The Broncos defense bottled up running back Austin Ekeler for 10 yards on seven carries Sunday before the Chargers’ final offensive series. That’s when the Colorado native helped put the game away for Los Angeles.
Ekeler, a 5-foot-10, 200-pound Western Colorado (Gunnison) product, carried several Broncos tacklers downfield during the game-winning drive. The Chargers received the football with 2:42 left — following a Brandon McManus game-tying field goal — when L.A. quarterback Justin Herbert handed Ekeler the football on first-and-10 at the 25. He burst for a gain of 11.
Two plays later, with L.A. in Denver territory after a Herbert-to-Jalen Guyton completion, Ekeler sprinted through a massive hole created by the right side of the Chargers’ line. He gained 10 yards before juking safety Justin Simmons with an inside cut, then kept on shedding tacklers for a 23-yard gain. A video replay confirmed that seven different Broncos defenders — DE Shelby Harris, S Kareem Jackson, LB Josey Jewell, LB Alexander Johnson, DT Dre’Mont Jones, CB Parnell Motley and LB Malik Reed — played a role in dragging Ekeler down.
That first-down run allowed the Chargers to drain the clock, setting up Michael Badgley the opportunity to kick the eventual game-winning 37-yard field goal with 41 seconds left.
“The first call, we were in a coverage to help corners. They ran it and (Ekeler) squirted it out of there for 11 yards,” Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. “Then I believe, on the second one, we made an adjustment and lined up incorrectly. The ball cut back there and he carried us for a few extra yards there at the end.”
It would be short-sighted to blame the Broncos’ loss on two individual plays with so many mistakes by Denver, including Drew Lock’s early red-zone interception and five drops by rookie wide receiver Jerry Jeudy.
Yet Broncos defenders mostly lamented Ekeler’s late-game heroics after holding him in check all game.
“We were holding the run pretty good all game until those last two,” linebacker Alexander Johnson said. “(Ekeler) squeezed through a gap where a guy could have been, but it was a communication issue. We didn’t get lined up right and they were able to capitalize on that.”
In March, Ekeler signed a 4-year, $24.5-million contract with the Chargers as their new feature back after sending Melvin Gordon to Denver. Ekeler has struggled to break out in his new role, hampered by injuries, and enters the final game against the Chiefs with 109 carries for 512 yards and only two rushing touchdowns.
That likely does not spoil Sunday for Ekeler, a former Eaton football standout. At age 25, he became the youngest undrafted running back in NFL history to reach 15 career receiving touchdowns (since 1967), per the Chargers, with his 9-yard catch-and-run in the first half.
L.A. did not make Ekeler available for a postgame interview Sunday. No matter. The Broncos defense heard Ekeler loud and clear.
“We all have to be on the same page to be able to stop a back like Austin,” linebacker Malik Reed said. “He was able to break free on a few runs.”
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