Chargers training camp: The good and bad from Justin Herbert and offense vs. Saints

COSTA MESA, Calif. — The Los Angeles Chargers held their 16th practice of training camp Friday at Jack R. Hammett Sports Complex. It was their second of two joint practices with the New Orleans Saints ahead of the teams’ preseason matchup Sunday at SoFi Stadium. It was also their final practice at Hammett, as the Chargers will move back to their facility down the street next week for the remaining two practices.

I watched the Chargers offense against the Saints defense for Friday’s practice.

Here are my observations.

Good and the bad from uneven day

I had two primary takeaways from the offense’s practice — one positive and one negative.

The positive: The first-team offensive line — left tackle Rashawn Slater, left guard Zion Johnson, center Corey Linsley, right guard Jamaree Salyer and right tackle Trey Pipkins III  — had an outstanding practice in both pass protection and run blocking.

The negative: Justin Herbert and the Chargers passing offense struggled to get anything going, particularly down the field.

Let’s start by digging into the offensive line play. On paper, this line appeared to be one of the strengths of the Chargers’ roster entering camp. That is materializing. I was particularly impressed with how they blocked in the running game. To me, this was the best the ground attack has looked at any point in camp. Kellen Moore has installed a north-south rushing scheme that is a better fit for the Chargers’ personnel up front. As Johnson said earlier this week, “All of us love it. We feel like we’re built for the downhill run game.”

I think we are starting to see that philosophy come to life. On the first play of 11-on-11, Herbert tossed to Austin Ekeler on an inside pitch. The offensive line, as a unit, got tremendous push at the point of attack. That gave Ekeler time to read the blocks, cut to the left, and explode upfield for a 17-yard run — one of the Chargers’ longest runs of camp.

In the next period, a move-the-ball period with downs and distances tracked live, Ekeler again got the drive off to a strong start. This time, the left side of the line opened up a huge hole. Ekeler surged through and finished the run with an exclamation point, plowing over Saints cornerback Paulson Adebo.

Running backs Joshua Kelley and Isaiah Spiller also got involved. Kelley had a 10-yard run off a delayed draw. The offensive line was dominant again at the point of attack on this play. Spiller had a physical run on a third-and-goal from the 4-yard line during the red zone 11-on-11 period. The offensive line opened up a crease, and Spiller ran through two defenders at the goal line for a touchdown. Ekeler added another 10-yard run in the red zone on a pitch to the right. And Kelly had a first down run on a second-and-6 from the plus-15-yard line on a pitch to the right, finding extra yardage with a smooth cut along the sideline.

On a different run in a later red zone period, Ekeler gained the edge on another pitch, this time to the left. Linsley and Johnson combined to pull to the outside and created a convoy for Ekeler to follow. Receiver Mike Williams even got involved in the running game on a misdirection handoff.

“We’ve certainly formulated the identity that we want to play with,” coach Brandon Staley said.

The pass protection was equally consistent. Herbert was not sacked. He was only pressured significantly on one of his 33 dropbacks. Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan beat Pipkins on that rep in the red zone. Otherwise, Herbert was dealing with clean pockets all morning.

The Chargers just did not capitalize on the great protection. Herbert had time to throw, and he certainly attempted to access the deep part of the field. But the Chargers’ skill players, particularly the receivers, had a very tough time creating any sort of consistent separation.

Herbert finished the day 17-of-32 passing — a 53.1 completion percentage. And that is factoring in the seven-on-seven period, which is usually a big advantage period for the offense. Herbert went 4-for-8 in seven-on seven. Williams only had one reception on three targets. The two incompletions were both on deep shots. Rookie Quentin Johnston had no receptions on three targets from Herbert, all deep shots.

Even when Herbert did connect with pass catchers, the throws were into very tight windows. His best throw of the day came off play action, when he found tight end Gerald Everett over the middle. Adebo had great coverage on the play, but Herbert delivered a better throw. Herbert also found Everett for a red zone touchdown. Other than that, there weren’t many highlights to note in the passing game.

“There are things that we need to fix and things that we thought went well today,” Herbert said.

News and notes

• Safeties Mark Webb Jr. and Alohi Gilman did not practice Friday. Gilman is dealing with a knee contusion, and Webb has a groin injury, according to Staley. Webb was making a push for the 53-man roster, but injuries have been his kryptonite through his first three NFL training camps.

• Other Chargers who did not practice: LB Nick Niemann, WR Darrius Shepherd, CB Amechi Uzodinma, LB Nathan East, OL Andrew Trainer.

• WR John Hightower was back in team drills, and he picked up where he left off before an injury forced him to miss several practices. He had a third-down-conversion reception from Herbert on an out route in seven-on-seven. He also had a stellar contested catch on a third-down throw from Easton Stick in seven-on-seven.

• Stick threw an interception in seven-on-seven. He attempted a throw to receiver Derius Davis on a stop route underneath. Saints linebacker Uno Amadi jumped the route and picked it off.

• Kicker Dustin Hopkins returned to practice on Thursday. He had not kicked in live field goal drills since Day 2 of training camp. Hopkins attempted six kicks over two field goal periods Friday. Those distances: 35 yards, 38, 42, 44, 46 and 52. Hopkins went 5-for-6. His miss came from 52 yards. It was an ugly miss. He pulled it way left.

(Photo of Justin Herbert and Austin Ekeler: Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

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