By Daniel Popper Sep 8, 2019 8
CARSON, Calif. — The Chargers were reeling, and Philip Rivers could sense it.
His defense had just squandered an eight-point lead with less than a minute remaining in regulation. Safety Adrian Phillips and linebacker Thomas Davis had failed to corral Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton near the left sideline on 2nd-and-10, and the four-time Pro Bowler sped into the end zone for a back-breaking 19-yard touchdown. Running back Marlon Mack took the handoff on the two-point conversion attempt and reached across the goal line to tie the game with 38 seconds left.
The Chargers stalled on the ensuing possession, and on the final play of the fourth quarter, Rivers had no choice but to run out of bounds as the clock struck triple zeros. Rivers ventured into the Colts’ sideline, and once there he heard the chirps from the Indianapolis players: “It’s over! It’s over!”
Rivers took off his helmet, grimacing, and trudged back across the field to his sideline. Then he gathered all his teammates into a huddle and delivered an impassioned speech.
“Everything we want is still out there,” Phillips recalls Rivers saying. “Don’t feel like the game is over because we’re going to overtime. Because it’s not. …Hey, you know what, we let it slip in the fourth quarter, but it still ain’t over.”
“We hadn’t lost,” fullback Derek Watt said of the speech. “He thought maybe people were feeling like, ‘Shoot, it’s over.’ No. We haven’t lost anything. We still have a chance to win this thing.”
“He was just telling us, ‘Finish. This is our drive. Don’t forget. Don’t slip up. Don’t get it twisted. The game is ours to win,’” left tackle Trent Scott said. “That was the mentality.”
“Just band together,” cornerback Brandon Facyson said.
“It was just, ‘Lock in,’” tight end Hunter Henry said.
The Chargers won the overtime coin toss and elected to receive. The Colts never touched the ball again. Spurred by Rivers’ leadership, the Chargers drove 75 yards on eight plays to earn a 30-24 win in the season opener at Dignity Health Sports Park on Sunday afternoon. Keenan Allen caught two passes. Henry caught one. Austin Ekeler rushed three times, including the 7-yard game-winning touchdown run. Justin Jackson carried once. And Watt converted a crucial third-and-1 in the red zone, setting up Ekeler’s heroics.
“They thought they had it in the bag,” Watt said. “We came out and we ran it down their throat and put an exclamation point on it.”
“He’s a general,” Scott said of Rivers.
The drive started when Rivers hit Allen for a 18-yard gain. Allen was lined up on the right side of the formation. The Colts were in a Cover 2 shell, and strong safety Clayton Gathers rotated into the box to defend a potential run. Rivers faked a handoff to Ekeler. Colts rookie cornerback Rock Ya-Sin was playing off coverage on Allen, who curled to the open space in the middle of the field. Rivers’ throw was low, but Allen scooped the ball before it hit the turf for the completion.
On the next play, Rivers found Henry for a 17-yard gain, propelling the Chargers into Colts territory. Ekeler was split wide right and motioned across the formation on a fake jet seep. Henry was lined up in the left slot and ran a deep over. Rivers fired a perfectly timed ball that Henry hauled in just before Geathers hit him from behind.
“I kind of just tried to tempo it down because I felt that safety there,” Henry said. “Phil threw an awesome ball, put it on me, and just kind of a bang-bang catch.”
Rivers handed off to Ekeler on the third play of the drive. The running back — who finished with 158 yards from scrimmage and three total touchdowns — danced around multiple defenders to avoid a negative play. He gained three yards.
The Chargers went back to Ekeler on the ensuing snap. Rivers, in shotgun formation, checked at the line and moved Ekeler from his right side to his left. He handed off, and Ekeler bounced out to the right edge. Right tackle Sam Tevi kicked out and saw two defenders — cornerback Kenny Moore and safety Malik Hooker — pursuing. Tevi dove at Hooker’s ankles, clearing out both defensive backs in the process. Ekeler read the block and cut inside of Tevi, bursting ahead for a 19-yard gain that set the Chargers up at the Indianapolis 18-yard line.
“I tried to cut the inside leg of the first defender, hoping Ek would make his cut inside,” Tevi said. “I dove, and all I heard was the fans cheering. I just looked up, and Ek was still running.”
“That was nice. It was just picture-perfect,” Ekeler said of Tevi’s block. “It was like parting the Red Sea. If I would have been faster, I could have scored on that play.”
“That’s Sam,” Scott said. “He’s a freak athlete.”
Added Ekeler: “Sam on the corner, that’s who you want. That’s the tackle you want pulling and running and cutting, because he does it amazingly.”
Jackson was dropped for a short gain on the next play. Then the Chargers came out in a five-receiver set on second-and-7. Allen ran a quick in-breaking route out of the right slot, and Rivers found him. But Allen was dropped one yard short the first down.
The Chargers struggled in short-yardage situations during the preseason. Earlier in the game, though, Watt had successfully converted a third-and-1 on a fullback dive. And Ken Whisenhunt went back to the same call on this pivotal play.
Forrest Lamp came on as a sixth offensive lineman in a jump package. Watt took the handoff, put his head down and barreled ahead for a two-yard gain.
“The line blocked it great. It kind of opened up nicely,” Watt said. “Up front, they got me the yard, and I just had to physically get there.”
Facing first-and-goal from the 7-yard line, Rivers handed off to Ekeler, with Watt leading the way out of the fullback spot. Tevi locked up defensive end Justin Houston on the right edge. Watt handled middle linebacker Anthony Walker. Right guard Michael Schofield got to the second level and covered All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard, while left guard Dan Feeney sealed off Geathers.
A hat on a hat.
Ekeler saw the crease, cut to the inside and ended the game. Rivers said the Chargers ran that exact run play at least seven times in the contest.
“Opening up holes,” Scott said, “and Austin did his thing.”
It all started with Rivers’ pep talk. And the Chargers are 1-0.
“When we step in between those lines on game day, he becomes a different guy,” Henry said of Rivers. “He pushes us to want to be at our best.”
Phillips remembers how Rivers ended his pre-overtime speech: “We still got a chance to go out here and win the game, and that’s what we’re about to do.”
“That’s exactly what they did,” Phillips said.