COSTA MESA, Calif. (AP) — Ever since Austin Ekeler joined the Chargers as an undrafted free agent two seasons ago, the remarkable running back has consistently found unexpected new ways to contribute to Los Angeles' offense.
The newest wrinkle last weekend: Lining up outside as a receiver and running slant routes.
"We ran it twice," quarterback Philip Rivers said. "I missed him once, and he caught the one. He's so versatile. He really is. You could say he's a running back playing receiver, or you could say he's a receiver playing running back. I think he's that special and has that much ability."
Indeed, it's frightening to contemplate the potential state of the Los Angeles (2-5) offense this season without Ekeler, the Chargers' leading rusher with 248 yards and top pass-catcher with 49 receptions. Ekeler is even third in the entire NFL in receptions, and tops among running backs.
Ekeler started the season as the Chargers' first-string running back during Melvin Gordon's unsuccessful contract holdout, and he moved back into a hybrid role when Gordon returned to the team. Lining up as a slot receiver is a familiar assignment, but moving outside and running slants was something else entirely — and Ekeler still handled it with grace.
"I haven't run it in practice, ever, since I've been here," Ekeler said. "Not in a game. In college, I was always in the backfield. Here, it's never been drawn up for me. But (last Sunday) it was, 'Here, you're going to be outside. You've got a five-step slant.' I can run it. Everyone can run it, but it was the first time in a game. So yeah, I made it work. But the more you can do. I'll expand if they'll allow me to. As long as I can continue to make plays with what they're giving me, I think you'll see me getting more routes."
Ekeler caught seven passes for 118 yards last week against Tennessee, including a 41-yarder for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. He also caught a pass over the middle and took it to the goal line for what was ruled a go-ahead touchdown with 39 seconds to play, only for replay officials to rule him down inside the 1 using criteria they still hadn't been able to explain to the Chargers three days later.
The Chargers lost the game when Gordon fumbled three plays later, sending LA to its fifth loss by seven points or fewer already this season — and its third loss in which a running back fumbled at the 1. The culprit was Ekeler in the first two instances. While his teammates praise his innumerable contributions, he still thinks about his mistakes.
"This 1-yard-line stuff, man, it's literally the story of our season right now," Ekeler said with a grimace. "We've been this close. ... It's frustrating as a football team in general, especially on offense, and especially when you have the ball. When I fumbled the ball, it doesn't get any worse than that, as far as guilt. You just feel like you let your team down. So I know exactly how Mel felt."
Ekeler's positive plays far outnumber his mistakes, and his slick physicality provides a challenging counterpoint for defenses already attempting to game-plan against star receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. The 5-foot-10 Ekeler has an impressive capacity for making tacklers miss in space, and his elusiveness has only increased this season, particularly when the Chargers get him in a favorable spot in coverage.
"It's just about getting people off their mark," Ekeler said. "I'm smaller and more compact, so I can change direction a little easier than linebackers can. It's not flashy, but it's effective."
While Gordon hasn't played impressively since his return from the holdout, averaging just 2.3 yards per carry in his two games, Ekeler has only emphasized his own importance in the Chargers' offense. With left tackle Russell Okung returning from injury this weekend at Chicago, Ekeler and Rivers are hopeful they can get more production out of the Bolts' struggling running game.
"I think we're at our best when we're balanced," Rivers said. "Whatever it means, that needs to be our No. 1 objective. I think that could be the answer to some of our questions, is scoring."
NOTES: Okung probably won't play the entire game against the Bears, coach Anthony Lynn said. Trent Scott is also likely to play at left tackle, where he has spent the season. ... Scott Quessenberry will start the week as the Chargers' starting center, but Lynn is also looking at Ryan Groy, who signed with Los Angeles two weeks ago. Groy played for the Buffalo Bills when Lynn was their running backs coach and offensive coordinator. ... The Chargers put OG Forrest Lamp on injured reserve after he broke his leg at Tennessee. ... With NT Brandon Mebane (knee) and DT Justin Jones (shoulder) missing practice Wednesday, the Bolts signed DT Sylvester Williams to replace Lamp on the 53-man roster. Williams is a seven-year NFL veteran who won a Super Bowl ring in Denver and spent the most recent preseason with New Orleans. "I think bringing him on as depth can't do anything but help us," Lynn said.