SPORTS DIGEST: Rams, Chargers enter season with winning quarterbacks

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By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

If you need a good quarterback to win in the National Football League, both the Rams and Chargers enter the 2022 season with the chance of winning.

With Matthew Stafford and Justin Herbert, the Rams and Chargers are set at quarterback, barring injury. Of course in a 17-game NFL schedule, injuries happen and the teams that advance to the Super Bowl next February will have either dodged major injuries to key personnel or filled in the holes caused by injuries better than other teams.

That said, the Rams and Chargers are starting ahead of some of the other teams in the league. Unfortunately for the Chargers, they are in a division where all four teams have high-caliber quarterbacks.

To win the American Football Conference Western Division title, the Chargers will have to be better than the Kansas City Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, the Denver Broncos with Russell Wilson at quarterback and the Las Vegas Raiders with Derek Carr at quarterback.

The Chargers just missed the playoffs last year, losing to the Raiders, 35-32 in overtime in the final game of the season to finish 9-8.

They open the season Sept. 11 at SoFi Stadium against the Raiders and then turn around four days later and play the Chiefs in Kansas City. They could be 0-2 before they have a chance to blink. They also could be 2-0.

Herbert is in his third season as the starting quarterback. Head coach Brandon Staley is in his second year as coach.

General manager Tom Tedesco has done a fine job of building a solid roster around Herbert. The Chargers signed former Ram Sony Michel to back up Austin Ekeler at running back.

They drafted Zion Johnson in the first round and made him their starting right guard.

On defense, they signed Khalil Mack to team with Joey Bosa for two of the best edge pass rushers in the league. They added another former Ram, Sebastian Joseph-Day, to play on the defensive line.

The Chargers are built for a good, if not great season this year. And it all revolves round Herbert.

In two seasons, Herbert has thrown for 9,350 yards and 69 touchdowns.

In Aaron Rodgers’ first two years as a starting quarterback, he threw for 8,472 yards and 58 touchdowns. Patrick Mahomes threw for 9,128 yards and 64 touchdowns.

Matthew Stafford threw for 10,005 yards and 61 touchdowns in his first two full seasons as a starting quarterback, but those were his third and fourth years in the league and he started 13 games combined in his first two seasons.

Anyway you look at, Herbert is the real deal.

And he has some great weapons. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are his favorite receivers.

Allen got 106 passes for 1,138 yards and six touchdowns last season. Williams had more yards receiving than Allen, even though he caught 30 fewer passes. He also caught nine touchdown passes.

Running back Ekeler accounted for more than 1,500 yards rushing and receiving and scored 20 touchdowns.

The Chargers were fifth in the NFL in scoring last year and should be among the top scoring teams again this year. It’s on the defense where the Chargers need to improve.

Last season they were 29th in the NFL in points allowed and 23rd in yards allowed. Both of those need to improve if the Chargers are going to contend for the AFC West title and earn a spot in the playoffs.

Staley is a defensive-oriented coach so the team should get better in his second year in charge. With Mack and Bosa up front and a healthy Derwin James leading the secondary, the Chargers should be better at stopping their opponents, giving Herbert and company more chances to score on offense.

The Chargers have reason to be optimistic entering the season. If they can manage to split their first two games, they have a chance to be 4-1 going into the sixth week of the season, a Monday night game Oct. 17 against Denver at SoFi. By then, we should know what kind of team the 2022 Chargers are.

READY TO REPEAT: The Rams enter the 2022 season Sept. 8 at SoFi Stadium against the Buffalo Bills. They enter the season as defending Super Bowl champions knowing that no team has won back-to-back Super Bowls since the New England Patriots in 2004 and 2005.

Many experts say the season opener could be a Super Bowl preview, but the Rams aren’t getting any love from Las Vegas bookmakers who have installed the Bills as 2-1/2 point favorites.

Stafford appears to be ready to lead the Rams after going through the summer with concerns about his throwing elbow. After 12 years in Detroit where he played in three playoff games (he lost them all), Stafford went 4-0 in the playoffs last season while leading the Rams to the Super Bowl victory.

Super Bowl most valuable player Cooper Kupp is back leading the receiving corps, which added Allen Robinson in the offseason.

Robinson was a second-round draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars eight years ago out of Penn State. In eight seasons, four with Jacksonville and four with Chicago, he has 495 catches for 6,409 yards and 40 touchdowns.

He figures to take the place of O.J. Beckham, who is still recovering from offseason knee surgery and is a free agent.

