Takeaways from Chargers win over Broncos: Andre Roberts returns to spotlight, end zone

Andre Roberts is one of the NFL’s top returners, an 11-year veteran who earned All-Pro honors with the New York Jets in 2018 and Pro Bowl honors with the Buffalo Bills in 2019 and 2020.

But to Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, Roberts was a stranger until he arrived at the team’s Costa Mesa training facility in late October, the Chargers throwing the 33-year-old a lifeline after Roberts was cut by the Houston Texans.

“I did not even know this man’s name, I’m not gonna lie,” Ekeler said after the Chargers’ 34-13 victory over the Denver Broncos in SoFi Stadium on Sunday. “I did not know who Andre Roberts was.”

Ekeler does now, and if the rest of the league needed a reminder, Roberts showed how dangerous he can be with two high-impact returns that helped vault the Chargers back into the AFC playoff picture.

Roberts returned the opening kickoff 47 yards, a jolt the Chargers parlayed into a quick-strike, seven-play, 55-yard drive that Ekeler capped with a three-yard touchdown run — his 18th score of the season — for a 7-0 lead.

Early in the fourth quarter, Roberts fielded a kickoff in the end zone and returned it 101 yards for a touchdown, the fourth-longest return in franchise history, to give the Chargers a commanding 27-6 lead.

“Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about!” Ekeler said, when asked about Roberts’ score. “I’ve never seen one in my five years here, so that was amazing to see. …

“Dre was an amazing pickup by our GM. Finding him was definitely a gem, and he’s been showing that ever since he’s been here. You know, I’d be surprised if they kicked to him again the rest of the season.”

Roberts showed his big-play potential in Week 15 when he returned the opening kickoff against the Kansas City Chiefs for 75 yards.

His third career kickoff return for a touchdown began when he fielded Brandon McManus’ kick one yard deep. Roberts ran toward the right side and cut back toward the middle as he received key blocks from Chris Rumph and Jalen Guyton.

Roberts broke free near midfield and easily beat McManus to the end zone, peeking up at the stadium video board twice before crossing the goal line, giving him an NFL-leading four kickoff returns of 45 or more yards this season and the Chargers their first scoring kickoff since Micheal Spurlock’s 99-yarder in 2012.

“This guy has had an impact beyond the production on the field,” said Chargers coach Brandon Staley, who awarded Roberts a game ball. “He’s been able to come right into our culture, our way of doing things and he just fits right in.”

Three other takeaways from Sunday’s win:

Philly (not so) special: The Broncos tried a gadget play on fourth and goal from the two-yard line late in the second quarter. It did not go well, thanks to the efforts of Chargers safety Nasir Adderley and edge rusher Joey Bosa.

Denver quarterback Drew Lock handed off to running back Mike Boone, who ran left before flipping the ball to receiver Kendall Hinton.

Hinton incurred a crushing blow from Adderley as he threw to a wide-open Lock, the impact producing a wobbler that gave Bosa enough time to close and crush Lock one yard shy of a touchdown, preserving a 10-0 lead.

The Chargers’ Joey Bosa (97) celebrates with teammates after stopping Broncos quarterback Drew Lock (3) at the goal line in the first half.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“How you play [near the goal line] says a lot about the competitive character of your team, and I felt like our guys really sold out down there,” Staley said.

“When you’re in goal-line, zero-stick coverage, the guy you don’t account for is the quarterback, and we’ve got to do a better job of accounting for that guy. But sometimes when you play the game the way Nas and Joey and the other nine guys, that can make up for any type of coverage mistake.”

Hands down: As explosive and versatile as Ekeler is, it was the 5-foot-10, 200-pounder’s balance and agility that keyed a 40-yard reception early in the third quarter, the highlight of a 14-play, 78-yard drive that ended with Dustin Hopkins’ 23-yard field goal.

On thirdand seven from the Chargers’ 20, Ekeler caught a check-down pass in the left flat and was nearly brought down by Broncos safety Justin Simmons at the 25.

Ekeler’s right knee came within inches of the turf, but he braced himself with his right hand, remained upright and ran for another 35 yards. Denver challenged the call, which was upheld.

“That’s one of the drills we do every other week,” Ekeler said. “It’s called ‘post-hand,’ where you run with the ball, boom, you go down and keep yourself up. So bringing the drill to the field right there.”

Change of heart: Staley toned down his usually bold fourth-down approach Sunday, opting for a 19-yard field goal and 10-0 lead instead of going for it on fourth and goal at the one-yard line early in the second quarter.

Two weeks ago, in a 34-28 overtime loss to Kansas City, Staley left a possible nine points on the field when the Chargers fell short on fourth-down attempts instead of kicking field goals.

“I just felt like it was going to be a possession game, and I wanted to make sure that we came away with points and forced them to score twice, three times, to beat us,” Staley said. “I felt like our defense was playing at a really high level, and I didn’t want to come up empty there.”

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