COSTA MESA — The Chargers’ offense spent plenty of time on the sideline last week watching their defense struggle against the Houston Texans’ running game.
The Texans dominated the time of possession with running back Rex Burkhead having a career day, but Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen didn’t sense real trouble until the fourth quarter.
“I was feeling solid about it all the way up until Burkhead ran that last (touchdown) in,” Allen said Thursday.
The Chargers’ defense took the bulk of the blame for the surprising loss against the struggling Texans (4-11), but Allen, quarterback Justin Herbert and the rest of the offense had their moments to make an impact, despite the limited opportunities.
The Chargers had 417 total yards and never punted despite the absence of wide receivers Mike Williams, Jalen Guyton, running back Austin Ekeler and center Corey Linsley. The four starters were on the COVID-19 reserve list.
While the Chargers were able to move the ball, two costly interceptions from Herbert turned into 14 points for the Texans.
With the Chargers leading 12-10 late in the second quarter, Herbert threw a flat pass to rookie wide receiver Josh Palmer near the end zone that was intercepted by safety Jonathan Owens. The Texans took advantage and scored a touchdown to go into halftime with a 17-12 lead.
Later in the fourth quarter, Herbert had a miscommunication with tight end Jared Cook and threw an interception that defensive back Tavierre Thomas returned for a touchdown to end the Chargers’ comeback hopes.
Herbert is now tied with four other quarterbacks for a league-high 14 interceptions this season. The Chargers have raved about his decision-making and aren’t concerned about the uptick in interceptions, but the second-year quarterback has had some costly turnovers in 2021. The Chargers (8-7) are 0-4 when Herbert throws multiple interceptions in a game this season.
Herbert, who only threw 10 interceptions as a rookie, had two interceptions, including a pick-six, against the Denver Broncos during their Week 12 road loss.
The Chargers will need to make adjustments and can’t afford missed opportunities in Sunday’s rematch with the Broncos, whose defense is allowing a league-low 17.3 points per game. A loss would not eliminate the Chargers from playoff contention, but it would be a damaging blow, no matter what other results unfold around the league this week.
“The interceptions, I think that each has a story,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said. “What you’re looking for is if they are a product of poor decision-making, and none of them are a product of poor decision-making. That’s the one thing, as a head coach, that you’re looking for. He’s an outstanding decision-maker. For being a second-year player, he’s a premium decision-maker.”
Herbert threw a poor pass for the first interception in Houston, but perhaps the outcome would have been different if he were throwing to Williams or Guyton – the team’s two best downfield threats.
Williams and Guyton will be available this week after the wide receivers were activated off the COVID-19 list this week.
“That’s one of those where I probably called it a little tight – meaning I wish that we had 10 or 15 more yards (of field) to work with,” Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said of the first interception. “Would you have liked Josh to look and throttle and Justin to put it on him? Sure, or Justin throw it to the back of the end zone, but that’s one of those plays where it was kind of new-ish as far as a concept and their time-on-task probably wasn’t what it should have been before we unwrapped that play in a live game.”
It was a learning lesson in chemistry for Palmer and Herbert, and the same can be said for Herbert and Cook. He’s had trouble getting on the same page with Cook, the veteran tight end who joined the Chargers in the offseason.
Herbert has had two interceptions returned for touchdowns while targeting Cook this season, the first coming against the New England Patriots in Week 8. There have also been a handful of head-scratching plays between Herbert and Cook this season that were blamed on “miscommunication.”
“The Patriots one was probably an experience issue with Justin on that one, just the timing of when he threw that was probably a little early,” Lombardi said. “Then, on the one against Houston, I think it’s just Jared taking a little bit of a time to define what he was doing.”
Herbert also had trouble connecting with Allen in Houston, but Lombardi said that was because of the lack of plays. The Chargers only ran 39 offensive plays before Burkhead scored his second touchdown to extend the lead to 24-15 with 13:37 left in the fourth quarter. The Texans controlled the time of possession by having the ball for 34:52 compared to 25:08 for the Chargers.
Herbert and Allen were selected to the Pro Bowl because they’ve had plenty of success in Lombardi’s scheme this season. But they’ll need their best performances Sunday, and likely can’t afford costly miscues or a slow start against the Broncos’ stout defense in a critical game.
The Chargers have the pressure, but it helps to get back Williams, Guyton, Ekeler and Linsley from the COVID list.
“I’ve been saying all year that he’s our guy,” Allen said of Williams. “He’s going to get us the big points, the major points that we’ve been missing. It would be great to have him back.”
Lombardi said losing players a day before game day because of COVID-related reasons – as he did with Williams last week – hasn’t been too tough to manage.
Lombardi said it’s harder when he loses key players to injuries early in games. That’s what occurred with tight end Donald Parham Jr. when he sustained a concussion early in the first quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 15.
The Chargers missed Parham’s presence in Houston as a versatile tight end who can contribute as a blocker and receiver. He was recently placed on injured reserve and will miss the final two games of the regular season against the Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders.“Donald was such a big part of our game plans up to the point where he had that concussion,” Lombardi said. “When he went out early in that game, that’s difficult because there’s so many roles – he was supposed to be the primary blocker on this role and the receiver on this role. You really have to give credit to Chris Beatty, our receivers coach, and Kevin Koger, the tight ends coach. When Donald got hurt, Kevin was like, ‘Hey, just call it like it’s on the sheet. We’ll arrange it. We have it figured out.’
“Those guys did a great job for me to make it right within their position groups. Those guys did a great job, the assistant coaches and the players filling in knowing the roles that they had to fill as those guys went down. The players and the coaches kind of made it a lot easier on me, for sure.”
Chargers safety Derwin James (hamstring) was a limited participant at practice for the second consecutive day.
Linebacker Drue Tranquill (leg) missed his second straight practice this week.