INGLEWOOD, California — The Los Angeles Chargers‘ sideline erupted in jubilation following two special plays by a history-plagued special teams unit.
With 4:58 remaining in overtime, the Bolts recovered a muffed punt on the Denver Broncos‘ 28-yard line. Then, four plays later, kicker Dustin Hopkins — playing through a right hamstring injury — knocked down a 39-yard field goal to give the Chargers a 19-16 win at SoFi Stadium.
With the win, the Bolts improve to 4-2 — keeping them in the thick of the race for the AFC West, while proving that they can come up clutch.
On Monday Night Football, the Chargers left no doubt that they could win on their terms.
Los Angeles Chargers
QB breakdown: Justin Herbert and the Bolts’ offense struggled to find a rhythm against a fast and physical defense. Herbert completed 37 of 57 passes for 238 yards with an interception.
Through regulation, Herbert averaged 2.2 air yards on his completions, below his previous career low of 2.7.
Cornerback Pat Surtain II effectively eliminated go-to target wide receiver Mike Williams, who finished with two catches for 17 yards — including a clutch 9-yard reception in overtime to set up the game-winning field goal.
Herbert’s lone touchdown drive came in the first quarter, when he put together a seven-play, 84-yard drive that resulted in Austin Ekeler rushing 6 yards for a score to put the Bolts on the board, 10-7.
In the fourth quarter, on first-and-10 from his own 17-yard line, Herbert had a pass intercepted that was intended for Gerald Everett — his second interception of the season when targeting his new tight end.
Herbert, who was sacked twice, is continuing to play through fractured rib cartilage, about which he said earlier this week, “I think it’s getting better. I think time is probably the best help.”
Troubling trend: Cornerback J.C. Jackson not playing to standard after signing a five-year, $82.5 million contract in free agency.
Jackson could only watch, on an apparent blown assignment, as tight end Greg Dulcich sprinted by for a 39-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter to give the Broncos a 10-0 lead. A fifth-year pro, Jackson played four seasons in New England, where he led the NFL in interceptions (25) since 2018.
Jackson awaits his first pick as a Charger, and it’s unclear exactly what has caused his slow start to the season, whether it’s learning a new scheme or coming back from ankle surgery performed in late August.
Buy on a breakout performance: After spending most of the 2021 season on the sideline following ankle surgery, edge rusher Khalil Mack is proving in his ninth NFL season that he has plenty remaining in the tank.
Mack acknowledged entering Monday night that it is no fun chasing around Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson, yet he kept constant pressure on Wilson, sacking him once, and also batted down a pass.
Mack ranks second in the NFL, tied with six other players, with six sacks. The Chargers sacked Wilson four times. — Lindsey Thiry
Underrated statistic to know: Herbert threw zero touchdowns on 57 passes Monday. It’s the second time this season a player threw at least 57 passes without a touchdown (Kyler Murray).
Next game: vs. Seahawks (4:25 p.m. ET, Sunday)
One of Denver Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett’s biggest items on the to-do list when he took the job was to improve the Broncos’ dismal performance in the AFC West, especially on the road in the division.
The Broncos stumbled into SoFi Stadium Monday night 2-11 in their past 13 division games dating back to the start of the 2020 season, 0-7 on the road with a loss in Las Vegas already on this season’s docket. So, add another on the growing pile as their offense shut it down in the second half — again — and rookie Montrell Washington muffed a punt at the Broncos’ 28-yard line with 4 minutes, 46 seconds to play in overtime to help set up a 19-16 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
It all had a familiar ring for the Broncos, who had a 10-0 lead in the first quarter before their still-struggling offense essentially called it a night. A team that has scored all of five points in the third quarter this season — two of those on a safety by the defense earlier this year — was shut out in the third again as the Broncos had only 19 yards of offense.
The Chargers simply pushed back against a battered Broncos offensive line for much of the second half — left tackle Garett Bolles will miss the rest of the season after he fractured his right fibula in the loss to the Indianapolis Colts — to keep Russell Wilson out of sync.
The Denver defense slugged it out enough to get to overtime, but all the work the Broncos said they did on offense during the 11 days between their Thursday night loss to the Colts and Monday’s to the Chargers certainly did not show.
Troubling trend: Rookie cornerback Damarri Mathis got a preview of what the remainder of the season could look like for him. Mathis, who is in the lineup due to the season-ending knee injury to Ronald Darby, was targeted by Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert on the game’s first play from scrimmage — Mathis was called for pass interference — and the Chargers didn’t let up.
Mathis had three pass interference penalties in the first half alone that accounted for 81 yards, four in the game. Whenever Herbert faced even a minimal stress situation he sent the ball Mathis’ way. The rookie better get used to it and respond because the moment any of the Broncos’ future opponents look at what the Chargers did Monday night, they’ll believe they can make it work as well.
Mathis showed some resiliency with a key fourth-down pass breakup to open the fourth quarter, but the play was yet another indicator that it will not be a relaxing ride for him in the coming weeks.
Biggest hole in the game plan: Hackett has spent plenty of time since he got the job talking about how important the run game is, and will be, in the team’s offense.
And then, as the team struggles along the learning curve, when it has the ball the run game is ornamental at best. Granted, the season-ending injury Javonte Williams suffered in the loss to the Raiders will impact the Broncos’ plan, but they ran the ball just seven times in the first half versus the Chargers, and one of those was a Wilson scramble.
This has led at times to short possessions in which the Broncos use up just over a minute on an ill-timed three-and-out before sending their defense back on the field. And the team’s continued struggles on first down — Denver faced second-and-18, second-and-12 and second-and-9 in the first half alone — have pushed the Broncos away from a run game they need to be bigger part of what they’re doing.
All you have to see is on third-and-1, in their first possession of overtime, Wilson was in the shotgun as he threw an incompletion under heavy pressure from a Chargers pass rush with no reason to slow down.
QB breakdown: Wilson hit his first 10 pass attempts Monday night and looked far more comfortable overall. But without the benefit of much play-action in the Broncos’ offense and amid an ongoing disconnect with wide receiver Jerry Jeudy that seems to appear with regularity, Wilson completed only three of his next 11 passes.
He completed passes to nine different receivers, including the first touchdown for rookie tight end Greg Dulcich. The first-down woes, however, continue to disrupt the tempo of things, and so while Wilson was better in the first half Monday, there is still plenty of work to be done. — Jeff Legwold
Underrated statistic to know: Wilson started the game completing his first nine attempts to nine different pass-catchers. According to Elias, no QB dating back to 1978 started a game 9-for-9 to nine different players.
Next game: vs. Jets (4:05 p.m. ET, Sunday)