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Chargers hope to hit the ground running vs. Falcons

The Chargers’ focus will be on the running game Sunday, theirs and the Atlanta Falcons’, too.

In many ways, it was a forgotten aspect of their play during an overtime victory Oct. 15 over the Denver Broncos and, especially, in their Oct. 23 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. The Chargers passed and passed and passed some more during those two games, unable to unleash their running game.

Early deficits and stingy defenses have played big roles in the Chargers’ shift to the air after finding great success on the ground in victories Oct. 2 over the Houston Texans and Oct. 9 over the Cleveland Browns. The Chargers never found success on the ground against the Broncos or Seahawks.

“I think some of the game flows,” Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. “You fall down early and maybe you just have to be a little more patient with the run game. Some of these games, this last one (against Seattle), we barely ran the ball and you just kind of get into a throw-first mentality.

“I think a lot of it is, ‘Let it get going.’ Sometimes you get a couple of early turnovers and you fall down early. I think just being a little more patient with the run game and letting it get its footing. Oftentimes, you run early and it’s tough yardage. As the game goes on is when you start getting the more efficient, explosive runs.

“My big thing, looking at it, is just we have to commit to it a little bit more.”

Is that a threat or a promise?

After all, Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert attempted 51 passes against the Seahawks. The Chargers ran the ball only 15 times for 53 yards against Seattle. Herbert attempted 57 passes against the Broncos. They ran it only 24 times for 73 yards against the Broncos.

By way of contrast, the Chargers passed 34 times and ran 34 times for a season-high 238 yards against the Browns. One week earlier, they passed 39 times and ran 27 times for 81 yards against the Texans. In each game, they kept the opposition off balance and uncertain about what was coming next.

Will the Chargers return to a more balanced attack when they face the Falcons on Sunday in Atlanta? Some of it depends on the health of the Chargers’ offensive line and of versatile running back Austin Ekeler, who made a brief appearance on the injury list this past week with an abdomen ailment.

“I expect him to be able to go for the game, full,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said of Ekeler, who leads the Chargers with 380 yards and five touchdowns on 84 carries and also has a team-leading 53 receptions for 357 yards and three touchdowns.

When the Falcons have the ball, they like to run with it. Passing, even when facing a large deficit, is an option for the Falcons, but running with it is preferred. The Falcons have run the ball 268 times in eight games, the third-highest total in the NFL behind Chicago (285) and Philadelphia (276).

Atlanta is pretty good at it, too.

The Falcons have gained 1,265 yards on the ground, fifth-best in the league.

Four players have carried the ball 50 times or more, including quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has run for 280 yards and three touchdowns on 55 carries in addition to throwing for 1,432 yards and 10 touchdowns. Cordarrelle Patterson leads their ground game with 340 yards and three TDs on 58 carries.

Patterson was on injured reserve for the past four games after undergoing left knee surgery. The Falcons activated him Saturday and he’ll play Sunday.

“You’re looking at the fourth-best rushing team out there,” Chargers defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill said. “They do a lot of things with misdirection. They do a good job of keeping you off balance. This is one of those games where you try to just keep it simple and try to do simple things well because they have so many different packages with personnel groupings that they are just trying to wait for you to make that one mistake. We have to make sure that we are playing sound football at all times.”

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