CARSON, Calif. — Something that seemed to occur naturally a year ago is now a confounding conundrum for quarterback Philip Rivers and the rest of the Los Angeles Chargers‘ offense: scoring near the goal line.
Through five games, the Chargers have turned it over four times from their opponent’s 2-yard line or closer. Entering Week 5, the rest of the NFL had three such turnovers combined, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
A year ago, the Bolts were tied for No. 12 in goal-to-go efficiency on their way to a 12-4 record and a trip to the AFC divisional playoffs.
However, the Chargers are ranked No. 28 in goal-to-go offense through five games this season. At 2-3, their inability to close out scoring drives with touchdowns is costing them games, threatening to derail a season that began with Super Bowl aspirations.
In a 20-13 loss to the previously winless Denver Broncos on Sunday, the Chargers got the ball inside the 5-yard line twice and came away with zero points.
Running back Austin Ekeler fumbled at the 1-yard line on fourth down at the end of the first half as he tried to extend to the pylon. Rivers also was responsible for a third-quarter interception from the 2-yard line on a ball he tried to force into a tight window to Mike Williams. It was picked off by linebacker Alexander Johnson instead.
Two of Rivers’ four interceptions this season have come in the red zone and also lost a fumble just outside the red zone in a Week 3 loss to the Texans. He had an intentional grounding Sunday that resulted in a 14-yard loss, forcing a longer, 48-yard field goal by rookie Chase McLaughlin that fell short after it was partially blocked.
“We’ve got to finish in the end zone,” Rivers said. “The fourth down right before the half, the third-and-goal at the 2 after the turnover, those are two opportunities.
“The throwaway makes it a lot easier field goal if I get that back to the line of scrimmage. Then you look at that, there is potential for 17 points right there. We just didn’t capitalize and finish, and we turned the ball over.”
As Rivers alludes to, turnovers are at the heart of the Chargers’ goal-line struggles. The Bolts have turned it over eight times through five games, tied for No. 24 in the NFL. Last season, the Chargers had 19 turnovers total and only twice in goal-to-go situations.
“We just can’t turn the ball over,” fullback Derek Watt said. “We have to execute and play within ourselves and not try and do anything spectacular. Everyone just has to do their job on the protection, making good decisions in the run game and pass game.”
Since taking over as head coach in 2017, Anthony Lynn has placed a high priority on the Chargers’ taking care of the football. For the most part, Rivers has heeded that edict.
However, Rivers has to get back to that mindset for the Chargers to turn things around.
“We’ll learn, refocus and then go out and execute,” Lynn said. “We’ll work our tails off. That’s the only way I know how to fix it.”
Ekeler has fumbled twice at the goal line this season.
“Me and the 1-yard line, we have an interesting relationship,” Ekeler said. “But that one [against the Broncos] was a good reach. The other one, not so much.
“It comes back to practice. It’s cliché, but that’s the truth. It comes back to practice, and you just have to lock in on your assignment on these plays. It’s a team game, so everyone has to be clicking. One person just can’t carry the entire team. It literally comes back to practice.”
Rivers understands there’s a balance between playing aggressive and being careless with the football, putting his team at a disadvantage.
Since Lynn took over in 2017, the Chargers are 8-12 when Rivers turns it over at least once. In that span, Los Angeles is 15-2 when Rivers does not have a turnover.
Those numbers should speak to Rivers, whose primary focus is winning football games and ultimately reaching the Super Bowl for the first time in his 16-year NFL career.