INGLEWOOD, Calif. — The recipe that has hurt the Chargers defense for most of the season came back in the team’s 41-38 loss to the Detroit Lions: explosive plays and not stopping the run.
Those two factors hurt them on Sunday. The Lions had the ball ten times while only punting once, turning the ball over on downs in a fourth-and-goal situation, and the third was halftime. On every other drive, they scored in some fashion.
“I didn’t do a good enough job on defense for us today,” Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said.
This game came down to a gutsy call by Lions head coach Dan Campbell. His offense faced a 3rd-and-14 when Jared Goff hit Amon-Ra St. Brown for a 12-yard completion. It set up an obvious field goal situation on 4th-and-two with 1:47 left on the clock. Instead, Campbell had his offense go for it.
Goff hit rookie tight end Sam LaPorta for the six-yard completion. It looked similar to what Kansas City did with Travis Kelce three weeks ago; LaPorta found the gap and caught the pass for the first down.
“I can understand not wanting to give the ball to Justin (Herbert) to make sure they keep the offense on the field,” Chargers safety Derwin James said.
That play made the Chargers use their final timeout, so three Goff kneel-downs gave Riley Patterson a chance to win the game with a 41-yard field goal, which he did.
“We just needed one stop,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said.
After the game, James said he went up to receiver Keenan Allen and running back Austin Ekeler to tell them the loss was on the defense.
“We got to be better for you,” James said to his offensive teammates.
Allen wasn’t having it.
“It’s just him taking accountability,” Allen said. “He’s on the defensive side, so he’s able to speak on it more than we are, but we ride with those guys. Start to the end, and like I said, last week, they held the rope. This week, we kind of held the rope gave us a chance. Once it clicks together on both ends, it’s going to be scary.”
Allen refers to the fact that the Chargers’ defense had held their previous two opponents to 9.5 points and sacked Zach Wilson eight times.
“He’s got to say that, but like I said, it was definitely on us today,” James said. “He got to say that as my brother, I love him. But 38 points is enough to win any game. 28 is enough, and we didn’t get the job done on defense today.”
Justin Herbert and the offense put up one of their better performances of the season. The game started slow, especially after Herbert threw an interception that looked like a throwaway, but safety Kerby Joseph made a great diving interception going out of bounds.
“You can’t afford to make mistakes and expect to be able to win games like that,” Herbert said. “It’s an awfully good team that we’re going up against in the Lions.”
After that turnover, Herbert went 23 for 32 for 280 yards and four touchdowns. He threw two touchdowns to Allen, one of which was a nice 29-yarder in the first half that zip in there while the other was on a 4th-and-1 play on their final drive, which Allen turned into a 38-yard touchdown, eluding Joseph to walk into the end zone.
Herbert also threw an 18-yard touchdown to Jalen Guyton, who recently returned from the torn ACL he suffered last season. On the next drive after the Guyton touchdown, he drove the offense to the one-yard line, and after three failed attempts, he found rookie Quentin Johnston in the back of the end zone for the one-yard score—the first of his career.
“It was kind of like a relief I’ve been waiting on for a minute trying so hard to get it for a minute, then it finally happened,” Johnston said.
The Chargers offense had trouble scoring in the second half of games for a while now, and on Sunday, they scored on all three possessions. They even went 7-14 on third down and 3-3 on fourth down. It clicked today.
“Ballin’,” James said about the offense’s performance. “I feel bad for letting them down today, especially as one of the captains on defense.”
It was a tale of two halves for the Chargers defense. In the first half, they gave up 177 rushing yards to the Lions’ fierce rushing attack of David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs.
The rookie running back on the first two drives showed he meant business with 57 yards and a one-yard touchdown. Then, after an Austin Ekeler one-yard touchdown, Montgomery took a handoff and turned it into a 75-yard touchdown.
Montgomery finished with 116 rushing yards plus the score while Gibbs ended up with 112 total yards and two touchdowns.
“It was really the run game that got us off balance today,” Staley said. “When you run for 200 yards, that really puts a lot of pressure on you.”
In the second half, Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson put his offense in a position to win. They would go with some small plays then hit the big one.
On their second-to-last offensive drive, the Lions’ offense faced 3rd-and-1 on the Chargers’ 25-yard line, showing a run when Goff hit the play action. He threw a nice ball over the outstretched arms of James to tight end Brock Wright, who slipped behind the secondary for the touchdown.
After the Allen 38-yard touchdown, the Lions’ offense on the first play pulled the attention on the deep ball with receiver Kalif Raymond underneath, turning upfield for a 41-yard gain that eventually set up the game-winning field goal.
Explosive plays hurt this team. St. Brown had plays of 46, 33, 20 (touchdown) and that key 12-yard reception late in the 4th that led to 156 receiving yards and his touchdown.
They haven’t been able to put it together. It seems like the offense has one good game, and the defense struggles, or vice versa.
The Chargers’ defensive players say they must fix it during practice and have faith in their ability. Their head coach has expressed the same confidence in them being able to limit the explosive plays that have hurt them all season long.
“We’re four-and-five,” Staley said. “We’re still a work-in-progress, but we have the right men in that group — offense, defense and special teams. We’re good enough on offense, defense and special teams to beat anybody we play.”