How the Chargers, Brandon Staley avoided rock bottom with ‘wild’ win over Vikings


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MINNEAPOLIS — There was rock bottom, inches away from the falling Los Angeles Chargers, their feet so very close to scraping the jagged stones below.

A bold decision to go for it on fourth-and-inches. A failed rushing attempt. A hostile stadium erupting. And only 24 yards of grass separating the Minnesota Vikings from victory and the Chargers from a potentially organization-shifting 0-3 start.

Rock bottom felt inevitable. When Joshua Kelley was stood up at the line of scrimmage. When Michael Davis was called for an illegal hands to the face penalty on third-and-11. When Kirk Cousins found T.J. Hockenson over the middle for a gotta-have-it fourth-down conversion. When the Vikings set up in shotgun formation on the next play, a first-and-goal, and Cousins took the shotgun snap.

Right up until gravity was suspended, and the Chargers abruptly stopped hurdling toward those stones.

Cousins tried to throw into a tight window to Hockenson on the goal line. Linebacker Nick Niemann had anticipated this route from the tight end and jumped the pass to Hockenson’s outside shoulder. The ball tipped into the air. It tipped again off safety JT Woods. And linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. dove in the end zone and scooped the interception before the ball hit the turf, securing a 28-24 win.


Chargers hold for first win of season vs. Vikings

The Chargers are 1-2.

“An absolutely massive moment,” Niemann said, somehow still understating the magnitude.

So much of this game was so familiar for the Brandon Staley Chargers.

They could not stop the run, allowing 130 yards on 24 carries for 5.4 yards.

They could not run the ball, with their backs combining for 19 yards on 13 carries.

Despite doubling and even tripling Justin Jefferson on every passing play, the Vikings star receiver caught seven passes for 149 yards.

The Chargers gave up seven explosive passes, including three of 30 yards or more, two of which went to Jefferson.

Justin Herbert threw for 405 yards and three touchdowns on 40-of-47 passing. He did not turn the ball over. Keenan Allen could not be covered, setting career highs in receptions (18) and receiving yards (215) — “One of those maestro performances,” as Staley described it. The game still went down to the wire.

“The entire game was wild to me,” Staley said.

The Chargers created separation in the third quarter when Keenan Allen threw to a wide-open Mike Williams on a cleverly-schemed wide receiver pass. That touchdown extended the lead to 21-10.

With a chance to put the game away, the Chargers allowed a 36-yard touchdown reception to receiver K.J. Osborn on a fourth down.

A strip-sack ended the next drive, the relentless blitzing from Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores finally getting home. Herbert was blitzed on 40 of his 49 dropbacks, according to TruMedia. Edge rusher Danielle Hunter was unblocked at the snap and fought through a pass protection attempt from Kelley to swat the ball from Herbert’s hands. Herbert fell on it.

The Vikings took the lead on the next possession when Jefferson scored from 52 yards out. Derwin James Jr. had left the game with a hamstring injury. Woods was his replacement. And Woods took a horrific angle after Jefferson caught a crossing route. Jefferson broke away and ran into the end zone untouched.

This catch spoiled what had been a pretty solid day for the Chargers secondary when it came to defending Jefferson. Earlier in the game, the Vikings receiver was visibly frustrated with how often the Chargers were doubling him. On the fourth-down touchdown to Osborn, Jefferson was chirping with cornerback Ja’Sir Taylor in the slot before the snap.

“I was talking trash,” Taylor said after the game. “He was talking trash back basically saying, ‘Ya’ll doubling me, stop doubling me.’ I said, ‘Everybody do it! That’s what we’re gonna do. We’re trying to win, man.’”

“He was getting in his feelings,” cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. said. “It’s a grown man’s sport out there. It’s going to be physical. You can’t just run around and expect nobody to hit you. It’s football.”

Samuel added that Jefferson “didn’t really control the game.” At the same time, Jefferson did get his and carried the Vikings back into the lead.

