It is Monday following Week 3. The Los Angeles Chargers are 1-2. And they are dealing with a season-ending injury to a crucial offensive star.
No, this is not a description of 2022. Exactly one year later, the Chargers are faced with a very similar situation.
Receiver Mike Williams tore the ACL in his left knee late in the third quarter of Sunday’s 28-24 win at the Minnesota Vikings. An MRI on Monday revealed the tear. The Chargers announced later in the day that Williams will miss the remainder of the season.
The Chargers finally got in the win column. Even their wins come with crippling losses.
“The toughest kind of news,” coach Brandon Staley said Monday.
Chargers’ Mike Williams out for season with torn ACL
In Week 3 of last season, left tackle Rashawn Slater tore his biceps in a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. He did not play again. That 38-10 drubbing at home to Jacksonville included even another devastating injury. Edge rusher Joey Bosa tore his groin and went on to miss the next 12 games after undergoing surgery.
That’s after quarterback Justin Herbert fractured his rib cartilage a week earlier against the Kansas City Chiefs, and while he did not miss any time, the injury clearly bothered him in that first full game playing through it and lingered for most of the regular season.
The Chargers avoided that level of catastrophe on Sunday in Minnesota.
At the same time, safety Derwin James Jr. is now dealing with a hamstring strain that forced him to miss the fourth quarter against the Vikings. “We’re going to know more in the next 48 hours for his ability to practice Wednesday,” Staley said of James.
Star running back Austin Ekeler remains sidelined with what he said on a podcast is a high ankle sprain. “No new updates on Austin,” Staley said.
Bosa is dealing with a hamstring issue of his own that has limited his snap count in the past two games.
Linebacker Eric Kendricks has not played since Week 1 because of a hamstring injury.
J.C. Jackson was a healthy scratch for the win over the Vikings, the clearest sign yet that his return from a torn patellar tendon is not progressing as the Chargers hoped. A warrant for Jackson’s arrest was also issued Monday in Massachusetts after he failed to appear in court Friday for a probation violation hearing. Staley said Monday afternoon he did not know “as of right now” if the team would take disciplinary action. “It’s a private matter for J.C., and he’s working through it,” Staley added.
Once again, Staley’s Chargers will have to dig themselves out of an early-season hole amid a slew of injuries and challenges.
How the Chargers, Brandon Staley avoided rock bottom with ‘wild’ win over Vikings
Williams’ ACL tear is the most concerning of the bunch, as he will sidelined for the rest for the season. Williams was beginning to find his form in Kellen Moore’s new offense. He caught seven of his eight targets for 121 yards and a touchdown before he suffered the injury on an awkward tackle off a screen catch and run. “He had a fantastic game yesterday,” Staley said of Williams.
HERB TO KEENAN TO MIKE DUB
— Los Angeles Chargers (@chargers) September 24, 2023
Williams was adjusting to a slightly different role in Moore’s scheme, playing more in the slot than he did in Joe Lombardi’s offense. He played in the slot on 13.7 percent of his offensive snaps in 2021 and 13.1 percent of his snaps in 2022, according to TruMedia. Through three games this season, that rate had jumped to nearly 30 percent. And while the production had not yet shown up for Williams in those alignments — he had two catches for 14 yards out of the slot through Sunday — it was his receiving mate Keenan Allen who was making the biggest impact as a result of this schematic adjustment.
Williams lining up more often in the slot created better matchups for Allen on the outside. Opposing defenses had to devote attention and resources to Williams — his big frame, strong hands and contested catch capacity — when he was operating in the middle of the field, with more space and route options at his disposal. Allen has 13 catches for 191 yards from a wide alignment through three games this season, according to TruMedia. He had 23 catches for 257 yards from a wide alignment in 10 games last season.
