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Armando Salguero: OutKick NFL Perspectives: Chargers Surge To Top of AFC West; Plus Cowboys, Trey Lance, Titans’ Pass Protection

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So the Los Angeles Chargers are the class of the AFC West after the first month of the 2021 NFL season.

How else to say it when the Chargers on Monday night beat the Los Angeles Raiders, 28-14 to knock Jon Gruden’s team from the ranks of the unbeaten, one week after they traveled to Kansas City and beat the defending AFC Champion Chiefs.

That’s two quality wins in two weeks and the Chargers are tied with the Raiders and Denver Broncos atop the division with a 3-1 record.

“We’re coming together,” coach Brandon Staley said. “That’s the way we expect to play. That’s the way we expect to play around here. It’s not easy. Because the teams we’re playing are really, really good.

“You see what Dallas is doing, you see what Kansas City is doing. These guys are real opponents and that’s a real opponent we just played. I think our guys are coming together.

“I feel like we’re finding that sweet spot within the game plan, getting these guys in a comfort zone. I felt these guys were in a comfort zone tonight. And we executed that way. That was a big step for us tonight.”

The Chargers got the requisite good performance from quarterback Justin Herbert, who threw three touchdowns passes without an interception. It wasn’t an amazing game by Herbert, but it got the attention of at least one teammate.

“He’s able in a tough environment at home to go out there and get us in the right plays, communicate to us in loud huddles and be able to stand in the pocket and deliver throws,” tight end Jared Cook said. “[He’s] able to change plays at the line of scrimmage. He just balled — great QB talent all around today.”

Herbert helped the Chargers convert on two of three fourth-down conversion attempts.

“He’s got that cool, calm composure that affects everyone in a positive way, including me,” Staley said of his quarterback.

But this victory was about more than just Herbert.

The defense forced the Raiders into four three-and-out possessions as L.A. built a 21-0 first-half lead.

Las Vegas did respond in the second half — to no one’s surprise. They did, after all, come into the game with the No. 1 offense in the NFL.

But the Chargers won at the line of scrimmage, rushing for 168 yards. Running back Austin Ekeler, who rushed for 117 yards on 15 carries, gained 81 of his yards before being contacted, showing the quality of the blocking in front of him. He scored on an 11-yard touchdown run with five minutes to play to seal the victory.

And beyond merely winning, the Chargers displayed laudable focus. Think of it:

Last week the crosstown Los Angeles Rams scored a huge victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But they followed that up with a loss to division rival Arizona.

Womp, womp, womp.

The Chargers, coming off a big victory at Kansas City, avoided getting satisfied. They avoided a letdown.

“I think it’s huge because we bounced back after a big win against Kansas City last week,” Herbert said. “And it’s always about the next week.”

Cowboys find offensive balance

Dak Prescott threw three touchdowns in the third quarter and four touchdowns total during Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers, but perhaps the more impressive feat was Ezekiel Elliott rushing for 143 yards against the Carolina defense.

Because the Panthers came into the game as the NFL’s top rushing defense and top overall defense.

That balance spells bad news for Cowboys’ opponents because Elliott seemed to have a burst he’s probably been lacking dating back to last season.

“Zeke’s been himself. It’s just been about the defense presenting the opportunity for him to go and do that and establish himself,” Prescott said. “But for him just to go out there and have the big runs, have some of those long runs. He said on one of them ‘I have to trust my speed.’

“I said, ‘One hundred percent you could have run by that guy, don’t think you can’t.’ You have the speed you’ve put in the work for it. It’s just good to see him in the open field, him using his burst and I’m excited for him and happy for him.”

Jimmy Garoppolo might play but Trey Lance is learning

The San Francisco 49ers went to bed Sunday night thinking that the clock is about to start on rookie quarterback Trey Lance as their starter. That’s because Jimmy Garoppolo had a calf injury late in the second quarter that knocked him out of the eventual loss to Seattle.

But coach Kyle Shanahan announced the Garoppolo injury was not as serious as first thought and and he may still play next weekend against undefeated Arizona. Still, Lance’s playing time Sunday, during which he completed 9 of 18 passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns, including a 76-yarder, was an opportunity for growth.

And Shanahan used the opportunity to teach.

“There’s stuff on every play that we talk about, but just in general, I was talking to him about how he felt in there,” Shanahan said. “You always picture your first NFL game and when you got to go in there and I know he’s been in for some plays, but not really to do every single play like that.

“And just getting in and out of the huddle, being with the guys, I think he enjoyed the moment. I thought he did a good job making some plays, especially when some weren’t there with his feet. A couple of passes I know he’d like to have back, but it was really just getting that experience and talking to him about how it was and all the things that can happen on each one of those plays and how it pertains the next week too.”

Titans pass protection issues

It wasn’t a mirage when the Tennessee Titans started the season giving up five sacks to Arizona defensive end Chandler Jones and allowing the Cardinals six sacks total.

Well, the issue continues as the Titans lead the NFL with 17 sacks allowed.

Tennessee yielded seven sacks and 14 quarterback hits against the previously winless New York Jets on Sunday. The Jets had six sacks in their three previous games combined.

So the Titans have issues protecting the quarterback and that quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, is apparently part of those problems.

“There are three processes to a pass game,” coach Mike Vrabel said Monday. “It is about getting open, recognizing man and zone, running the correct route, it is about protection holding up, and it is about the quarterback getting rid of the football and getting it to someone quickly.

“I would say all three of those. When the quarterback starts to get hit, then he wants to start getting rid of the ball sooner and then maybe guys aren’t open as quickly.”

Titans right tackle David Quessenberry has struggled much of this season and the New York game was no different because he gave up three sacks, three quarterback hits and three hurries, per ProFootballFocus.com.

“They brought pressure and we have to do a better job of picking up the pressure when somebody drops out and somebody comes,” Vrabel said.

Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

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