He has raved about his defense’s performance and energy over the past two weeks, the Chargers seizing control of their postseason fate behind consecutive smothering efforts.
Coach Brandon Staley particularly noted Monday how the unit has been versatile enough to match up against the very different offensive styles of the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans.
Also of note: The Chargers have done this without one of their best performers on defense, a player recognized specifically for both his energy and versatility.
How much more improved might the Chargers be when Pro Bowl safety Derwin James Jr. returns?
“We expect to play better with one of the top players in the league out there,” Staley said. “I think that that will be a great infusion of leadership, production and energy.”
James has missed the last two games because of a quadriceps strain. He worked out on the SoFi Stadium field early Sunday and appeared to be moving well.
Staley said James could return to practice at some point this week in advance of the Chargers’ game Monday night in Indianapolis. Their next practice is set for Thursday.
The back-to-back victories minus James is a departure from his history with the Chargers. Before the wins, the team had been 12-17 when James didn’t play — compared to 27-21 when he did — since he entered the NFL in 2018.
Staley said he approached James after the game against the Dolphins to let him know the significance of what had just happened.
“I was like, ‘We did something the other night that was amazing,’ and he thought that I was going to say something completely different,” Staley said. “But I was like, ‘We won without you.’
“That’s a good sign that we are able to do that, that we’re deep enough to get it done. And not just win without him but play really well. He deserves so much credit in that because of how he has energized this group.”
Without James, players such as third-year safety Alohi Gilman and rookie defensive back Ja’Sir Taylor have assumed larger roles and been effective.
Starting safety Nasir Adderley has been forced to provide more on-field presence and had his second interception of the season Sunday.
The moving parts have led to special teams opportunities for Raheem Layne, an undrafted rookie whose physicality has shined.
“What it has really allowed us to do is take a good look at some guys in some leading roles,” Staley said. “I think that it has been good for our football team to be able to play without him.”
The Chargers also have been without edge rusher Joey Bosa since he suffered a core muscle injury in Week 3. Bosa is expected to return before the end of the season, though Staley has been unable to provide a clearer timetable.
Missing two Pro Bowl players — along with two other starters in cornerback J.C. Jackson and lineman Austin Johnson — the Chargers have emerged defensively late in the regular season.
On a combined 21 full possessions against the Dolphins and Titans, they forced 14 punts. They gave up four touchdowns, including one on a fluky fumble return, and one field goal.
“I think that we’ve really made some good strides here,” Staley said. “The last two weeks, in particular, I’ve probably felt more energy from the group for the whole game than at any other point since I’ve been here.
“I think that you’ve seen more play-making and us playing the game the way it needs to be played. That’s what we need to build on because we have practiced well and we have played how we practice.”
The 8-6 Chargers have three games remaining and should be favored in each. They are sixth in the AFC and still have an opportunity to move up to fifth, the conference’s top wild-card seed.
There is a scenario in which the Chargers could clinch a postseason berth as early as this weekend. The franchise hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2018 season.
Running back Austin Ekeler underwent an MRI on his shoulder, Staley said, and the results werenegative. He was hurt early Sunday but was able to finish the game. … The Chargers did suffer two injuries of note against Tennessee: defensive lineman Joe Gaziano (groin) and cornerback Kemon Hall (hamstring) both are expected to miss time. … Chargers cornerback Jackson, who is on injured reserve because of a knee injury, was booked at the Bristol County Jail and House of Corrections in North Dartmouth, Mass., on Monday in connection with a “family issue,” authorities said. A spokesperson with the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office called the issue “nonviolent” in nature. Jackson was brought to the jail by local police after an appearance in probate court.