NASHVILLE — On first down, the menacing rain clouds rolled in over Nissan Stadium.
The impending doom was already palpable. It always is when you are watching the Los Angeles Chargers in the fourth quarter or overtime. But Mother Nature, in a bout of morose humor, felt it necessary to give that feeling a literal representation. The darkness crept and crept over the field until it felt like someone had turned off the lights.
That is when Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill took the shotgun snap from the Chargers’ 37-yard line. Tennessee needed a field goal to win the game, and comfortable field goal range was 5 yards away. Receiver DeAndre Hopkins was aligned in the slot. The defender covering him, safety Alohi Gilman, was 8 yards off the line of scrimmage. Tannehill sprinted right on a designed rollout. Hopkins, with a free release, beat Gilman to the sideline on an out route. Tannehill hit him. And as Hopkins touched both toes down and ran out of bounds, the skies opened up with a torrential downpour.
Three plays later, kicker Nick Folk drilled a 41-yard field.
— NFL (@NFL) September 17, 2023
The Chargers lost, 27-24, on Sunday to begin their season 0-2 for the first time since 2017. The rain stopped shortly after Folk’s kick, but not before it washed away the Chargers’ dreams of a convincing response to one of the most epic meltdowns in NFL history.
Sure, this is a new season. But the stink of January’s playoff to loss to the Jaguars is everywhere — in the offense’s three-and-out in overtime, in the two Titans deep balls that led to game-swinging touchdowns, in the defense’s three third-down personal fouls.
In all the pivotal moments the Chargers came up short. Again.
“I’m not worried about the Jacksonville loss,” coach Brandon Staley said, after cutting off a question about a potential hangover from how 2022 ended. “The Jacksonville loss has not carried onto the season whatsoever. If you’ve seen our training camp, if you’ve seen the way we played in the first two games, it hasn’t had an impact on our team whatsoever. Our team is connected. Our team has played its heart out in two games, and we’ve lost two tough games. It has nothing to do with the Jacksonville game. And if you ask anyone in our locker room, it has nothing to do with the Jacksonville game. That’s just the truth. It’s a convenient storyline for you and for everybody else. But it’s not the truth. We’ve lost two tough games, but the guys in that locker room, the men in that locker room, they are finishers and they have what it takes.”
And yet here the Chargers are. Since 2000, only 18 of 187 teams to start 0-2 have made the playoffs, according to TruMedia. Since the NFL expanded the playoff to seven teams per conference in 2020, only one of 23 teams to start 0-2 have made the playoffs. That was the Cincinnati Bengals last season.
A slow start to the season for the Chargers and Bengals 😳 pic.twitter.com/jVNsDVrIlm
— The Athletic NFL (@TheAthleticNFL) September 17, 2023
While it is silly and misguided to write any season off after two games, the odds are not in the Chargers’ favor.
“Obviously, we’re missing something,” said receiver Keenan Allen, who led the offense with eight catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
What is missing is not effort or desire. That part of the equation has been evident through training camp and these first two games, as Staley alluded to.
What is missing is execution in the important moments at the end of games — and that is execution from play callers and players.
Third-and-10 with a four-point lead against the Miami Dolphins in the fourth quarter? Tyreek Hill beat cornerback Ja’Sir Taylor in single coverage for a 47-yard completion.
Down two with 1:45 on the clock? Protection breakdowns and an intentional grounding penalty on Justin Herbert sunk a potential game-winning two-minute drive.
That was just Week 1.
An Allen touchdown to go up by 11-0 on the Titans in the second quarter? The defense surrendered a 70-yard bomb to Tannehill and Traylon Burks to give the Titans life.
TANNEHILL GOES DEEP TO BURKS!
— NFL (@NFL) September 17, 2023
Facing a third-and-13 up four points on the opening drive of the third quarter? Derwin James Jr. got flagged for a hit to the head on a slant route he had fully covered. Third-and-6 three plays later? Sebastian Joseph-Day got flagged for roughing the passer to give the Titans a fresh set of downs. Tannehill ran it in from 12 yards out on the next play.
“No harm for Derwin there,” Staley said.
“I take accountability for that,” Joseph-Day said.
Four-point lead late in the fourth quarter? Michael Davis got beat over the top for a 49-yard completion to Chris Moore.
“I lost us the game,” Davis said.
The Chargers have surrendered more completions of 30 or more yards than any team in the league since Staley was hired as head coach, according to TruMedia. They have given up 55 of those in 36 games.
“Our guys just have to respect the deep part of the field,” Staley said Sunday and has been saying since the day he arrived in Costa Mesa, Calif., in January 2021.
Staley tried to rotate his cornerbacks against the Titans, with J.C. Jackson and Davis switching series through the game.
“Playing corner is all about a rhythm,” Davis said. “If you’re going in and out, you lose your rhythm. But still, it doesn’t matter. The opponent doesn’t care.”
A third-and-4 later on that same drive after the deep pass to Moore? The Chargers gave up an easy completion to Hopkins, and Kenneth Murray Jr. got flagged for another roughing the passer. The Titans took the lead three plays later on a third-down touchdown reception from tight end Chig Okonkwo.
A week after completing less than 50 percent of his passes and throwing three interceptions, Tannehill was 20-of-24 for 246 yards and a touchdown despite five Chargers sacks.
“There were spots we could have taken advantage of and really put a nail in the coffin,” edge rusher Khalil Mack said. “It hurt us.”
Third-and-2 from the Titans’ 7-yard line with 21 seconds remaining in regulation? A touchdown all but seals the win? Tennessee edge rusher Harold Landry dominates right tackle Trey Pipkins III for a sack to hold the Chargers to a field goal.
Win the overtime toss and get the ball first? Pressure on first and second down forced Herbert throwaways. The Chargers had no answer for Titans defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons. On third down, the Chargers tried to go tempo but receiver Mike Williams lined up in the wrong spot. As Williams tried to run across the formation to get set, Herbert snapped the ball too early. It was poor awareness from the $50 million QB. Williams did not even run a route. Pressure again. Thrown away again.
“We had a tough time protecting the passer today,” Staley said.
“We all frustrated,” Williams said.
First down on the Titans’ opening offensive play of overtime? The Chargers got gashed for 14 yards on a crack toss play to the left edge, the same play they failed to defend over and over and over in 2022.
“We know we should be winning these games,” Mack said.
Therein lies the disconnect. With the talent they have, the Chargers should be winning these games.
Until they do that, the Jacksonville loss will not go away.
That’s just the truth.
(Top photo of Titans celebrating their game-winning field goal: Denny Simmons / USA Today)
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