Saturday, May 18, 2024

Chargers-Saints joint practices: What we saw, what we learned, what we heard

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COSTA MESA — The moving trucks parked just beyond the practice fields signified the end of three-plus weeks of training camp for the Chargers at Jack Hammett Sports Complex. Next week’s practices will be held at their training facility, a little less than 2 miles away on the other side of the 405 Freeway.

Two days of joint practices with the New Orleans Saints also indicated camp was nearing an end and the start of the regular season was approaching. Here’s what we saw, what we learned and what we heard after the Chargers and Saints previewed Sunday’s exhibition at SoFi Stadium:

RUNNING STRONG

Going into camp, the Chargers placed an emphasis on improving their running game and that appeared to be evident during Friday’s 11-on-11 sessions, particularly with quarterback Justin Herbert and the first-team offense going against the Saints’ first-team defense.

There were the expected battles in the trenches, but the Chargers’ offensive line more than held its own against the Saints’ defensive line and linebackers. At times, the Chargers were dominant, opening holes for top running back Austin Ekeler and backups Joshua Kelley and Isaiah Spiller.

Ekeler burst through the line at one point and bowled over New Orleans defensive back Paulson Adebo, a third-year pro from Stanford who clearly wasn’t ready for what hit him. Since it was against the rules of the joint practice to tackle to the ground, it was hard to say how far Ekeler might have run.

Whistles called a halt to plays after initial contact, as in touch football.

“I think we have certainly formulated the kind of identity we want to play with,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said of the running game through camp. “We still have two (preseason) games to go, but it’s really important for us to really establish who we are both on the line of scrimmage and at running back.”

In addition to facing the Saints on Sunday, the Chargers will play the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara next Friday in their exhibition finale. They opened preseason play with a 34-17 victory over the Rams last weekend, when they rushed for 214 yards and two touchdowns.

PASSING OBSERVATIONS

In Friday’s action, neither Herbert nor backup Easton Stick was effective in connecting with their receivers on passes deeper than 20 yards. Each was consistent on short passes of less than 20 yards. Neither led a scoring play during a two-minute drill to conclude practice.

Tight end Gerald Everett made two eye-catching receptions of passes from Herbert, including a leaping catch early in the 11-on-11 period and then an 8-yard touchdown pass later in the session. Everett’s speed off the line of scrimmage enabled him to get deep into the secondary.

“He goes out there and makes plays,” Herbert said of Everett. “Whenever he’s on the field, you’ve got to be able to find him and get him the ball because something special is going to happen. He’s a very good route-runner. He’s done a great job with the ball as soon as he gets it.

“My job is just to get him the ball and something special will happen.”

QUARTERBACK ROTATION

Herbert won’t play Sunday against the Saints and he’s not expected to play next Friday against the 49ers, either. Stick and Max Duggan split halves of the Chargers’ victory over the Rams and Staley said they would do so again against New Orleans. Stick is second on the depth chart and Duggan is third.

“We’ll try to get Easton a really good look,” Staley said of Stick, who completed 14 of 21 passes for 109 yards and an 8-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Quentin Johnston against the Rams. “He needs all the reps he can get. He’s playing at a high level. We’re going to feature him as much as we can.”

GETTING THEIR KICKS

The competition between kickers Cameron Dicker and Dustin Hopkins appeared to be heating up after Hopkins was sidelined for several weeks by an undisclosed injury. Hopkins made 8 of 9 kicks during Friday’s team sessions, missing only on a 52-yard attempt. Staley said he hadn’t decided who would kick Sunday.

Dicker made field goals of 25 and 50 yards against the Rams.

“It was good to get Dustin back,” Staley said after Hopkins kicked during team drills on Thursday for the first time since Day 2 of camp on July 27. “There is still going to be time to let those two duke it out. Now that (Hopkins is) back into practice, that’s going to be good for the evaluation, for sure.”

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