The Rams have a big hole to fill on the offensive line after left tackle Andrew Whitworth retired, but Joe Noteboom, a third-round draft pick in 2018, is expected to step into that role with four years of experience under his belt.

The Rams would like to improve their running game. Cam Akers figures to get the bulk of the work, but Darrell Henderson also is available. Staying healthy is essential for both of those backs.

Defensively, the Rams have future Hall of Famers in the line (Aaron Doanld), at linebacker (Bobby Wagner, formerly of Seattle) and in the secondary (cornerback Jalen Ramsey).

A couple of years ago the NFC West was the toughest division in football, but with Russell Wilson moving from Seattle to Denver and Trey Lance taking over for Jimmy Garappolo at quarterback for San Francisco, the Rams shouldn’t have many problems repeating as Western Division champions this season, if they can stay healthy.

While the Chargers have to play the Kansas City Chiefs four days after they open the season with the Raiders, the Rams have 10 days off after opening with the Bills before facing the Atlanta Falcons at home Sept. 18.

After two road games against division foes Arizona and San Francisco, the Rams return home for games against Dallas and Carolina. It’s not hard to envision a 5-1 start.

Their biggest test will come late in the season when they face all four AFC West teams in a seven-week span starting Thanksgiving weekend with two games against Seattle and another against Green Bay thrown in the mix.

By then, the Rams could be coasting to a division title and looking forward to the playoffs and the possibility of winning back-to-back titles.

It’s a difficult goal, but one that is well within their reach.

SOLID DEBUT: USC fans are rejoicing this week. New coach Lincoln Riley and the transfer-portal laden roster of the Trojans won their debut, 66-14 over Rice Sept. 3 on a sweltering hot day in the Coliseum. And the Trojans looked real good doing it.

Quarterback Caleb Williams hit on 19 of 22 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns and led the team in rushing, too, with 68 yards on six carries.

Jordan Addison caught five passes for 54 yards and two touchdowns. The Trojans running game racked up more then 200 yards with no ball carrier carrying it more than six times.

Stanford transfer Austin Jones carried four times for 48 yards and Oregon transfer Travis Dye carried five times for 20 yards, but the most impressive running back might have been freshman Raleek Brown, who gained 36 yards in six carries including a 14-yard touchdown run.

The Trojans didn’t turn the ball over and punted only once, but the biggest surprise was the USC defense, which intercepted four passes, returning three for touchdowns.

The Trojans had one defensive touchdown all of last season.

Granted, the Trojans were playing Rice, but for one week anyway the Trojans are back in the top 10 in the rankings, hoping to build on that Sept. 10 when they face Stanford in Palo Alto in a game that will be televised nationally on ABC, starting at 4:30 p.m.

Stanford had a worse season than the Trojans did last year, but the Cardinal always play tough football, especially in Palo Alto.

This will be a much tougher test for the Trojans. It will be interesting to see if Riley can keep the Trojans focused on this week’s game after such a satisfying week one.

BRUINS BOUNCE BACK: It was an inauspicious start to the 2022 football season for the UCLA Bruins Sept. 3. Less than 17 minutes into the game, the Bruins trailed Bowling Green, 17-7, and the 27,000 fans who braved the heat in the Rose Bowl were more than a little uneasy.

But the Bruins scored 17 points in the last nine minutes of the first half to take a 24-17 lead at the break and added 21 more unanswered points in the second half to win their season opener, 45-17.

The Bruins had a punt blocked 74 second into the game that was returned for a touchdown and then fumbled a punt later in the first quarter to set up a field goal.

The defense looked weak as Bowling Green drove 73 yards in eight plays for the 17-7 lead early in the second quarter, but then the Bruins turned it up a notch, led by fifth-year quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who had a tremendous all-around game.

Thompson-Robinson got the offense going early, scrambling for a 68-yard touchdown run on the Bruins’ second possession.

On the game, he completed 32 of 43 passes for 298 yards and two touchdowns, while adding 87 yards on the ground in seven carries and two more touchdowns.

Running back Zach Charbonnet gained 111 yards on 21 carries and scored once.

The Bruins defense played well, except for one possession. Overall, Bowling Green gained only 162 yards and recorded nine first downs.

No one will know what kind of team the Bruins will have this season until at least Sept. 24 when they travel to Colorado.

This week, it’s Alabama State Sept. 10 at 2 p.m. at the Rose Bowl and the following week it’s South Alabama at 11 a.m. at the Rose Bowl.

But a win is a win and coach Chip Kelly and his players will happily take the first one.

 

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