest tackling grade among linebackers during those two weeks as well (85.9).

Niemann has stayed engaged even when he's not playing defensive snaps — something that has helped him in a major way coming in over the last two games.

And the last couple of weeks have been a product of answering when your number is called throughout a long, unpredictable NFL season.

"I've been feeling good. Happy the coaches have trusted me enough to go out there and take advantage of an opportunity," Niemann said Wednesday. "When guys go down, the expectation is there's no drop off and you have to go out there and execute and make plays and do the same types of plays that they would do."

"Just staying engaged in practice, walkthroughs, in the meetings, doing all that stuff and just knowing what can happen in this league," Niemann later added. "Got to take advantage of the opportunity when it comes."

Bolts prepare for 1st division game

One game remains for the Bolts before they head into their bye week — and the group has their full attention set on Week 4 when they open up AFC West play against Las Vegas.

The AFC West is home to some of the most intense division rivalries around, and the Chargers will get a crack at a team within their division for the first time all season.

"Your division is the most important thing in your ability to make the playoffs and ultimately become a Super Bowl champion," Staley said. "You have to make sure that the division, you get to play those teams six times a year, and you understand that these traditions go back a long way."

Games against the Raiders in recent years are always high-energy and almost always a close one. Seven of the last eight matchups between the two teams have been decided by one possession, including both of last season's games.

And the Chargers will look to win their third straight home game against Las Vegas on Sunday.

"There's a lot of pride in each franchise and there's going to be a lot of energy in the stadium," Staley said. "All the division games, there's just a different caliber of energy, and you know each other a lot better.

"Certainly, with this group the same head coach, we've played these guys and they've played us, so it's going to be a very big-time environment on Sunday," Staley added.

After Sunday's game against the Raiders, the Bolts next division game comes in Week 7 when they travel to Kansas City. But after that game on the road, the team won't play an AFC West opponent until the final month of the season.

Every game in the NFL is important, but these AFC West games are a big step in the process of the regular season.

"Super important," Chargers Linebacker Nick Niemann said. "Obviously one of our goals is to win the division.

"Playing a divisional game at home definitely matters," Niemann added. "It helps with your momentum and if you win your division, you get a playoff spot. Huge for us. Definitely want to try to win all the AFC West games."

Ekeler limited in practice

Austin Ekeler has watched Bolts games at home the past two weeks.

Safe to say he much prefers to be playing.

"I feel now the emotion of being a fan when I'm watching," Ekeler said Wednesday in the Chargers locker room. "When [I'm playing], I'm locked in and the emotion doesn't get to you as much because you're so focused on the situation or whatever you have to do.

"But when I'm not in the game, I'm feeling the ups and downs. I'm standing this close to my TV," Ekeler added.

The Chargers running back has been dealing with an ankle injury of late that he suffered in Week 1 against the Dolphins.

But Ekeler is on the mend as he was a limited participant in Wednesday's practice.

"It's been getting better. Obviously, you saw me out there today so that was good, a good sign of progress. It's day-to-day right now," Ekeler said.

He later added: "Let's test it every single day and see how manageable it is. When it gets to the point where I can get on the field, whatever time that is at, that's when I'll be ready to go. If that's this week or if that's after the bye, we'll see."

Staley said Wednesday that Ekeler is headed in the right direction.

"Just getting him in individual [drills] … was good to get him out there with the guys," Staley said. "That just means he's progressing and improving. If you know Austin, he's going to everything he can to get back."

Ekeler was one of three players who were limited Wednesday along with linebacker Eric Kendricks (hamstring) and left tackle Rashawn Slater (ankle).

The Chargers also had seven players — all starters — who did not practice. That full list can be found here on the Injury Report.

With the Bolts having a Week 5 bye, Staley was asked if the early-season break could play a factor into who suits up against the Raiders on Sunday.

"In certain cases, yeah," Staley said.

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