Allen set a career high in catches (18) and receiving yards (215) in Sunday’s win. His 18 catches were the most by any player age 31 or older since 2000, according to TruMedia. The Vikings and defensive coordinator Brian Flores unleashed a maniacal game plan in which they blitzed Herbert on 41 of his 49 dropbacks — an 83.7 percent rate. That was the highest single-game rate against a quarterback with 10 or more pass attempts since 2013, according to TruMedia. (The New York Giants were close though last week, blitzing the San Francisco 49ers on 82.1 percent of Brock Purdy’s dropbacks, according to TruMedia.)
Herbert nonetheless completed 40 of his 47 pass attempts for 405 yards. He was surgical with his timing and decision-making, averaging 2.19 seconds from snap to throw, according to TruMedia. The Chargers gave up 12 pressures, but only five of those were attributed to offensive linemen, according to TruMedia. Allen and Williams were also key in this performance.
The Vikings played man coverage on 65.9 percent of their blitzes against Herbert, according to TruMedia. Allen and Williams won regularly in these situations. Allen caught 10 of 12 targets for 82 yards against man coverage when the Vikings blitzed. Williams caught all six of his targets for 110 yards against man coverage when the Vikings blitzed.
The Chargers are not likely to face another game plan like this for the rest of the season. But Williams’ presence is a big reason Allen has been seeing more favorable matchups in 2023, and that was especially true against the Vikings. With Williams gone, opposing defenses will be able to pay more attention to Allen.
“Everyone’s going to have to elevate their game,” Staley said.
That is especially true for Joshua Palmer and rookie first-round pick Quentin Johnston, the two players in line to take on much bigger roles with Williams out.
Allen missed seven games last season with a hamstring injury. Williams missed four games with a high ankle sprain and was limited to six snaps in a fifth game. At times, Palmer was the Chargers No. 1 receiver, and he finished the season leading the room with 72 catches. Staley called Palmer “one of the top young players in the league.” He has the full trust of Herbert.
Palmer fumbled in the second quarter Sunday. After that play, Herbert approached Palmer on the sideline. “I’m coming back to you,” Herbert said, as Palmer recalled in the locker room after the game.
Late in the first half, Herbert connected with Palmer on a go ball down the left sideline for a 29-yard gain that set up a touchdown. In the fourth quarter, Palmer scored the go-ahead touchdown on a deflected pass that should have been picked off.
“He’s been telling me that since my rookie year,” Palmer said of Herbert. “So I’m not afraid to make mistakes.”
— Los Angeles Chargers (@chargers) September 24, 2023
Johnston has only played 48 snaps through the first three games of this season. Of those 48, 12 came in the second quarter in Week 1 against the Miami Dolphins when Williams was out of the game while he was evaluated for a head injury. And four more came in the fourth quarter Sunday after Williams had torn his ACL.
Johnston’s role will change the most with Williams out.
“We drafted Quentin with the belief in the player and a long-term vision,” Staley said. “Now he’s going to get a bigger opportunity, and now you’re going to get to see more of him.”
The Chargers will have to adjust their offensive plan. There is not a player on the roster who they can simply move into Williams’ role — at least not initially.
As Staley said, the goal is to “make sure that new combination is featured in the best way for that new combination.”
“That’s what we’ve got to work through,” Staley said. “Mike’s gone, OK, now we’ve got a new group out there, whether it’s a two-receiver grouping, a three-receiver grouping, and getting those guys doing the things that give us the best chance to be successful on offense.”
Jalen Guyton remains on the physically unable to perform list but is eligible to return as soon as next week, after the Chargers host the Las Vegas Raiders in their fourth game of the season.
“No timeline on JG’s return to play,” Staley said.
Rookie fourth-round pick Derius Davis will also be in the mix.
The opportunity is there for the young guys. But the Chargers will miss Williams dearly — both in his production, and how he changes coverages for all the pass-catchers around him, most notably Allen.
Another uphill climb begins.
“We’re going to step up for him and we’re going to make sure that this group plays to his standard,” Staley said. “That’s our responsibility now.”
(Top photo of Mike Williams, right, with Joshua Palmer: Bailey Hillesheim / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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