The Los Angeles Chargers hit the field Sunday at State Farm Stadium with a 5-5 record after losing to Kansas City 30-27 last Sunday and falling three games behind the Chiefs in the AFC West. However, it is effectively four games because of Kansas City’s head-to-head sweep.

The NFL is usually defined by close games and a win would have left them one game back along with a split of the season series. Earlier in the season, the Chiefs also won by a field goal.

Overall, the Chargers have lost three games by a total of 12 points, but they also have won four by a total of 13.

They face a Cardinals team roiled again by adversity after the firing of offensive line coach/ run game coordinator Sean Kugler while the team was in Mexico City.

Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph described it as “here we go again.”

Right tackle Kelvin Beachum, when asked as the only remaining leader on the line what he says to his group, answered, “It’s adversities. You have things that happen in the National Football League. It’s always something different, something you’ve never seen before. And I’ve never been a part of anything like this. So, you got to find a way to battle and find a way to rectify and find a way to just right the ship.

“We’re at a point in the season where there’s still hope. We’ve got to find a way to make sure that we’re providing hope not only to ourselves, but to the fans out there as well.”

Asked if “never been a part of anything like this” was referring to the line or everything that’s occurred since the offseason started, he said, “There’s been a lot that has gone on this particular season, to be honest with you. I think since the beginning of the year, there’s been quite a bit that’s gone on in this locker room. But at the end of the day, we still have an opportunity to go out this weekend and handle business and still have an opportunity to close the year out the right way.”

With that, here is a deep dive into what to watch.

Some line stability?

Beachum is the only offensive player to start all 11 games, but the unit that will open the game Sunday is expected to be the same one that started the previous two with his linemates left tackle Josh Jones, left guard Rashaad Coward, center Billy Price, right guard Lecitus Smith. Coward will likely continue to rotate with Cody Ford.

That hasn’t happened since Weeks 2-4 when it was left tackle D.J. Humphries, left guard Justin Pugh, center Rodney Hudson, right guard Will Hernandez and Beachum. The Cardinals were 2-1 in those games.

The room was led this past week by assistant line coach Brian Natkin and run game coordinator Steve Heiden, who had been coaching the tight ends, taking over for Kugler.

Of Natkin, Beachum said, “Over the last couple of years, he’s taken on the role of being more vocal. We know what he brings to the table. He does a phenomenal job of getting us ready. He’s in charge of making sure we have all the tapes we need, all the extra film that we asked for. So he’s been very involved throughout the process. So he’ll do a great job and rise up this Sunday and find a way to lead us. he’s going to do everything that he can to make sure that we’re prepared.”

As for Heiden, Beachum noted that as a former tight end he played in the trenches and said, “The tight ends and the offensive line work hand in hand in the run game and the pass game. I have a very good rapport and very good relationship with him. He was in this room as an assistant a couple of years ago, so he understands some of the things that we’re doing. This is a new system, as far as the nuances and the jargon that we use; this is different than what he used when he played or what he used when he was an assistant. So we figured all those things out, we’ll continue to work with him, he’ll work with us. It’s ongoing open dialogue and open relationship and he’s gonna handle it really well.”

The reality, Beachum said, is that “it’s always been us against the world. The offensive line room is always a close-knit unit. We understand that we get none of the credit when things are going well and we get all the blame when things are going bad. That’s just part of it. That’s just what comes with the territory. But the thing is, we’re excited about the opportunity in front of us. We have a great opportunity to go out against a very talented defensive front this particular weekend, and that’s the focus at this point.

“It’s all about what we do on Sundays. We can talk about this all day, but at the end of the day, we got to find a way to get a win on Sunday.”

Accomplishing that with Kyler

Quarterback Kyler Murray will be on the field again after missing the previous two games with a hamstring injury. Wide receiver Hollywood Brown will make his return after suffering a foot injury in Week 6 against Seattle. He was activated from reserve/injured Saturday.

After practice Friday, coach Kliff Kingsbury said of Murray, “He’s had a good week, he had some full-speed reps today and looked sharp. We’re excited.”

