COSTA MESA, Calif. — The Los Angeles Chargers held their 15th practice of training camp Thursday at Jack R. Hammett Sports Complex — the first of two joint practices with the visiting New Orleans Saints ahead of the teams’ preseason matchup this weekend at SoFi Stadium.
I watched the Chargers defense against the Saints offense on Thursday. I will watch the Chargers offense against the Saints defense on Friday.
Here are my takeaways, notes and observations from Thursday’s practice.
Defense wins the day
The Chargers controlled the line of scrimmage during 11-on-11 drills and were regularly in the backfield while pass rushing and defending the run. On the opening play of 11-on-11 drills, defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day sacked Saints quarterback Derek Carr off play action. That type of penetration and pressure persisted throughout the practice.
Morgan Fox had a tackle for loss on a run up the middle on the opening play of the next 11-on-11 period, which focused on third downs. On the next play, Kenneth Murray Jr. had a sack, plowing through the running back who was in protection.
Why the Chargers feel Kenneth Murray Jr. is poised to ‘break out’
On a third-and-5 later in that period, Derwin James Jr. forced the lone turnover of the day. Carr had time to throw on the play and was looking for tight end Juwan Johnson on an over route. Carr’s throw was high and wobbly. James was in position over the top of Johnson and picked it off.
“He is playing with more technique than he ever has,” coach Brandon Staley said of James. “He was a playmaker out there today.”
a familiar foe 😏 pic.twitter.com/N9qJWgmtqs
— Los Angeles Chargers (@chargers) August 17, 2023
Next up was a move-the-ball period, with yardages, downs and distances tracked live. Ball carriers were whistled down on first contact. The Saints got backed up behind the sticks thanks to a false start on second down, but Carr was able to move the chains on back-to-back completions to Johnson. Murray was beat on an out route on second down for the first completion. James was beat on an out route on third down for the second completion.
On the ensuing set of downs, the Saints faced a second-and-8. Carr threw to running back Alvin Kamara in the flat. Safety JT Woods — who was starting next to James at safety with Alohi Gilman sitting out — made a great break on the route. He hit Kamara after a 2-yard gain.
The Saints then faced a third-and-6. They were flagged for another false start, setting up a third-and-11. Fox got pressure on the ensuing snap, forcing a Carr throwaway. The refs threw a flag on the defense. Staley nonetheless took his first-team defense off the field for the re-played third down. Receiver Kawaan Baker then beat cornerback Tiawan Mullen for a first down.
The Chargers defense took over the practice during the next period, which was red zone 11-on-11.
On a first down from the plus-20, Carr threw to running back Jamaal Williams in the flat. Edge rusher Chris Rumph II was in coverage and broke on the ball. He nearly picked it off but settled for a tackle for loss. Staley said he has seen a “more aggressive” Rumph during this camp.
“He’s on the attack,” Staley added. “He’s not waiting around.”
The downs and distances were pre-scripted for this red zone period. The next play was a second-and-5 from the 15. Murray shot a gap on a Williams handoff for tackle for loss. Fox had his second sack of the practice on the next snap, a third-and-goal from the eight.
“We expect that day-in and day-out,” said edge rusher Khalil Mack. “We want to affect the quarterback.”
On the final play of this series, a first-and-goal from the five, Carr spiked a throw into the ground when the pocket collapsed. The Chargers were connected in coverage across the field.
Backup quarterback Jameis Winston got two reps before Carr was back up. On Carr’s first play, Woods plugged the hole on a Williams run and again delivered a violent shot.
Woods’ physicality really showed in this practice. He had a big hit on Williams on the edge on a run play in an earlier 11-on-11 period. Woods had another big hit on a screen to receiver Michael Thomas during the third down period, stopping him short of the first down marker.
Later in the red zone period, Carr was whistled down on a coverage sack. No one was open, and the pocket was collapsing again.
The Saints offense scored their one and only touchdown of practice on a Kamara run from 4 yards out on the final play of the red zone period.
The Chargers defense then won the two-minute period. Carr fired a throw into the dirt on the second play of the drive to avoid more pressure. On third down, he completed to Johnson to move the chains. In the next set of downs, Murray got home for his second sack of the day, though the play was not whistled dead. Carr threw the ball away. Completions to Thomas and Johnson moved the Saints just into field goal range. A spike set up fourth down and a 52-yard field goal. Kicker Blake Grupe missed the attempt.
“Our guys were connected out there,” Staley said. “I thought that we were physical. I thought that we played hard.”
joint practice … LET’S GET ITTT pic.twitter.com/MUobDBkxS1
— Los Angeles Chargers (@chargers) August 17, 2023
WR/TE vs. DB 1-on-1s
I watched the Saints wide receivers and tight ends face the Chargers defensive backs in one-on-ones.
Some notes and highlights …
• Cornerback J.C. Jackson took two reps and allowed completions on both. He took the first rep of the period against Thomas, who won easily on a shallow dig route. Jackson then matched up with Chris Olave. Jackson jammed Olave at the line of scrimmage with a sudden stab. But Olave recovered, creating separation on his release by faking to the outside before cutting in. Carr hit Olave in stride.
• Asante Samuel Jr. took all four of his reps against Olave in the slot. He was called for pass interference on the first rep. He gave up a touchdown on a go-ball on the second rep. He was off balance on his third rep and lost Olave on an in-breaking route. And he got turned around by Olave for a second deep-ball touchdown on the fourth rep.
• Ja’Sir Taylor had a great period. He forced two pass breakups on his first two reps, both against Johnson. On the first, Taylor maintained his leverage to the outside, cutting off an out route from Johnson. He then got his hand on the ball to break it up. On the second, Taylor was in off coverage and broke on a Johnson slant route, knocking the pass away. On his third rep, Taylor showed good recovery speed on a deep shot down the sideline to receiver Shaquan Davis, who could not make a diving catch in the end zone.
• Woods struggled in both of his reps against Johnson. On the first, Woods was late reacting to an out route. Johnson was wide open. On the second, Woods tried to play press coverage but got outmuscled at the line of scrimmage. Johnson was wide open but dropped the touchdown pass.
• James took all three of his reps against Thomas in the slot. James won the first one with physicality at the top of the route. But Thomas then had receptions on the next two. Thomas fooled James with a hesitation move before winning on a slant. On the next play, he created separation on a dig route. James was positioned to the outside, and Thomas used his body to break away from James at the top of the route.
News and notes
• Defensive lineman Austin Johnson passed his physical and is now off the physically unable to perform list. He was back in practice for individual drills Thursday with his pads and helmet on. He did not participate in team drills. “Now we just have to build back up and make sure that we take our time,” Staley said of Johnson. “But definitely a good sign for us that he is back.”
• Gilman is dealing with a knee contusion, according to Staley. He has not practiced in a week. Staley said he is not concerned about the injury.
• Other Chargers who did not practice: LB Nick Niemann, WR Darrius Shepherd, LB Nathan East.
• WR Joshua Palmer was back in team drills.
• Safety Mark Webb Jr. sustained an injury during one-on-one drills. He was grabbing at his groin area after his first rep of the period. He participated briefly during seven-on-seven but was then pulled from practice. “We just kind of held him out as a precaution,” Staley said. Raheem Layne was working with the first team at safety during 11-on-11 when James was moving around to other positions.
(Top photo of Derek Carr and Brandon Staley: Paul Bersebach / MediaNews Group / Orange County Register via Getty Images)