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Austin Ekeler gives Chargers balance in victory over Raiders

Austin Ekeler proved in 2019 to be one of the best pass-catching running backs in the NFL. Turns out he’s quite the runner, too.

Ekeler helped balance the Los Angeles Chargers’ offense Monday at SoFi Stadium by rushing for a career-high 117 yards on 15 carries in a 28-14 victory over the Raiders. He added three catches for 28 yards and two touchdowns — one rushing and one receiving — to help ease the responsibilities of second-year quarterback Justin Herbert, who finished with 222 passing yards and three touchdowns.

All in a night’s work for the 26-year-old West Colorado alumnus.

“I felt like we would have to do that in the game to take pressure off the pass protection,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said. “The physicality… showed up late in the game. We were able to possess the ball and run it at the end of the game. We were very pleased.”

Ekeler’s pass-catching skills helped him break into the NFL in 2017 as a relative unknown from a Division II school. He caught 27 passes as a rookie and 39 his second season before breaking out in 2019 with 92 receptions for 993 yards and eight touchdowns.

He was primed for a productive 2020 as well until he injured his hamstring in Week 4, missing six games — including one against the Raiders — while recovering on injured reserve. The Chargers were out of playoff contention by the time he returned in Week 12, and he finished the season with 933 yards from scrimmage.

He had 1,550 in 2019.

But Ekeler returned this season with a more experienced quarterback and a better offensive line, bolstered by the first-round selection of rookie tackle Rashawn Slater. The Chargers were 25th in rushing offense before Monday night, averaging 87.3 yards through three games.

They turned Ekeler loose against the Raiders en route to their most productive rushing output of 2021. All part of the game plan, according to Staley.

“When that team rushes the passer, and they know it’s pass, they’re a tough team to block,” he said. “What the run game did was give us balance.”

Ekeler didn’t waste any time getting started, rushing for 7 and 18 yards on his first two carries. He beat Raiders linebacker K.J. Wright on a swing pattern in the second quarter and caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Herbert and continued to run through and around Raiders defenders the rest of the night.

The Chargers nursed their lead in the second half by continuing to run Ekeler, who added an 11-yard rushing touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.

His previous career high in rushing yards was 101.

“We’d been running the ball well all night,” Herbert said. “But to especially put it behind (the offensive line), give Ek the ball, let him go get some first downs, I thought that was good for us.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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