The Los Angeles Chargers have come out of Week 1 better than most teams in the NFL.
They hold a 1-0 record after downing the Indianapolis Colts 30-24 in a game that saw former backup running back Austin Ekeler make a star turn, recording three touchdowns and more than 150 yards from scrimmage. Los Angeles will face two modest-at-best challenges from the Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins over the next three weeks. If the Chargers take care of business in those games, they could realistically finish the first quarter of the season with a 3-1 or better record.
But to take advantage of their path, the team will have to address their defense.
On Sunday, the Colts carved up the unit on the ground and through the air. Running back Marlon Mack ran roughshod over Los Angeles, amassing 174 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, wideout T.Y. Hilton highlighted the Chargers' inconsistent tackling all afternoon, most glaringly on a 19-yard touchdown that set up a game-tying two-point attempt. Mack would successfully convert on the play, sending the game into overtime.
"We definitely have to improve in our run defense," Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said Monday. "I was not happy with that. … That's an area where we've gotten better over the last couple years, but we definitely took a step back yesterday."
Lynn went on reference the presence of "some new guys in the lineup" as a contributing factor to the defensive struggles. The Chargers entered Sunday's game without the services of several starters and role players and finished the afternoon with even fewer. Defensive back Derwin James officially landed on injured reserve last week with a stress fracture in his foot and linebacker Denzel Perryman played zero snaps from scrimmage while nursing an ankle injury. The absence of James and Perryman had a direct impact on the run defense, which leaned on Rayshawn Jenkins and Kyzir White in their place.
But as the game progress, the Chargers endured additional injury woes. Starting cornerback Michael Davis exited the game with a hamstring injury, thrusting untested second-year man Brandon Facyson into action. The Colts went after Facyson extensively, targeting him on his first play from scrimmage. By the end, Facyson had given up five completions on six targets. Four went for first downs. Another resulted in a touchdown.
Even if Facyson improves with added practice reps, the Chargers need to address their cornerback depth. Trevor Williams remains out with a quad injury, and Davis will "miss a little time" according to Lynn. That leaves Casey Hayward, Desmond King, and Facyson as the only healthy corners on Los Angeles' roster.
Accordingly, the front office needs to add someone to fill the void left by Davis and Williams. Rookie cornerback Kemon Hall spent the offseason with the Chargers and signed with their practice squad earlier this month, making him a strong candidate for a promotion to the 53-man roster. They could also consider Jeff Richards who appeared in six games with Los Angeles last season and competed for a roster during training camp and the preseason earlier this year. The Chargers could also pursue options with no ties to the organization, an idea Lynn wouldn't dismiss at during his Monday press conference.
Regardless of how the situation unfolds, the Chargers look unlikely to bring in a cornerback able to contribute more than spot snaps on defense and special-teams work. Even if they could, the middle of the defense remains tenuous until Perryman can handle his normal allotment of snaps and James returns from IR.
All of which puts the onus on defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to scheme around the deficiencies in personnel. Bradley has pulled off such feats in the recent past, playing primarily with seven defensive backs during a playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens last January. The unusual look confounded Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and held him to just 194 yards passing and 54 on the ground. Los Angeles forced two turnovers from Jackson as well.
Of course, Bradley had James at his disposal for that game. James won't rejoin the Chargers until Week 9 at the earliest.
No team can expect to lose so many key pieces and still perform at the same level. Until James, Perryman, and the host of other injured contributors return to the field, the defense will lack its tone setters and most physical players. That appears to concern the Chargers' head coach as much as anything else.
"Anytime a team runs the football on you that many times for that many yards, it's a physical thing," Lynn said. "That's what we got to get better."
Lynn and his coaching staff will soon find out whether the defense's performance against the Colts represents an outlier or a harbinger of things to come.
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH