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Why can Chargers suddenly run again? Austin Ekeler explains what’s been aligned

Facing a middle-of-the-pack run defense Sunday, the Chargers blew apart Cleveland’s front en route to amassing 238 yards on the ground.

That was the franchise’s most prolific single-game rushing performance since Week 6 of the 2018 season.

On Monday, the Chargers will face another middle-of-the-pack run defense, Denver — on average — yielding one fewer yard per game than the Browns had entering last weekend.

The similarities guarantee nothing as it relates to production, of course, but it can be reported as fact that the Chargers do feel better about the running game as their Week 6 prime-time matchup approaches.

“It’s been a team effort,” coach Brandon Staley said. “It starts with that premise. It takes a team effort to play like that. It’s not just the O-line. It’s their coaches. It’s the skill players around them. It’s the protection plan, the run-game plan.”

The Chargers were the NFL’s worst rushing team through the first four weeks of the season. They were averaging 64.5 yards. Against Cleveland, Austin Ekeler gained more than that total — 71 yards — on one play.

They rose from 32nd in the league to 22nd, doing so even with Pro Bowl left tackle Rashawn Slater on the injured reserve list after undergoing surgery on his biceps.

Against the Browns, Slater’s replacement, rookie Jamaree Salyer, had a performance that Pro Football Focus graded as similar to his starting debut a week earlier in Houston — an effort that drew praise from observers leaguewide.

According to PFF’s run-blocking data, left guard Matt Feiler had his best game of the season Sunday, while center Corey Linsley and right tackle Trey Pipkins III had their second-best games of 2022.

“Things take time,” Staley said. “For us up front early in the season, it’s taken some time for those guys to play together, to get into rhythm together. But you’ve seen over the last couple weeks us play really quality football.”

Ekeler finished with a career-high 173 rushing yards in only 16 carries. He suggested that the success restored his confidence after he spent the first month of the season held in check.

Coming off a 20-touchdown season in 2021, Ekeler was scoreless until reaching the end zone five times over the last two games. He had only 36 rushing yards before contact the first four weeks and 91 such yards Sunday.

“It wasn’t anything crazy that we changed schematically,” Ekeler said. “I think it was just we were starting to attack the weakness of their defense, which we felt like was in their interior.

“We were able to get those guys up front moving people. … If you go back and watch the run game and see some of these holes, see how our guys are working together, moving bodies, it’s pretty spectacular if you feel like watching football.”

Denver is coming off a 12-9 loss to Indianapolis during which the Colts rushed for 106 yards in 26 carries, an average of 4.1 per attempt.

The week before, Las Vegas rolled up 212 yards in 38 rushes in a 32-23 victory over the Broncos.

With a quarterback such as Justin Herbert, who’s second in the NFL in passing yards, the Chargers aren’t going to be run-heavy for any extended stretches. But improved blocking from their offensive line certainly makes them more difficult to defend.

“These guys have been showing that they can get the job done,” Ekeler said. “That just helps all of our offense to keep us more dynamic.”

Etc.

Wide receiver Keenan Allen worked out on his own Wednesday during the portion of Chargers practice open to the media. He has sat out the last four games because of a hamstring injury. Allen mostly did straight-line running at something less than 100%. He appeared to be quite a way from being able to play in an NFL game, though the Chargers do have an extra day for preparation this week with their next game set for Monday. … Pipkins also didn’t practice as he deals with what Staley called an MCL sprain. Pipkins was injured against Cleveland but managed to return after sitting out only five snaps. … Wide receiver Mike Williams was not at practice, the team announcing that he wasn’t feeling well.

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