Seven takeaways from Chargers’ preseason win over Rams


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INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The Los Angeles Chargers opened the preseason with a 34-17 victory over the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday night at SoFi Stadium.

Here are my takeaways.

1. One of the top offseason priorities for Chargers coach Brandon Staley was improving his offense’s running game. The Chargers finished 2022 ranked 19th in expected points added per designed rush, according to TruMedia. They lacked a defined identity in their rushing scheme under previous offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, and that led to debilitating inconsistency week to week.

Staley replaced Lombardi with Kellen Moore in January. And part of Moore’s job this offseason was building and cultivating that identity in the running game. And while it would be misguided to put too much stock in a preseason game, Saturday’s performance was unequivocally an important first step for the Chargers’ rushing attack.


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The Chargers finished the game with 214 rushing yards on 31 carries — a 6.9 yards per carry average. Joshua Kelley had 54 yards on nine carries. Isaiah Spiller had 27 yards on five carries. Those two are battling for the second running back spot behind Austin Ekeler. And in their first game action of 2023, both players ran with physicality and intention.

I was particularly impressed with how Kelley and Spiller finished their runs. I think the transition to a more downhill, north-south rushing scheme under Moore is allowing both backs to play fast and attack defenses directly. We saw signs of this during the first three weeks of training camp. But without live tackling, it is difficult to garner any sort of legitimate evaluation. That changed Saturday night.

“Our running backs did a nice job of making one cut and being really decisive,” Staley said after the game.

Spiller had a 71-yard touchdown called back because of a holding penalty on rookie guard Jordan McFadden. The second-year back showed impressive breakaway speed on the play.

2. Part of the rushing performance was a breakout game from rookie Elijah Dotson, an undrafted free agent out of Northern Colorado. Dotson, playing in his first NFL game, had touchdown runs of 37 and 40 yards in the second half. Both came on rushes designed to go up the middle that Dotson bounced outside to the left. Dotson ran a 4.52 40-yard dash during the pre-draft process, according to our scouting expert Dane Brugler. He looked much, much faster than that while pulling away from defenders on both touchdown runs.

Dotson was not on my 53-man radar through the first three weeks of camp. But he is now firmly on the bubble. A performance like this can catapult a player into the conversation. Ekeler, Kelley and Spiller are locks. There could be a fourth spot available in the running back room if the Chargers choose to go in that direction. And Dotson significantly outplayed Larry Rountree III, who rushed for just 9 yards on five carries and also missed a pass protection pickup on a sack early in fourth quarter.

“To be honest, I’m very grateful for the opportunity that (general manager) Tom Telesco gave me,” Dotson told me in the locker room after the game. “But really I just got to keep working. You know what I’m saying? I don’t see it as a big deal. I know everybody else sees it. I’m happy that everybody else is happy. But I just want to keep working because I want to make the 53. That’s just my goal. I want to help the team win a Super Bowl.”

Dotson was looking through his phone when I approached him. He said he had 68 unread messages when he first checked his phone after returning to the locker room postgame.

The parallels between Dotson and Ekeler are pretty uncanny. Ekeler, too, was an undrafted and unknown running back out of a small school in Colorado. Ekeler made the 53-man roster as a rookie after an eye-opening preseason. Will Dotson follow the same path?

“It’s crazy how things fall into place,” Dotson said. “You can understand why Austin Ekeler is one of the top backs in the NFL, because he’s so smart. And one of the things I wanted to do was try to learn the game from him.”

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Elijah Dotson put himself on the radar with Saturday’s two-touchdown performance. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

3. Backup quarterback Easton Stick got the start with Justin Herbert sitting out. I thought Stick played the best game of his career. His improvement as a thrower — particularly his accuracy on throws down the field — has really jumped out through the first three weeks of camp, and that continued Saturday night. Stick finished 14-of-21 passing for 109 yards and a touchdown. He added two rushes for 12 yards. One of those scrambles was a third-down conversion.

