Chargers pushing to flip biggest weakness into a strength

The Chargers’ five core members of the 2021 secondary missed 15 games through injuries. Everyone was away for at least two weeks.

Three of the best backups missed 29 games after suffering injuries.

All of those failing body parts added up to some seriously shaky moments as the Chargers’ defense broke down too many times in a 9-8 season that died just before the playoffs.

On Saturday, the Chargers trained with 16 defensemen, not counting Pro Bowl safetyman Derwin James Jr., who is out while negotiations for a possible contract extension continue.

The Chargers’ offseason defensive rebuild involved adding quality and depth. At the back end, they signed cornerback JC Jackson, who came out of his rookie Pro Bowl selection, and veteran Bryce Callahan, who started as the No. 1 slot corner. They also designed JT Woods, Ja’Sir Taylor and Deane Leonard.

The influx has moved Michael Davis, who has started 49 games over the past four seasons, to fourth on the cornerback depth chart.

It has also increased competition. Defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill said the defenders brought an “urgency” to the first four days of training camp.

If any of the Chargers’ defensive backs got too comfortable in their roles prior to this season, Hill suggested the opportunity is now gone.

“Every rep counts,” he said. “Maybe they could have looked earlier and said, ‘Well, I’m not through with this guy. I can correct it.’ But that rep can be taken away from you if you are not urgent and you keep making the same mistake.”

The defense has won the most team periods to date against Pro Bowl quarterback Justin Herbert.

Backup Kemon Hall intercepted Chase Daniel in a practice Saturday that also involved demolished passes from Davis (on a 50/50 ball for Jalen Guyton) and Asante Samuel Jr. (on an inside screen for Mike Williams).

“Definitely pleased with the progress,” Hill said.

With so many defenders in camp, Chargers coaches don’t expect the competition to escalate until the roster is sorted out.

“It’s going to be difficult for these sales people to disperse,” Hill said. “These guys know that rep is important when they’re in there.”

Johnson adapts

The Chargers will not practice on Sunday before returning to their first practice session in pads on Monday morning.

This will be the first opportunity for the coaches to take a closer look at first-round pick Zion Johnson, who was drafted as the team’s right starter.

Rashawn Slater, who reached the Pro Bowl in 2021 as a rookie left tackle, praised Johnson’s confidence and noted his “quiet energy.” He said the two had discussed moving to the NFL.

“I told him, ‘Ball is ball,'” Slater said. “Everything goes a bit faster at this level. Guys have different talents, a bit faster and stuff like that. At the end of the day, it’s like college. Just keep calm and trust your technique and trust what got you here. He will be fine.”

The competition for starting spot for the right tackle between Storm Norton and Trey Pipkins III will also intensify on Monday.

So will the fight for the #2 running back job.

“I don’t think you can judge a back until the pads come in,” said coach Brandon Staley. “We will give them every opportunity to prove themselves. That’s what this training camp for this position is about.”

Running back spots behind starter Austin Ekeler are also determined in part by special teams’ contribution. That includes the full-back, which sees Gabe Nabers and rookie Zander Horvath go head-to-head.

Mack’s influence

Slater called what he’s seen so far from veteran pass rusher Khalil Mack “eye-opening.”

“We’re not even rushing without pads right now, and he’s already done some variations on some moves that I’ve never seen before,” Slater said. “He’s very smart. He’s very accomplished. He is also very powerful.”

The Chargers were traded for Mack in March. Slater said that fighting Mack can only help strengthen his game.

“I think it just goes to show that I thought I saw everything last year,” Slater said. “But no, I have a lot more to learn and I’ll do a lot better against him.”

practice observations

  • Linebacker Drue Tranquill and tight end Donald Parham Jr. did not practice Saturday due to undisclosed injuries. Staley is expected to provide updates on both players on Monday.
  • After James was out, Tranquill and veteran Kyle Van Noy called out the defense signals to the group. Chargers pushing to flip biggest weakness into a strength

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