Carson, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Chargers bet on Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson and won.
The backfield duo, which accounted for 215 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns during Sunday's season-opening victory over the Indianapolis Colts, carried the heavy burden of replacing Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon. Gordon spent the offseason away from the Chargers in pursuit of a new contract, and as his holdout extending into the regular season, the pressure ratcheted up on Ekeler and Jackson to fill some large shoes.
"I'm focused on the guys that we have here, and they've been playing pretty good football," Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said Monday when asked about Gordon's holdout. Lynn also pointed to the team's previous use of a backfield rotation rather than riding a single workhorse. "I've always used those guys as a tandem. That's not going to change. We're going to put guys in good positions to do what they do best."
Lynn held true to his word Sunday. Neither Ekeler nor Jackson touched the ball more than 18 times, but each received the opportunity to showcase their talents.
Ekeler, a small but skilled scatback, saw almost as much work as a receiver (seven targets) as he did as a runner. He caught six passes at or near the line of scrimmage and turned them into 96 yards and two touchdowns, including a 55-yard catch and run in the third quarter. On that play, Ekeler outran a bevy of Colts defenders before breaking attempted tackles by defensive back Ryan Lewis and linebacker Darius Leonard, the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Conversely, most of Jackson's work came between the tackles. His 23-yard run on the Chargers' second drive set up the offense's first score. He would later rush for 24 yards, giving him the two of the three longest carries of the game. In both cases, Jackson displayed burst and elusiveness, hitting top gear right as he crossed the line of scrimmage and picking up all the yards Los Angeles' offensive line blocked for him and more.
Largely driven by Ekeler and Jackson's exploits, the Chargers held a 24-9 lead near the end of the third quarter.
Yet between a muffed punt and pass-protection issues, the Chargers allowed the Colts back into the game. Philip Rivers took three sacks (one negated by an unrelated offsides penalty) behind a Russell Okung-less offensive line and tossed a fourth-quarter interception inside the red zone instead of putting the contest out of reach. Indianapolis capitalized on the mistakes, running Marlon Mack down the throat of the Los Angeles defense extensively in the second half and tying the game with 38 seconds remaining.
But Ekeler delivered again in overtime. After helping the Chargers drive down the length of the field with a 19-yard run, the third-year back galloped down the middle for 7 yards and a score, breaking multiple tackles along the way. Ekeler's teammates embraced him as the Colts vacated the field.
"[Ekeler] just kept his pad level down and they were going for a turnover and he ran right through them," Lynn said after the game. "He plays with outstanding leverage and like I've said before, he's pound for pound the strongest man on our team."
One game can only carry so much weight, but the performance of Ekeler and Jackson lends credence to the Chargers' decision to break off extension talks with Gordon a week ago. Gordon always trailed the team's other running backs in terms of efficiency (4 yards per carry, 4.8 yards per touch over his five-year career), but his nose for the end zone (38 career touchdowns) made him a unique weapon in Los Angeles' arsenal.
However, with Ekeler managing three scores in his first outing as the preferred starter, Gordon's trump card suddenly appears less special. In one game, Ekeler has already recorded half of his touchdown total from the previous year. He probably won't score three times in another game this season. But by showing he can, Ekeler demonstrates to the Chargers that the offense can survive and even thrive without Gordon touting the rock.
Gordon remains supportive of his teammates, praising them during Sunday's game via his Twitter account. Still, if Ekeler and Jackson continue to perform as well as they did against the Colts, Gordon might not find the starting job waiting for him if and when he returns.
Regardless of how Gordon's holdout unfolds, the Chargers backfield remains in good hands in his absence.
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH