The Los Angeles Chargers have thrust themselves into the contender tier thanks to the brilliance of Justin Herbert. While the passing game ranks among the league's best despite conservative coaching, the backfield has been a bit of a mystery.
Even though Austin Ekeler has proven he can be a standout player in this league, he came into this year with a handful of doubters. Joshua Kelley is still trying to prove he's a viable NFL backup, while rookie Isaiah Spiller is still a few weeks away from being a contributor.
So far, the Chargers have not been able to get much of anything going on the ground in terms of consistency. Ekeler has just 75 yards rushing through two games, and that decline has been the main catalyst for LA's sudden regression in the league's ground game rankings.
The Chargers rank as the third-worst team in the league in yards before contact per rush, ahead of only the Texans and Rams. While this can be attributed to poor offensive line play and schemes from Joe Lombardi, LA also ranks 27th in the league in yards after contact. This new-look backfield isn't meshing well.
The Los Angeles Chargers can't run the ball well.
With Kelley having been less than spectacular during his pro career, him starting the season slow is not the biggest shock in the world. Likewise, Spiller has been kept in bubble wrap until LA feels confident in putting him out there against professional athletes. Ekeler suddenly struggling is concerning.
Even though Ekeler is just one year removed from scoring 20 touchdowns, questions about his status as a bell cow running back are popping up. Last year was the only season where he carried the ball more than 200 times and topped 600 yards rushing. Ekeler needs to start showing that last year's ground game was no fluke.
Of course, not all of this falls on the running backs. Trey Pipkins remains substandard, team leader Corey Linsley left the Chiefs loss with an injury, and the guard duo of Matt Feiler and Zion Johnson features a league-average guard and a rookie. Lombardi's vanilla approach to the running game (and short passing game, for that matter) doesn't help.
Herbert can make up for a ton of internal strife around this disappointing offensive structure, but he will find it very difficult to win games in December and January if he can't run the ball effectively all the time. Week 3 against the Jaguars needs to be a wake-up call for Ekeler and the backs.