There had been national reports that Murray wouldn’t be back until after next week’s bye and Kingsbury admitted, “We had talked about it, but obviously he was anxious to get back and he feels great. He feels 100 percent. If there was anything less than that we would have maybe waited, but he feels full go so we’re going to get him going.”

As for Brown, Kingsbury said, “He looked good today. He’s progressing and I feel good about him playing Sunday.”

This will be the first game of the season that Brown and DeAndre Hopkins would play together.

“Obviously having Hollywood Brown out there helps,” Hopkins said. “Just stretching the field. He does some special things that you can’t coach. He does a lot of special things with the ball in his hands.”

Concluded Kingsbury, “We’d love to achieve what we think we can and be the offense we think we can be. We’ve showed spurts of it, but haven’t been consistent. So this is as good a time as any to do it going into our bye to gain some momentum and feel good having six, seven days of rest, recover, hopefully get a couple bodies back would be huge.”

Perhaps it will help the Cardinals improve on first down where they rank last in the NFL with an average gain of 4.21 yards. Miami is first at 6.81.

Asked about that lack of production, Kingsbury said, “I wish I knew (why). Obviously, that’s put us in a lot of second-and-long, third-and-long situations and it’s been a struggle. We’ve been good on that down previously the first few years, but for whatever reason that’s been a tough one (this season) and that puts us behind the chains.

“So, we just keep continuing to work, but I don’t think there’s any secret formula on first down that we can tap into. It’s just execution; lot of penalties, lot of sacks on first, second down that have hurt us, but we’ve got to be better to start drives.”

Where’s the defense?

In the five games after Week 1, the Cardinals allowed 23, 20, 16, 20 and 19 points in the next five games. However, in the last five, it’s been 34, 34, 31, 17 and 38. The second half has been especially troubling.

From Week 7 on, opponents have scored 20, 20, 21, 14 and 21 points in the final two quarters. Even in the two games before that, the Eagles drove 70 yards on 17 plays for the winning field goal. The next week, the Seahawks went 75 yards in seven plays to stretch their lead in the fourth quarter to 19-9. Meanwhile …

Week 7 New Orleans: In the fourth quarter with the Cardinals leading by 18 points, the Saints had a five-play, 46-yard drive for a touchdown, then followed that gaining 75 yards on 11 plays for a touchdown and 53 yards on 10 plays for a field goal in the 42-34 win.

Week 8 Minnesota: The Vikings ran eight plays and gained 75 yards for a touchdown and 21-17 lead. Turnovers gave them outstanding field position at the 31- and 25-yard line that led to touchdowns in the 34-26 game.

Week 9 Seattle: After a Zaven Collins interception gave the Cardinals a 14-10 lead in the third quarter, the Seahawks gained 70 (13 plays), 81 (13) and 80 (five) yards for three touchdowns and a 31-21 victory.

Week 10 L.A. Rams: In a game the Cardinals controlled, the Rams ran seven plays for 49 yards gained and a touchdown to cut the lead to 17-10. Their final touchdown was essentially meaningless, but it still accounted for 70 yards of offense on 11 plays.

Week 11 San Francisco: The 49ers’ three second-half touchdowns totaled 172 yards on 19 plays.

Joseph said Thursday about last Monday night, “It was more missed tackles than it was fits, but again, that’s a test of will. So we’ve got to show up Sunday morning and play good football.”

Joseph also was asked about the narrative this week about lack of effort and the comment safety Budda Baker made after the game.

Saying he understood why Baker was emotional, Joseph said, “It’s never been that bad for us versus that football team. It became a runover late, and that was bizarre for me. So I was emotional also. If I had been interviewed after the game, it probably would’ve been the same kind of tone.

“After watching the game, we had some plays we didn’t finish. The one with Ham (cornerback Antonio Hamilton), they (Troy Aikman specifically) were talking about it on TV and rightfully so; that’s what your eyes saw. But that wasn’t the case. Guys are playing hard all the time. We addressed it moving forward; you don’t want your name on that stuff. But consistently, I don’t see that in our football team. We fight to the end.”

On Hard Knocks, Hamilton blamed himself while saying he thought 49ers tight end George Kittle was out of bounds on a late touchdown. Joseph elaborated, “That was legit. He would want it back. I would want it back for him. But it wasn’t consistent across the board. I would fight that. I watched the tape three times. I didn’t see that.”

Is Dicker the kicker a Kyler killer?

It appears that way. Prior to the Week 5 game against the Eagles, we chronicled how the team’s replacement kicker, rookie Cameron Dicker, had hit a game-winning field goal with nine seconds remaining as a freshman with Texas in 2018 that beat Oklahoma, 48-45, when Murray was the Sooners quarterback. Hollywood Brown was also on that team, while Cardinals rookie Keaontay Ingram was the leading rusher for Texas that day.

All Dicker then did in Week 5 was hit a 42-yard field goal in the third quarter to give Philadelphia a 17-10 lead and then make a chip-shot 23-yarder with 1:45 remaining for the 20-17 win. Dicker was released from the practice squad 20 days later when Jake Elliott was healthy.

Dicker was then signed to the Chargers’ practice squad on Nov. 3 with Dustin Hopkins injured and has kicked in the last three games. In his first game with the Chargers against Atlanta, Dicker hit a 31-yard, fourth-quarter field goal to tie the game at 17. Then, as fate would have it, he made a 37-yarder as time expired for, yes, another 20-17 victory.

He is the only rookie kicker in history to be named special teams player of the week twice in one season with different teams.

Since then, he has made all five of his field-goal attempts, with three coming from 47, 40 and 46 yards. Dicker was signed to the roster this week when Hopkins was placed on reserve/injured. In his four NFL games, he has been perfect with nine field goals and eight extra points.

Ingram referred to Dicker as being “legendary” in Texas and he will now will kick for the Chargers Sunday. Murray can only hope he can help the team prevent Dicker from being the hero again.

Injury update

Once again, left tackle D.J. Humphries and cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. won’t play because of back injuries. Asked if both could be affected for the remainder of the season, Kingsbury said, “I think we’ll have a better feel after the bye. If they’re not progressing even more when we get through that week, then we’ll have to make some decisions.”

That timetable for Humphries was changed Saturday when he was placed on reserve/injured. The sixth Cardinals offensive lineman now on that list, Humphries has to miss the next four games, and with only six remaining his season is likely over.

With wide receiver Rondale Moore (groin) out and Greg Dortch, who is also the return specialist, questionable with a thumb injury, both Pharoh Cooper and Andre Baccellia will likely be active Sunday. They both could be used in the return game. Cooper was signed to the practice squad earlier this week and was with the team in 2019 with Kingsbury the coach. Baccellia was signed to the roster from the practice squad, while Cooper was elevated along with tight end Maxx Williams. Tight end Zach Ertz joined Humphries on reserve/injured.

Kingsbury said Dortch’s availability will be based on pain tolerance, but added they will find out Sunday prior to the game whether he can catch. If Dortch, Baccellia and Cooper are all active, there could be an unusual seven receivers on the game-day roster with Hopkins, Brown, A.J. Green and Robbie Anderson.

What they’re saying

Joseph on Chargers running back Austin Ekeler: “He’s a self-made guy. I mean, he’s a Western (State) Colorado guy. He’s an undersized guy (5-10, 200) that shouldn’t be in this league probably. But he’s their leading receiver at (69) catches and a leading rusher at 123 carries, so he is carrying the football team. Obviously, (wide receiver Keenan) Allen and (Mike) Williams have been hurt most of the year, so he’s been the main guy.

“He takes checkdowns for seven, eight yards a crack and that’s huge for an offense and as a runner, he’s slippery. He’s got a low center of gravity. He breaks tackles, has great hands out of the backfield, he protects, so he’s a football player and obviously when you watch him, he’s gonna be a tough out like most good backs are in this league.”

Ekeler has seven rushing touchdowns and four receiving after having 12 and eight last season.

Chargers coach Brandon Staley on Murray: “Kyler is a rare player in the league. He’s one of those guys that has difficult speed to replicate because there aren’t very many quarterbacks that run as fast as he does — Lamar Jackson and Justin Fields and some of those guys that have that true, elite, sub-4.4 speed — but we’ve had Easton (Stick) do a great job (on scout team) for us this week. You just try to simulate the plays the best that you can, and then the locations that you are going to need to be at, but until you get to the game, it’s very difficult to simulate someone that is as good as Kyler is. It will be a team operation, for sure.”

