Elliott: Chargers lose ground in AFC West, still trying to find consistency and spark at home

The Rams made noise around the NFL last week by signing free-agent wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. not long after they acquired eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller. The only sound the Chargers produced was an ugly and ominous thud in a 27-20 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

The Rams, hoping to play in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium in February and not just play host, are going for it. The Chargers, who also call SoFi home, are going sideways after losing three of four games following their stunning 4-1 start.

The Chargers’ early promise has fizzled. As soon as they fix one problem, another pops up to drag them down and keep them from consistently playing like the team they insist they can be.

“Where we’re at, at 5-4, we’re fighting, it seems, every week. We’re fighting to kind of find that rhythm and timing. It’s not there yet,” coach Brandon Staley said. “We’re just not there yet, and I think our record is reflective of that in all three phases. We’re trying to find it. And our guys are playing hard, but our execution needs to improve.”

Their offense never got in sync again Sunday after quarterback Justin Herbert led a 75-yard touchdown drive to open the third quarter and give the Chargers a 17-13 lead. Their run defense was better than it was earlier this season, but their passing defense sprang a leak and allowed Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins to pass for 294 yards and two touchdowns. The defense couldn’t get Minnesota off the field after the Chargers had cut the Vikings’ lead to 27-20 on a 24-yard field goal by Dustin Hopkins with 4 minutes 36 seconds in the fourth quarter.

The time of possession — 36:15 for Minnesota and 23:45 for the Chargers — was lopsided.

“And it felt that way,” Staley said. “We lost the time of possession today because of the way we played on offense, not because of the way we played on defense.”

They can’t win that way and they know it.

“That’s not how we want to play,” defensive lineman Linval Joseph said. “We’ve just got to figure out ways to hold the ball, control the ball, get turnovers, get three and outs, get the ball back to our offense, score again and really push that gas on. We just haven’t done it yet.

“Sooner or later it’s going to happen, and when it happens, watch out.”

Sooner would be ideal. They fell out of first place in the AFC West — the Kansas City Chiefs taking over the top spot with their victory over Las Vegas — and the confidence they hoped would bloom following their 27-24 victory at Philadelphia was trampled by their loss to Minnesota, which dropped their home record to 2-3.

That’s unacceptable even though — as usual — fans of the visitors outnumbered the Chargers faithful.

“It has more to do with the teams that we’re playing,” Staley said, referring to a home schedule that featured Dallas, Las Vegas, Cleveland and New England before Minnesota (4-5). “We have to execute better. The opposing crowd has no factor in our success. It’s more about the Chargers and our level of execution.”

More like their lack of execution, at least on a consistent basis.

Injuries were a factor for both teams Sunday, with the Vikings missing several players who are on the reserve/COVID-19 list and four injured defensive starters. But that’s life in the NFL.

“It’s next-man-up mentality,” Joseph said. “And once we can get everybody to be on the same page, we’ll play the football we need to play, and that’s what’s going on now. Around the league. Everybody has got guys hurt.”

Vikings receiver Adam Thielen (19) is tackled by Chargers cornerback Chris Harris.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Herbert, whose 195 passing yards matched the season low he recorded in an embarrassing loss at Baltimore on Oct. 17, has a theory about the Chargers’ lack of continuity on offense.

“It’s Year 1 of a new offense with everyone coming together, people from different teams, and Year 1 obviously is tough. There’s no continuity from last year and so you have to learn an entirely new offense, bunch of brand-new guys, and I feel like we’ve done a good job of coming together,” he said.

“Obviously there’s going to be growing pains, but I feel like the guys show up and they give their best effort every day and we’re going to keep getting better, we’re going to keep emphasizing that. So, I think we’re right where we need to be.”

It feels as if the Chargers have reached a tipping point in their season. Next Sunday, in primetime, they’ll play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are 4-0-1 since a 1-3 start. Joseph said he expects the practices this week to focus on putting every phase of the game together consistently, within each game and from week to week.

They have no choice but to get their act together and find an efficient, effective rhythm and explosive offense if they want to again become the team that looked so promising during the first five weeks.

“I just know that when things get rolling, once everything lines up properly, we’re going to be a hard team to beat,” Joseph said. “Once we start playing complete games, that’s when people are going to fully respect us.”

Respect is earned, not given. First, comes consistency.

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