Should Austin Ekeler get more goal-line work?

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Los Angeles Chargers Superstar running back Austin Ekeler was less involved than expected in Thursday night’s 27-24 loss to arch-nemesis Kansas City Chiefs. Ekeler played just 47 of Los Angeles’ 75 offensive snaps, which accounted for 63% of their plays. Relief ball carriers Sony Michel and Joshua Kelley were crucial parts of offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi’s game plan. Ekeler should receive more work, especially on the goal line.

Kelley played 19 total offensive snaps (25%) and Michel got nine (12%) reps. The Chargers’ approach to the goal line was particularly captivating. Their first touchdown of the night came on a one-yard play pass to rookie fullback Zander Horvath.

It was a well-crafted play that fooled the Chiefs defense. The kicker? Michel was the ball carrier in the backfield, not Ekeler. It was Horvath’s second receiving touchdown in as many weeks. It’s worth acknowledging that Ekeler was the running back in the backfield for Horvath’s receiving touchdown against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 1. That’s a small consolation prize considering Ekeler doesn’t didn’t actually receive the ball, though.

Michel gained extra reps on the goal line later in the game against the Chiefs, but failed to score his own touchdown. Ekeler is averaging 2.41 yards after contact per run attempt and has forced four missed tackles, via Pro Football Focus. Michel only averages 1.73 meters after contact per attempt, for comparison purposes. The Chargers could use that kind of elusiveness near the goal line where everything tightens up. Chargers head coach Brandon Staley should consider changing his strategy and using Ekeler more consistently in goal-scoring situations. He is their best ball carrier, after all.

The Chargers’ red zone struggles came at the worst possible time. The Chargers faced a 1st and a goal with the game tied at 17 with 10:45 left in the fourth quarter. Justin Herbertpass intended for tight end Gerald Everett was intercepted by rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson at the goal line and returned 99 yards for a touchdown on six picks.

A gassed Everett had waved to the sidelines to be taken out of play, but the Chargers decided to go tempo and keep Everett on the field, who had little stamina to complete his planned route. Watson jumped on the fault of judgement. Maybe slowing things down and involving Ekeler would have changed the outcome for the better.

The downgrading of Ekeler’s use was a continuation of a theme that originally revealed itself in Week 1 against the Raiders. He even played less against Vegas, having accounted for less than 50% of Los Angeles’ offensive snaps (33 total reps out of 67). Is Ekeler more involved in a timeshare alongside Kelley and Michel than originally anticipated? That appears to be the case, much to the dismay of fantasy owners who have invested premium first-round selection in Ekeler.

Rookie running back Isaiah Spiller may possibly be factored into the mix. The No. 123 overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, Spiller was inactive for the Chargers’ two games. A healthy and active Spiller could further complicate matters. Ekeler is significantly more talented and dynamic than either Kelley or Michel, the latter having been released by the Miami Dolphins about two weeks ago. The Chargers should feel comfortable using their elite running back with more frequency.

The Chargers’ offense isn’t exactly the high-flying start they envisioned. Through two contests, they are averaging 378.0 yards per contest and 24.0 points per game. Their current points-per-game total would have ranked 16th in the league last season. The campaign is obviously young and the Chargers have plenty of time to improve those numbers while meeting their high expectations. Greater involvement of Ekeler would achieve the desired improvement.

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