An AFC West rivalry game in primetime on national television against the defending Super Bowl Champions is the type of game that could test a player’s nerves. That’s especially the case for rookies in their first NFL season.
However, the exact opposite happened in Thursday night’s 21-13 win over the Denver Broncos.
From Hunter Henry leading the passing attack to Jatavis Brown and Joey Bosa galvanizing the defense, the kids came up clutch on the biggest stage.
Henry started the game off with a bang, finding pay dirt on the opening series for what proved to be the team’s lone touchdown of the night. The tight end led both teams with six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. Thursday night marked the third straight game Henry caught a touchdown, and it’s clear he’s caught his quarterback’s eye.
“He’s awesome, and he’s going to be an awesome tight end,” Philip Rivers said. “I’m very thankful. He has a long way to go obviously to even say this about him and Antonio (Gates). They’re different but I’m thankful, as we transition Antonio – as long as he’s going to be here, hopefully a long time – but to have a guy like Hunter coming in (is huge). I knew he was going to be good, but I didn’t (realize how good). Gosh, he’s a heck of a player. He understands the game and he’s a complete (tight end). I would describe him as a football player. That’s the ultimate compliment my dad would say, if he called somebody a football player and I’m kind of that way, too. He’s just a football player and I’m so excited he’s here.”
While the second-round pick made his presence felt on offense, the first-round selection did the same on defense. Playing in his second career game, Joey Bosa made a significant impact. Although he was credited with only one tackle on the stat sheet, he was a disruptive force wreaking havoc on the quarterback and forcing the offense to game plan on stopping him.
Rather than focusing on himself, Bosa explained how it was a statement game for the entire defense.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I’m really proud of our defense. We really stepped up when all eyes were on us. That was kind of the message this week that all eyes were going to be on us and we just had to truly believe that we were going to get the win. We came out there and really just played.”
Then there was Jatavis Brown.
“Jatavis had a ridiculous game,” Bosa said.
Brown finished with 14 tackles, more than double the next closest Charger as three of his teammates totaled six apiece. The fifth-round pick out of Akron also had two monumental plays on back to back snaps in the fourth quarter. First, he sacked Trevor Siemian for a loss of 10. On the next snap, he popped Demaryius Thomas, dislodging the ball as Craig Mager recovered the fumble.
“We knew we had to come out here and play ball,” he said. “This was a chance for us to turn our season around. We know things have not been going our way. This was a great game to come out and get a win.”
Henry, Bosa and Brown weren’t the only rookies who delivered. Punter Drew Kaser is another who came up big. Only five days removed from the toughest game of his life, the sixth-round pick showed moxie, firing a career-high 60-yard punt out of the gate. He also placed a perfect punt that was downed at the three-yard line in the second half. Overall, Kaser punted the ball five times averaging 47.4 yards per attempt. Four of them landed inside the 20.
Meanwhile, fellow sixth-round pick Derek Watt had memorable moments as well. The fullback had a highlight-reel eight-yard reception in which he hurdled a defender and helicoptered to the ground.
Overall, it was the type of performance by the rookie class that excites fans about the future as well as the present.
“We’ve been saying all along the type of guys they are,” Head Coach Mike McCoy said. “The players, not just on the field, but the preparation and the way they work.”