Three throws jumped out to me. On the second drive of the game, Stick delivered a perfectly placed deep shot to Quentin Johnston down the right sideline. Johnston dropped it. But it was a pinpoint pass and Stick’s best throw of the game. Later in that drive, he converted a third-and-8 to Donald Parham Jr. on a dig, fitting a throw into a tight window. On the next play, he hit Keelan Doss on a deep over route off play action.

Stick looked poised and composed in the pocket. His legs are his best weapon. But in this game, he did not bail out of the pocket too early. On several plays, he stood in the pocket with pressure bearing down and delivered timely and accurate throws.

Perhaps Stick’s most impressive moment of the night was the two-minute touchdown drive. The Chargers took over with 1:48 remaining in the second quarter. Stick engineered a 75-yard drive that he capped off with a touchdown pass to Johnston in the end zone. He kept the drive alive with that third-down scramble in the red zone.

“His balance and his body position is leading to more accuracy, more consistent throwing,” Staley said of Stick.

The Chargers should feel really comfortable with Stick as their backup based on his performance Saturday night.

4. Johnston, overall, had an up-and-down game. On top of the drop on the deep ball, Johnston also dropped a comeback route on third down on the first drive of the game. His hands are going to be a work in progress. That playmaking is obviously there, though. On his touchdown catch, Johnston ran a stellar route of the slot, breaking the ankles of Rams cornerback Richard LeCounte III with a shifty release.

Johnston had been out of the game for most of the second quarter, but the Chargers wanted to get him that red zone rep, and he delivered in a big way to cap the two-minute drive.

“To get that matchup in the slot, I think that you’ve seen that throughout camp he can make that guy miss, he can create that separation,” Staley said. “He’s got back-line target zone that we can really feature down there. So I thought it was, obviously, a memorable first game for him. There’s going to be a lot of improve on. But I think you see the ability, for sure.”

5. Receiver Derius Davis, another rookie out of TCU, also had a memorable first NFL game. He returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. Davis was incredibly patient after receiving the punt, reading the approaching Rams before making three quick cuts to find open grass. Then his speed took over.

“That’s why we did draft him — for that game-breaking speed,” Staley said. “He’s still got to earn our trust. Didn’t take any big hits tonight, so that’ll be the challenge for him, is when he really takes those NFL hits. But today was obviously a good start for him.”

6. JT Woods started alongside Mark Webb Jr. at safety, and I thought he played well. Woods was in position in coverage in the deep part of the field. The Rams did not hit any throws over the top. In addition, Woods had some flashes as a run defender, including on a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line late in the second quarter. Woods diagnosed the run, attacked downhill and stone-walled Rams running back Ronnie Rivers for a 1-yard gain.

The damper on Woods’ night, though, was an inexcusable unsportsmanlike penalty earlier in that drive. Woods broke up a pass on a third-and-goal. After the play, Woods was yelling at Rams receiver Ben Skowronek. He then approached Skowronek and slapped him on the helmet, drawing the flag. That gave the Rams a fresh set of downs at the Chargers’ 2-yard line. They scored a touchdown three plays later.

“That drive was a learning experience for everybody,” Staley said when asked about Woods’ penalty.

Woods cannot be taking those types of penalties when the regular season begins in September. He is going to have an important role in Staley’s defense as the third safety. That mistake seems very fixable. To me, the bigger takeaway is that Woods played well.

7. In a night of surprising moments, perhaps the most surprising was rookie defensive lineman CJ Okoye having a sack in his first-ever competitive football game. Yes, you read that right. Okoye, who is from Nigeria, joined the Chargers in the offseason as part of the league’s International Pathway Program. He had not played in a competitive football game at any level before Saturday night. On the Rams’ final offensive play of the game, defensive lineman Jerrod Clark created initial pressure on quarterback Stetson Bennett. Okoye then cleaned it up.

The Chargers sideline exploded after Okoye’s sack.

“How crazy is it?” said defensive lineman Morgan Fox, who did not dress for the game. “We all lost our minds, and I think we still all can’t believe it.”

(Top photo of Joshua Kelley: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)

The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order 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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