Chargers need to see an improved running attack
August 27, 2020
When the Los Angeles Chargers hired head coach Anthony Lynn in 2017, the Chargers needed to improve their rushing attack and Lynn was just the man to do it. The Chargers had not had a top ten rushing attack since 2007 and Lynn had a reputation as a running game guru. Lynn was a running back coach and offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills in 2015 & 2016. The Bills led the NFL in rushing yardage per game in both seasons.
While Lynn has had success as head coach with the Chargers, he has not been able to duplicate the success he had running the ball with the Bills. The Chargers have not had a top ten rushing attack in any of Lynn's three seasons as head coach, with the 2019 season being particularly bad. In 2019, the Chargers ended up 28th in rushing yardage per game and went four straight games with less than 40 yards rushing, something that had not happened in the NFL since 1946.
What has been missing for the Chargers has been an offensive line that can consistently run block and a quarterback that can be an effective running threat. But with some recent changes in the offseason, the Chargers may finally have the mix that they need to effectively run the football. The free agent acquisition of Bryan Bulaga at right tackle, the trade for Carolina Panther offensive guard Trai Turner and the departure of quarterback Philip Rivers should improve the running game.
Bulaga is a ten-year veteran who started 111 games at right tackle with the Green Bay Packers. Bulaga started as a rookie on the 2010 Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers and is the youngest player to ever start in a Super Bowl at 21 years, 322 days. The Packers offensive line was rated the 6th best in the NFL last season by Pro Football Focus.
The 31-year-old Bulaga signed a three-year, $30 million dollar contract with the Chargers, with $19 million guaranteed. Bulaga is reuniting with Charger offensive line coach James Campen, who he spent eight seasons with at Green Bay. Campen spent 11 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, before leaving in 2019 to join the Cleveland Browns. Campen left the Browns upon the hiring of a new head coach. Campen was hired by the Chargers in March.
Bulaga will be joined on the right side by Trai Turner, who was acquired in a trade for offensive tackle Russell Okung. The trade, which really qualifies as a fleecing, gave the Chargers a five-time pro bowl right guard who is only 27 years old. Turner has started 80 games, including starting at right guard for the Panthers in Super Bowl 50, a loss to the Denver Broncos.
Okung suffered a pulmonary embolism due to blood clots in his lungs during the 2019 offseason. He missed most of last season and was recently considering retirement. Okung will be 32 in October, so given his age and recent health issues, the trade for a 26-year-old guard and one of the best players at his position made no sense.
With a new offensive line coach, additions with Bulaga and Turner, and the return of pro bowl center Mike Pouncey from a neck injury, the Chargers should be much improved on the offensive line. Left guard Dan Feeney returns for his fourth season and Sam Tevi will start at left tackle. Tevi is making the move over from right tackle. Tevi, a 6th round draft pick in 2017, has started 30 games for the Chargers at tackle. Feeney, a 3rd round pick in 2017, has started 41 games at guard for the Chargers.
At quarterback, Tyrod Taylor will be the starter, at least initially. Taylor was the starting quarterback on the 2015 & 2016 Bills team that Lynn had so much success with. In those two seasons, Taylor rushed for 1,148 yards and ten touchdowns. As a comparison, Rivers had 609 yards rushing and three rushing touchdowns in 16 years with the Chargers.
With Taylor's running skills, expect the Chargers to utilize more of a zone-read-option offense, which should help open up the running game. Taylor's backups, Justin Herbert and Easton Stick are also athletic quarterbacks capable of running a zone read offense. Rivers will be missed at quarterback, but as Lynn once said at Buffalo, "I think you pass the ball to be explosive and score points. I think you run the ball to win football games."
The Chargers running backs are an area of strength for the team, led by Austin Ekeler, who has averaged 4.8 yards per carry in his first three seasons and had an amazing 92 receptions last season. His backups are Justin Jackson and 2020 4th pick and Joshua Kelly out of UCLA. Jackson has scored two touchdowns in his career and both were key scores in the 4th quarter of games, and both helped the Chargers to comeback wins on the road.
Kelly can run inside or outside. The Chargers need a tough short yardage back and Kelly could be the answer. UCLA fans will always remember his 289 yards rushing in a win over rival USC. At UCLA, Kelly showed the ability to be a three down back and he was a willing blocker. All of the Chargers backs can catch passes and it is likely that two of the three backs could be on the field at the same time.
With the improvements made to the roster, Lynn should be able to establish the Chargers as a solid running team this season and hopefully a top ten rushing attack. The top four NFL rushing teams in 2019 were the Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans, and the Seattle Seahawks, all playoff teams last season.
Seven of the top 10 rushing attacks in the NFL made the playoffs in 2019. Lynn, a running back in the NFL who played for six seasons, has the experience and knowledge to get the running game going. The question is, does he finally have the talent necessary to establish the Chargers as a top rushing offense? If he does, the Chargers should return to the playoffs in 2020.