Defense comes to forefront for Chargers in past 2 victories

The Los Angeles Chargers have played their best two-game stretch as a defense despite their best player being sidelined.

In the past two games, the Chargers have vaulted back into a playoff spot by shutting down offenses that stress different things.

On Sunday, the Chargers didn’t allow Tennessee’s Derrick Henry to beat them. Henry had 163 scrimmage yards, including 104 rushing, but his longest run of the game went for 13 yards.

The only time Henry was effective during the Chargers’ 17-14 victory was in the second quarter, when he accounted for all 63 yards on a TD drive. Henry caught a screen pass from Ryan Tannehill that went for 37 yards before scoring from 4 yards out on a direct snap.

The performance against the Titans came one week after the Chargers beat the Dolphins 23-17, where they contained quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Miami’s passing attack.

“We have a really good defensive culture right now. We have a lot of guys that believe in each other,” coach Brandon Staley said. “What we’ve had to do is have people step up and play significant roles, and it has brought out the best in them. I really feel like we’re playing as a unit.”

Both wins have also come with Derwin James not playing because of a quadriceps injury. Staley said on Monday that he hopes James can practice this week leading up to the Dec. 26 game at Indianapolis.

Defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day — who is playing through back and knee injuries — said the unit has been motivated after hearing others talk about them coming into the game ranked 23rd in total defense and 28th against the run.

“I just think it’s a belief in ourselves. I think the noise, tired of hearing how bad we are, you know? But we don’t. We aren’t bad,” he said.

“Certain circumstances and things, gotta fight through that. A lot of teams do go through that in the league, but we’ve gone through it a lot more extremely than other teams.”

The Chargers (8-6) have moved into the sixth spot in the AFC after losses by Miami, New England and the New York Jets. Despite playing teams under .500 in their final three regular-season games, Staley isn’t overlooking anything.

“This was a good example that we’re a connected team. You guys have heard me say that and I believe that. You have to be a connected team because you’re going to go through so much,” Staley said. “It can’t just be your offense lighting it up and you’d kind of just watching them play, or maybe it’s your defense lighting it up, and you’re just kind of watching them do their thing. You have to have a team in all three phases that’s playing together.”

WHAT’S WORKING

Justin Herbert on the run. According to Next Gen Stats, Herbert leads the league in completions (76), yards (818) and touchdowns (eight) when throwing on the run. During Sunday’s game-winning drive, he scrambled right and connected with Mike Williams for a 35-yard pass that had a completion probability of only 22.6%. Three plays later, Cameron Dicker kicked the game-winning field goal from 43 yards.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The third quarter. The Chargers are the only team in the league who has not scored a touchdown in the third quarter in their past nine games. During that stretch they have been outscored 37-9 with five three-and-outs and three turnovers in 23 offensive drives.

STOCK UP

Joshua Kelley. The third-year running back is averaging 3.95 yards per carry over the past three games and has solidified his role as Austin Ekeler’s backup. Kelley scored from 1 yard off right guard to give the Chargers their fourth touchdown on an opening drive this season.

STOCK DOWN

Isaiah Spiller. The rookie running back has not played a snap on offense or special teams in two of the past three games.

INJURIES

DL Joe Gaziano (groin) is expected to miss multiple games. CB Kemon Hall (hamstring) is considered week to week.

KEY NUMBER

4.76 — Yards per carry allowed by Chargers run defense over the past two games. Los Angeles was giving up a league-high 5.43 yards per carry in the first 12 games, but has its season average fall to 5.35. The New York Giants are allowing 5.41 on the season, which would surpass the 2013 Chicago Bears (5.35) for worst run defense in the Super Bowl era.

NEXT STEPS

The Chargers head to Indianapolis for their second appearance on “Monday Night Football” this season. The Chargers have lost their past three Monday night games on the road, with the most recent victory coming in the 2012 opener against the Raiders. The Colts are reeling from their 39-36 overtime loss in Minnesota after the Vikings completed the biggest comeback in NFL history and rallied from a 33-point deficit.

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