If you’ve watched the Los Angeles Chargers this season, you know they’re more of a pass-heavy team. Even so, running back Austin Ekeler is off to a hot start, especially after his Week 4 performance against the Las Vegas Raiders.
The Chargers made some big personnel moves in the offseason, hiring a new head coach—former Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley—and overhauling their offensive line by adding four new starters up front, including first-round pick Rashawn Slater. The early results have been more than promising. The Chargers are 3-1, and they’ve already beaten two in-division opponents: the Kansas City Chiefs and the at-the-time-undefeated Raiders. Quarterback Justin Herbert is continuing to excel, thriving behind an improved offensive line. But how have those offseason changes helped Ekeler and the run game?
After missing six games with injuries in 2020, Ekeler looks as if he’s quickly returned to the level of production that we can expect from him. In 2019, he racked up 1,550 all-purpose yards, including 993 receiving yards. He surpassed 550 rush yards that year as well on an average of just over eight rushing attempts per game. So far this season, the Chargers have gotten Ekeler more touches on the ground and they’ve found a lot of success doing so. Through Week 4, he’s averaging 12.5 carries per game and putting up the highest yards per attempt (5.7) of his career through four games. Ekeler has already rushed for over half of his previous career-high in single-season rush yards (557) with the pace to crest the 1,000-yard hill that running backs shoot to surpass every year.
On Monday, Ekeler passed the 100-yard mark on the ground for just the second time of his career. He finished with a career-best 117 yards and a rushing touchdown on 15 carries—that’s an average of 7.8(!) yards per carry—along with 28 more yards and a touchdown receiving. After the game, the sixth-year Chargers vet gave a lot of the credit to his offensive line and the excellent blocking he’s had in front of him, especially shouting out Slater, the first-round rookie. It’s hard to disagree, as Pro Football Focus has the Chargers’ run blocking ranked seventh in the NFL, while Ekeler is among running backs with the highest rushing grades. He’s always been a top-tier pass-catching running back, his 2019 season showed us that, but if the revamping of the offensive line allows for even more 100-yard rushing games from Ekeler, he could become an elite dual-threat out of the backfield.
The Chargers’ head coach also noted the importance of the run game—even in today’s NFL—to reporters in a clip that went viral on Football Twitter.
“What the running game does for you, it brings a physical dimension to the football game,” Staley said. “The running forces the defense to play block and to tackle … it really challenges your physicality and that’s why I think the run game is important to a quarterback. It’s literally going to allow him to have more space to operate when you do throw the football.”
It’s no question that the Chargers have an incredible quarterback in Herbert, but their ability to use the run game to complement his talent in the passing game will bring Los Angeles even more success. And after the best game of Ekeler’s career on the ground, we may start to see the Chargers lean on their run game even more.
Ekeler and his team have another big test ahead of them against a Cleveland Browns defense that has been great at stopping the run, with the best rush DVOA in the NFL this season and just 266 rushing yards given up.