“He had to beat us today,” Staley said, “and that’s what we wanted.”

Herbert had a near-flawless performance. His only mistake was a touchdown pass, which is fitting for this mystifying game.

Down 24-21, Herbert did not put enough on a go ball for Joshua Palmer, who had created separation against Vikings cornerback Akayleb Evans down the left sideline. Evans was in position to grab the interception. The ball deflected off his hands and into the waiting arms of Palmer, who backpedaled into the end zone for what ended up being the winning score.

“Very rare for Justin,” Palmer said of the throw.

In the end, the Chargers defense won the game with two goal-to-go stops. The unit faced 10 plays in the red zone on the Vikings’ final two offensive possessions. They did not give up a point.

On the first drive, Murray had a tackle for loss on a second-and-goal from the 1. Good coverage forced a Cousins throwaway on third-and-goal from 2. And Davis had a pass breakup on fourth-and-goal to force the turnover on downs.

On the second drive, the Chargers bent, but it was Niemann — the team’s fourth-string inside linebacker — who came up with the play that more or less saved the season.

“We’d seen it on film,” Niemann said of anticipating that route from Hockenson.

Sandwiched between those two defensive stands was Staley’s fourth-and-inches decision.

It was reminiscent of Staley’s decision in Week 5 last season in Cleveland. In that game, he went for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 46, up two points on the Browns. Herbert could not connect with Williams. Cleveland needed less than 20 yards to get into field goal range. Cade York missed a 54-yard field goal to hand the Chargers a 30-28 win.

The only difference Sunday was that the Chargers led by four points, meaning the Vikings — who were out of timeouts — needed a touchdown to win the game. Staley said that factored into his decision. So did the line to gain being less than a yard away. And so did what Staley called the “convincing” math behind the decision.

A conversion, and the game would be over. That is what the decision came down to.

“We were trying to go win the game,” Staley said. “I make no apologies for that.”

The play call was a dive handoff to Kelley. Going a bit deeper, it was the exact same formation and design as the Chargers’ fourth-down conversion pitch to Derius Davis in the second quarter against the Tennessee Titans last week. The only difference in personnel was Allen was in the game for Williams, who had gone to the locker room with a knee injury. (Williams was carted to the bus after the game.) This time, instead of faking the handoff to Kelley and pitching to Davis, Herbert handed off to Kelley. It was stuffed.

GettyImages 1699190701 scaled

Joshua Kelley was stuffed by the Vikings defense on fourth-and-inches in the fourth quarter. (Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)

There was intention in the play call. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore was playing directly off a call and design from the previous week. And the Vikings had an edge rusher who jumped to the outside to defend Davis on the play. They had clearly studied the Week 2 fourth down play on tape.

The Chargers just did not win at the point of attack. Defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard got penetration between right tackle Trey Pipkins III and tight end Donald Parham Jr., blowing up the play.

Staley said the Chargers considered a QB sneak. But the Vikings had four interior defensive linemen in the game.

“My job was just to hand the ball off,” Herbert said.

They could have put the ball in Herbert’s hands. They could have instead run behind the strength of their offensive line to the left side with Rashawn Slater, Zion Johnson and Corey Linsley.

They did not.

“I’m behind my coach every time,” Samuel said.

“That’s kind of what he’s stood on these last three years,” Niemann said. “We’re gonna frickin’ be the aggressor and try to make something happen.”

“That’s what he gets paid to do, to make that call,” Murray said. “He made that call, and then we get paid to go out there and play defense and back him up.”

On Monday, following the loss to the Titans that dropped the Chargers to 0-2, Staley described how important it is to stay process-oriented.

“Let’s say we won both of those games, really close,” he said then. “A lot of the same issues that we have or that we’re working through would still be there.”

The same is true now after this win over the Vikings.

But rock bottom has been avoided, and the season is alive.

(Top photo of Kenneth Murray Jr. celebrating his interception: Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)

“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Preorder it here.

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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