Brandon Staley keeps Chargers' offense going fourth, and producing

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INGLEWOOD, CA - OCTOBER 10, 2021: Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) hands off to Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) against the Cleveland Browns in the first half at SoFi Stadium on October 10, 2021 in Inglewood, California. Ekeler finished with 119 yards rushing and three touchdowns in the Chargers 47-42 win.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, shown taking a handoff from Justin Herbert, came through with a nine-yard run on fourth down to produce a first down against the Browns. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

The idea was planted back in the spring when the Chargers were running around in shorts and T-shirts.

New coach Brandon Staley warned his offense not to assume a punt was coming just because it was fourth down.

“Hey, man, don’t start jogging off the field yet,” center Corey Linsley remembers Staley saying. “We could go for a fourth [down] if we feel comfortable, doesn’t matter [where or when].”

The rookie coach has followed through on those words. Through five games, the Chargers' offense is seven for seven on fourth down. The team’s only failed fourth-down attempt came on a fake punt.

The Chargers also had two fourth downs converted by pass interference calls on the opposition and lost another successful try when wide receiver Jalen Guyton was penalized for an illegal shift.

“For us, it’s that attack mentality, being in those situations where you have to have it and getting it done,” Linsley said Wednesday. “It’s a huge confidence builder. It takes guts to do it.”

For the Chargers, fourth-down conversions have led to a late go-ahead touchdown against Kansas City, a late clinching touchdown against Las Vegas and a late tying touchdown against Cleveland.

“If I’m on defense, I don’t want to see us go for it,” offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. “I’d rather see us punt. I think that's a good way to think about it.”

Five of the Chargers’ conversions have come on drives that resulted in touchdowns and one on a drive that ended with a field goal. The other conversion didn’t help net points, the Chargers eventually punting.

“When he says, ‘Hey, we’re going for it,’ I don’t really judge the decision,” Lombardi said of Staley. “I just call the play. … In retrospect, pretty gutsy a couple of them.”

Not counting the fake punt, the Chargers have gone for it on fourth and one, fourth and two (three times), fourth and four (three times), fourth and seven, fourth and eight and fourth and nine.

They’ve gone for it on their end of the field three times, including Sunday when, on fourth and two at the 24-yard line, Linsley said even he was surprised at the decision — despite Staley’s offseason warnings.

In that case, the Chargers had just fallen behind the Browns 27-13 and there were still 10 1/2 minutes to play in the third quarter.

It’s not hyperbole to suggest the game was teetering. Failing to pick up the first down would have given Cleveland a short field and a chance to bury the Chargers.

Instead, Austin Ekeler took a handoff from Justin Herbert and — behind a key block by backup right guard Michael Schofield — gained nine yards.

Staley has explained that the Chargers’ fourth-down decisions are data-driven and supported by modeling done by his analytics assistants. He said he doesn’t believe he’s gambling but rather making “sound decisions, not reckless ones.”

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws as the line pass protects against the Browns.
The Chargers have taken more risks on fourth down partly because of their confidence in quarterback Justin Herbert (10). (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Having a quarterback performing at the level Herbert has maintained certainly adds to Staley’s willingness to push things. He often has talked about his preference to put the game in Herbert’s hands.

“I think that's huge, knowing that more often than not he's going to make a play, your receivers are going to make a play and your line's going to protect,” Lombardi said. “The better you feel about those guys the more aggressive you’ll be.”

In a league where so many games are decided late, an ounce of aggression from the head coach can make all the difference.

Injuries

Linebacker Drue Tranquill is dealing with a chest-muscle injury, Staley saying the team doesn’t believe “it's going to be anything long term IR wise.” He said Tranquill is seeking a second opinion after initial tests by the Chargers’ medical staff.

With linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. (ankle) already out, losing Tranquill would leave the Chargers with only rookies Nick Niemann and Amen Ogbongbemiga behind Kyzir White, one of the two starters at inside linebacker.

Wide receiver Mike Williams was the only other player who wouldn’t have practiced Wednesday had the Chargers conducted more than a walk-through. Williams was listed as having a knee injury.

Right tackle Bryan Bulaga underwent core-muscle surgery Tuesday in Philadelphia, the Chargers announced. Staley says the belief is Bulaga will be able to return at some point, though the team has no timetable yet.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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