CARSON, Calif. | It looks as if Melvin Gordon has picked the right time to return to the Los Angeles Chargers backfield.
The Pro Bowl running back is expected to see his first action on Sunday when the 2-2 Chargers host the winless Denver Broncos in an AFC West matchup. Gordon held out for 64 days due to a contract dispute before reporting back to the team on Sept. 26. He was moved to the active roster two days later and did not play in last week’s 30-10 win at Miami.
Gordon will face a Broncos defense that is third worst in the league against the run after Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette ran for 225 yards last week.
“He looks good. It’s great to have him back,” Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said of Gordon. “You never know when a player has been out like that for a while what the chemistry is going to be like once he comes back. I give Mel a lot of credit. He has handled it really well. He’s done a nice job in how he has interacted with the team and gone about his business. He’s genuinely excited to be back.”
Gordon has had two games against the Broncos in which he had 155 scrimmage yards or more. One of those was last season when he had 156 (69 rushing, 87 receiving) in a Week 11 loss. The fifth-year running back has gained 120 scrimmage yards or more in six of his last seven games against division opponents.
Gordon also returns to an offense that did not sputter in his absence. Austin Ekeler is fifth in scrimmage yards (490) and leads all non-kickers in scoring with six touchdowns (36 points).
Denver cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said one of the adjustments the Broncos might make on run defense is bringing the secondary closer to the line of scrimmage to put pressure on the outside.
Offenses facing the Broncos have thrown the ball 48.3% of the time. According to Inside Edge, that is the third-lowest passing rate in the league. Denver coach Vic Fangio offered another solution to the run defense woes.
“We just have to play more physical and be able to hang in there on the blocks better, tackle better and just play better,” he said.
Here is what else to watch as the Chargers and Broncos renew their rivalry:
STATE OF THE WEST
After a 2-2 start for the second straight season, Los Angeles needs a win to at least keep undefeated Kansas City in its sights. The Chargers are 19-6 the past two seasons under coach Anthony Lynn in games played after September.
Fangio is off to the worst start by a first-year coach in franchise history. It is only the fourth time Denver has been 0-4 and the first since 1999, the season after John Elway retired.
Joe Flacco said the Broncos will look back on this rough start and see it made them tougher, and Phillip Lindsay agrees:
“You have to go through hard times,” he said. “For example, we were struggling in the red zone at first. Now we’re starting to get the groove of it. You have to punch through. Once you can get through, once you get that first win, everything starts to roll. That’s just kind of how the NFL is. You just need some kind of momentum to go your way and what better time than a divisional game versus the Chargers there and get a win like we did last year and start rolling from there.”
The Chargers have 10 players on either injured reserve or the reserve/non-football illness list, including three starters. They could be without four more additional starters against Denver. Defensive end Melvin Ingram (hamstring) has already been ruled out, while wide receivers Mike Williams (back) and Travis Benjamin (knee) are likely to be game-time decisions.
The Broncos no longer sport the league’s best pass-rushing duo in Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, who tore his left ACL last week and needs season-ending surgery. The pair had produced 29 1/2 sacks in 20 games together. Replacing Chubb is a rotation of rookies Malik Reed and Justin Hollins and sixth-year pro Jeremiah Attaochu, who played for the Chargers from 2014-17.
Moving Miller around to counter increased double-teams and create some mismatches is a possibility. “But they know his number,” Fangio said. “Unless we can change his number in between every series, they’ll find him. He just has to keep trudging along. The one on ones will come eventually.
AIRING IT OUT
Philip Rivers is tied for third in the league in passing yards (1,254) while Keenan Allen is tied in receptions (34) and leads in yards (452).
Rivers is going for this third straight game with 300 or more yards, two or more touchdowns and a passer rating in triple digits. His 44 TD passes against Denver are his second most against an opponent.
“It is a little different preparing for them this week. It’s the same guys in a lot of spots, but a different scheme,” said Rivers of the Broncos. “It’s a good defense. They’ll challenge the heck out of us. The secondary is playing really well.”
UNDRAFTED & UNDAUNTED
Ekeler, who’s from Eaton, Colorado, and attended Western State in Gunnison, Colorado, has a big fan in Broncos Pro Bowl running back Lindsay, who grew up in Denver and attended the University of Colorado in Boulder.
The two trained together with Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, another Colorado native.
“There’s a lot of good talent here in Colorado,” Lindsay said. “You just have to give it an opportunity and give it a chance. There is just so many kids in California and Texas that you get overshadowed, but if you’re good, you’re good.”
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton contributed to this story.