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Chargers takeaways: Defense offset Titan interceptions

The Chargers beat Tennessee 17-14 on Sunday to improve to 8-6 and move into sixth place in the AFC. (The top seven advance to the playoffs.)

Their three remaining games are at Indianapolis (4-9-1), home against the Rams (4-9) and at Denver (4-10). They trail the fifth seed, Baltimore (9-5), by one game.

Here are some observations from their second consecutive victory after they’d lost three of four:

Herbert’s two misfires: Justin Herbert hadn’t thrown as many as two interceptions in a game since Week 16 of last season when he was picked off twice in Houston.

Against the Titans, he was intercepted by safety Joshua Kalu late in the first half and by safety Kevin Byard in the third quarter.

On the first, the Chargers were facing second and 10 at the Tennessee 25-yard line with 12 seconds to go. Herbert threw in the direction of Mike Williams in the front corner of the end zone.

Coach Brandon Staley explained later that the ball was supposed to be thrown out of bounds in order to kill time and set up a field-goal attempt to close the half.

Instead, the pass sailed over Williams’ head and along the sideline, where cornerback Roger McCreary leapt and, before landing out of bounds, redirected the ball to Kalu for the highlight interception.

Roger McCreary laterals this pass intended for the Chargers’ Mike Williams to Titans teammate Joshua Kalu (not shown) for an interception just before the end of the first half.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The second also came with the Chargers already in field-goal position at the Tennessee 27. Herbert tried to squeeze the ball to Williams in tight coverage.

“He wasn’t happy,” Staley said of Herbert. “I knew that he would get them in the end. I don’t need to say anything to Justin. Justin knows exactly what happened out there. That’s why we love him because no one’s going to be tougher on him than himself.”

Herbert finished 28 of 42 for 313 yards, his fifth 300-yard game of the season. He failed to throw a touchdown pass for just the second game of 2022 and third of his career.

Defensive help on the way: The Chargers’ improved defense over the last two games has a chance to get even better.

Safety Derwin James Jr. (quadriceps) and edge rusher Joey Bosa (core muscle) are expected to return, perhaps as soon as this week.

Over the last two games, the Chargers have given up only four touchdowns, and one of those came on a fumble return. They have limited the opposition to 11 of 37 on third down over the last three weeks.

“We’ve got a really good defensive cultural right now,” Staley said. “We got a lot of guys who believe in each other. What we’ve had to do is have people step up and play significant roles and it’s brought out the best in them.”

Alohi Gilman started his second consecutive game Sunday instead of James. He finished with eight tackles.

Rookie Ja’Sir Taylor subbed for Asante Samuel Jr. at outside cornerback in running situations as the Chargers adjusted to deal with the Titans’ Derrick Henry.

Drue Tranquill, Kyle Van Noy, Chris Rumph II and Joe Gaziano each had a sack. Van Noy’s was his second in two games and Gaziano’s the first of his career. Rumph’s only other career sack came in Week 13 last season.

Kyle Van Noy (8) celebrates his sack of Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill with Chargers teammate Khalil Mack (52).

Kyle Van Noy (8) celebrates his sack of Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill with Chargers teammate Khalil Mack (52).

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“You’re seeing all 11 players connected to the game plan, executing their assignments, their technique and their effort,” Staley said. “They’re playing with the right energy. I felt like we played as hard as we’ve ever played since I’ve been here on defense.”

Back in the red: In the days leading up to this game, Staley and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi talked about the importance of being able to run in the red zone.

The Chargers had struggled to do so of late, especially on first down. They had scored touchdowns on only two of their nine trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line in the previous two games.

Against the Titans, they were two for two and ran the ball on all eight plays — gaining 31 yards — in the red zone.

“I felt the physicality down there,” Staley said.

Making a connection: Sitting at 8-6 and with consecutive victories over teams that, right now, are in position to make the playoffs, Staley was asked about the Chargers overcoming so many injuries to key players to reach this point.

He talked about the Chargers becoming a “connected team,” an idea Staley has preached since being hired in January 2021.

“I think that because we’re connected it’s allowed us to endure all that’s happened this season,” he said. “That is the only explanation. There’s no other way to explain it. Otherwise, we would be 3-9 or worse. We believe in one another and it’s because of what we do every day together.”

In the grinder: The Chargers improved to 7-4 in one-score games. Their only victory that hasn’t ended within one possession came at Houston in Week 4, a 34-24 final.

They’ve now played seven one-score contests in a row.

“We’re used to being in these games,” Staley said. “I think that you see the poise and the confidence in our team come alive when it’s tight.”

Third-quarter woes: The Chargers haven’t scored a touchdown in the third quarter since Week 5 in Cleveland. Over the last nine games, they’ve produced only nine points — three field goals — in the first 15 minutes coming out of halftime.

In his own words: “He just gave me a chance to get my hands on it. I tried my hardest to make a play, and we were able to do that.” — wide receiver Mike Williams on the 35-yard completion from Justin Herbert to set up the Chargers’ winning kick.

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