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A night few veteran starters played: Takeaways from Chargers’ preseason loss to Rams

The Chargers opened their preseason Saturday with a 29-22 loss to the Rams at SoFi Stadium.

Here are some observations from a night when few of their veteran starters played:

Rookie Zion Johnson, a first-round pick in April, opened at right guard, where he has been the projected starter since being drafted 17th overall. Johnson played three series and was solid before giving way to Brenden Jaimes.

Coach Brandon Staley afterward explained that the Chargers are approaching this preseason with Johnson in much the same way they did last preseason with Rashawn Slater.

Taken No. 13 overall in 2021, Slater was the starter at left tackle from the moment he joined the team and eventually became a Pro Bowler.

“It was good to get him out there, similar to Rashawn last year,” Staley said of Johnson. “Just get out there, get in the fire with your teammates and be able to go operate for a quarter. That was our goal for him tonight.”

— In the battle for the No. 1 job at right tackle, Trey Pipkins III started and played two series before Storm Norton replaced him.

Neither was on the field long enough to make any sweeping determinations, Staley characterizing the competition as “still in motion.”

Of more significance will be the Chargers’ joint practices with Dallas set for Wednesday and Thursday in Costa Mesa. How Pipkins and Norton perform against the Cowboys’ best could be very telling.

Josh Kelley started at running back, carrying twice and catching two passes as the Chargers scored on their opening drive. He, Larry Rountree III and rookie Isaiah Spiller are competing to be Austin Ekeler’s backup.

Rountree took the next reps at the position, finishing with three carries total for eight yards.

Spiller, a fourth-round pick, received the longest look. He had 10 carries for 34 yards and one reception for 10 yards. Staley noted the power Spiller displayed “in traffic, where it was crowded. [He] moved the pile.”

Rookie safety JT Woods had a rough moment in the second quarter when he failed to tackle Lance McCutcheon along the sideline, allowing the Rams’ rookie receiver to score on what became a 60-yard pass completion.

The Chargers are high on Woods because of his speed, range and ball skills. He had six interceptions last season. But his prospects for playing meaningful minutes in 2022 hinge on his tackling.

“We’re just going to stay on him about his physicality, his tackling, making sure he’s taking good angles,” Staley said. “But he did some good things out there tonight.”

Woods had a third-quarter interception nullified because teammate Brandon Sebastian was called for pass interference. Staley also noted an impressive break Woods made in the second quarter on a pass thrown along the Rams sideline.

Chargers safety JT Woods makes an interception which was null due to a pass interference call during the second half of a preseason game against the Rams on Saturday at SoFi Stadium.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

McCutcheon’s second-quarter touchdown came against rookie cornerback Deane Leonard.

A seventh-round selection out of Ole Miss, Leonard later was called for pass interference in the end zone and gave up a completion for a two-point conversion.

Despite those moments, Staley praised Leonard for his coverage, adding that he was in the proper position. What Leonard failed to do was turn his head back toward the quarterback.

“I thought that he was connected the entire night,” Staley said. “That’s how he’s competed all camp. The guy can cover.… He’s going to learn a lot about what it takes to play the ball in phase in the deep part of the field. He wasn’t beat. He was in phase both times. He’s got to make sure he has the confidence to do what he’s coached to do in practice and do what he does in practice.”

Leonard also was called for kick-catch interference on the Chargers’ second punt.

Trying to earn a wide receiver spot at the back end of the roster, both Michael Bandy (seven receptions for 73 yards, one touchdown) and Joe Reed (four catches for 61 yards, one touchdown) were productive.

Bandy appeared in one game last season, during Week 16 at Houston, when the Chargers were hit with a wave of COVID-19 absences. That was his NFL debut.

“You can see the way his teammates feel about him when good things happen,” Staley said. “Our team expects him to play that way because he’s earned that on the practice field.”

Reed, a fifth-round pick in 2020, played in 11 games as a rookie, mostly as a kick returner. He missed last season after suffering an ankle injury.

“We’re really going to try to take a long look at him on special teams and see if he can carve a role for himself on offense,” Staley said. “He’s improved a lot. He’s worked extremely hard coming off the injury.”

The Chargers' Michael Bandy gets past the Rams' defensive back.

Chargers receiver Michael Bandy slips past Rams defensive back Caesar Dancy-Williams in a preseason game at SoFi Stadium.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Backup edge rusher Chris Rumph II had an impressive night, finishing with a sack and another tackle for loss.

“He’s one of the guys I highlighted,” Staley said. “I thought he played very well. I felt him. We all did. He was active in the run game and in the pass game, which is what we really have been on him about in being a complete player.”

Rumph added some weight and power in the offseason as he tries to establish himself behind starters Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack.

“You can definitely feel his confidence in his game right now,” Staley said. “He’s aggressive. He brings a lot of energy to the field. He loves playing.”

In the battle for the backup quarterback job, both Chase Daniel and Easton Stick moved the offense. Daniel started and went 11 of 17 for 117 yards and two touchdowns. Stick was 16 of 23 for 119 yards with one late interception.

Staley said Stick will start and play the first half Saturday when the Chargers face Dallas in a preseason game at SoFi Stadium. Daniel will play the second half.

Among the projected regulars who did play Saturday were wide receivers Jalen Guyton, DeAndre Carter and Joshua Palmer; cornerbacks Michael Davis and Asante Samuel Jr.; and safety Nasir Adderley.

Defensive tackle Jerry Tillery also started after not playing in the preseason a year ago.

Eight players were on the first kickoff cover and return teams: Woods, Rountree, Leonard, Troy Reeder, Alohi Gilman, Kemon Hall, Zander Horvath and Cole Christiansen.

Reeder, Woods, Hall and Gilman also were on the first punt coverage unit.

Several Chargers who didn’t play Saturday because of injury were special teams contributors last year, including Drue Tranquilll, Nick Niemann, Amen Ogbongbemiga, Tevaughn Campbell, Mark Webb Jr. and Tre’ McKitty.

Rookie sixth-round pick Ja’Sir Taylor started at slot cornerback. Another rookie sixth-round selection, Jamaree Salyer, played extensively at left guard.

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