HOUSTON — Austin Ekeler bolted out of the backfield, accelerating away from pursuit after a crisp play-action fake on a bootleg pass from Los Angeles Chargers star quarterback Justin Herbert.
Once Herbert delivered the football to one of the most versatile running backs in the league with Houston Texans defensive end Jonathan Greenard trailing the play, Ekeler took care of the rest as he scooted into the end zone and successfully dove for the pylon for his third touchdown of the game.
It marked the exclamation point that sealed a 34-24 victory Sunday for the Chargers that represented a get-well moment in different kinds of ways for Ekeler and Herbert.
Austin Ekeler relishes first touchdowns of the season
On the heels of a career-high 20 touchdowns last season, Ekeler had gotten off to an uncharacteristically slow start with just 80 rushing yards, no touchdowns, and a 2.5 average per carry until Sunday’s breakthrough at NRG Stadium.
Not only did Ekeler rush for 60 yards and two scores in helping the Chargers to build a 21-0 lead, he provided key plays in the fourth quarter to allow them to hold off the Texans’ comeback attempt. He converted a clutch fourth down before his game-clinching touchdown catch and finished with six receptions for 49 yards on seven targets.
“Finally, finally,” Ekeler said after scoring his first touchdowns of the season. “It felt so good. I’ve been deprived over here. I had a few opportunities today and was able to capitalize. That’s one week, but now, let’s do it again.”
It was a classic Ekeler type of performance.
Ekeler rushed for 12 touchdowns and caught eight touchdowns last season but entered Sunday with no trips to the end zone. And the Chargers entered the day ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards. But they showed improvement on Sunday with 81 yards on 27 carries against the Texans, albeit against a defense that entered ranked last in the NFL in rushing defense — a unit that allowed 281 rushing yards in a loss to the Chicago Bears a week ago.
Ekeler is the engine of the Chargers’ offense. As Ekeler goes, they go. Generally speaking.
“To get him going today was big,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said. “He played like a captain today beyond his performance on the field. He really led our football team on offense and just played with the energy that he’s known for and just a complete performance by him.”
Ekeler wasn’t the only key contributor for the Chargers, who were reeling with the loss of two top players this week to injured reserve: offensive tackle Rashawn Slater (torn biceps) and defensive end Joey Bosa (groin).
Justin Herbert looks sharp, stays healthy
Herbert was masterful in helping the Chargers take command, and an overhauled offensive line allowed him to not absorb additional punishment to his painful rib cartilage injury that has required pain-killing injections.
He was only sacked once and hit twice as the Texans’ pass rush got stonewalled.
Stand-in left tackle Jamaree Salyer more than held his own as the replacement for Slater.
“He did an outstanding job,” Herbert said. “He stepped in there and I felt the time that I had back in the pocket. For a guy to be able to step up, first NFL game, first time playing, I thought he did an incredible job.
“I feel better, thank you. Yeah, it’s getting better. Thankful for the offensive line for keeping me upright. It’s super helpful. It helps in the recovery process.”
Herbert was smooth, completing 27 of 39 passes for 340 yards, two touchdown passes, one to Ekeler and another to tight end Gerald Everett while connecting seven times for 120 yards on 11 targets to imposing wide receiver Mike Williams.
Williams, signed to a three-year, $60 million contract this offseason, used his superior size at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, to beat Texans cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Derek Stingley Jr. for an average of 17.1 yards per reception. With Keenan Allen out with a hamstring injury, Williams provided a threat to the defense.
“Mike has done an incredible job,” Herbert said. “He’s certainly worth everything that we’re paying for him. To have a guy like that, who just goes and competes and wants to be the greatest, you know, it’s awesome to have a guy like that, being able to throw to him.”
Herbert led the Chargers on a 12-play, 84-yard drive, including a 4th-and-2 conversion on a 21-yard pass to Ekeler, before capping the drive with the pass in the flat to the all-purpose back.
After building a 21-0 lead, then allowing 17 consecutive points to the Texans to close the gap to three points midway through the fourth quarter, the Chargers evened their record at 2-2 with a decisive drive manufactured by Herbert.
Resilient display by Chargers after losing Bosa, Slater
“Yeah. I really felt like we had to fight hard to get it in the fourth quarter,” Staley said. “I loved the way we started this football game. At halftime, outside of a drive, I really loved the way we played in all three phases of the game. In that third quarter, it got tight. Didn’t play well enough in the third quarter.
“In the fourth quarter, I thought the way we finished that game, you can’t ask for anything more as the head coach, you know, respond after the turnover on the kickoff, and then force a field goal on defense. On offense, you go on a big drive, convert two third downs, a fourth down, and you’re able to close it out on defense and with a takeaway. I thought our guys showed a lot of fight today and I’m really proud of them.”
Now 2-2 and playing in the ultra-competitive AFC West, the Chargers took an important step Sunday. There are a lot tougher football games ahead of them, and the Texans are an 0-3-1 squad in the early stages of a major rebuild.
These are the kind of games, though, the Chargers absolutely have to win. And they have some hope of getting Slater and Bosa back for the stretch run.
‘Gritty tough win’
“Today was more of a gritty, tough win for a football team, but a really good response to a really tough loss last week,” Staley said. “We had some pieces as you know that were different this week. We had to make some adjustments. And I think that that’s what the beginning part of the NFL is. I think the fact that we’re 2-2, certainly not satisfied with that record, but definitely proud of our response today as a team. Now we got to keep improving.”
How the Chargers handled the adversity of losing Bosa and Slater and rebounding from a 38-10 blowout loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars is a good indicator of resiliency in their locker room. It was a rough week, but the Chargers took care of business on Sunday.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it felt heavy,” Herbert said. “I think all the guys in our team and our locker room are professionals, and they know that it’s a 17-game season. It’s a long season. You never want to lose games like that, but they bounced back, they had a great week of preparation, and that’s something that we’re going to have to do.”