Joseph on Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert: “He’s a long athlete with a great arm. He can make every throw. And what’s surprising with this guy, you don’t see the pressure. His eyes are down the field, he’s making throws from different arm angles, he can scramble, he can run with the ball, he takes some shots, which young guys do. That’s got to stop. He won’t last a long time doing that; he’s awkward when he slides.

“But he’s a tall kid with a great arm, he’s got great poise, he’s got courage. He’s playing good football, and when he has time to make throws, man, he’s making throws. You watched his team play versus San Fran and had them beat late in the game. You watch them against all these good teams, they got teams beat. So, it’s going to be a chore to get this team contained and beat on Sunday. They got weapons. So it’s gonna be a challenge to get them stopped, but I think we’re up to it.”

Herbert ranks third in the NFL with 12,080 passing yards and 85 touchdowns since 2020, the year he was selected by the Chargers in the first round of the draft. With 208 yards and two touchdown passes Sunday, he can pass Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, respectively, for the second-most all time in those categories in a player’s first three seasons. Herbert is currently tied for third with Manning in touchdown passes.

Luck is first with 12,957 yards and Dan Marino first in touchdowns with 98.

Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi on a Joseph-coached defense: “They’re a very diverse defense. They blitz a lot. They give you a ton of different looks. I think I said about a defense earlier (this season), some teams you’re like, ‘Hey, here’s our personnel, here’s our formation. Here’s the card that we’re going to draw for scout-team defense. This is how they’re lining up,’ maybe the top three looks. When you think of a formation or personnel grouping with the Cardinals, well, I could draw 12 different cards and maybe they’re all equally as likely to show up. They do a lot. They play hard. They hit hard.

“There are certain pressure packages that have kind of been a hallmark of the way he operates that are very challenging. There’s definitely some carryover. He’s been in the AFC forever. When I got to the AFC, he was in the NFC. I’ve been part of teams that would cross paths with him. There’s always long protection meetings when you’re facing his defense.”

Lombardi on Isaiah Simmons: “He lines up everywhere and does everything for them. He’s kind of a tough guy to identify what he is when you’re trying to figure out who to block. It’s a big challenge.”

Herbert on Simmons: “He’s very athletic, is able to play so many different positions, whether it is nickel, linebacker. Sometimes they have him dropping back into the middle of the field. For a guy to be able to do that, you have to be really smart. He’s a savvy football player. Very athletic, very fast, and you have to be aware of him on the field.”

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com

Author

Howard Balzer is in his 47th year covering professional football as a writer, editor and broadcaster and has covered 41 Super Bowls. His connection with pro football began in 1976 with College and Pro Football Newsweekly, and since then he has been a featured columnist for The Sporting News, Pro Football Weekly, USA Today Sports Weekly and The Sports Xchange. Balzer moved to St. Louis in 1978 to work for The Sporting News, where he became Pro Football Editor in 1979. He was an analyst on ESPN's initial broadcast of the NFL Draft in 1980 and continued in that role through 1988. He has won seven writing awards in the Professional Football Writers of America competition, won an Emmy for commentaries on KPLR-TV in St. Louis in 1986 and was nominated for an Emmy in 1988 and 1990. He was named the 2016 winner of the Bob Broeg Media Award presented by the St. Louis/Tom Lombardo Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. The award is for enthusiasm, integrity, professionalism and devotion to the game of football and is reserved for individuals whose contributions to football in the St. Louis area have made a significant difference. Balzer was an officer (secretary and secretary/treasurer) for the Professional Football Writers of America for 33 years and was inducted into the St. Louis Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2010. Balzer relocated to the Phoenix area in 2020 as the publisher of the FanNation AllCardinals site and is now the Cardinals reporter for PHNX. He is entering his 19th year as one of 49 voting members on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is also on the Hall's Seniors Committee. He is the co-host of the weekly Pro Football Hall of Fame radio show on SiriusXM NFL Radio and is a part-time host at ArizonaSports 98.7 FM.

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