Derwin James, Chargers defense up to 49ers ‘challenge’ before injuries take toll: ‘We just need to get guys healthy’

There are no moral victories in the NFL, but as the Los Angeles Chargers walked off the field Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium after falling, 22-16, to the San Francisco 49ers, it sure felt like it should count for something.

“We didn’t come in here to get a pat on the back for playing hard,” Chargers head coach Brandon Staley said. “That’s not what this league is about. We came here to win tonight and that’s what I liked about our team is we came here to win.”

While Staley applauded his team’s effort, the end result stung — more so considering the toll it took on an already banged-up roster.

Just 10 minutes into the Chargers’ Sunday night prime-time game, defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia left with a knee injury and did not return. Three quarters later, fellow defensive lineman Christian Covington also went down and did not return with a pectoral injury.

“It f—— sucks,” Sebastian Joseph-Day told reporters in the locker room after the loss. “[Ogbonnia’s] a young player and he’s playing well and you hate to see him get hurt.”

They were two injuries to a defensive line already thin after losing Austin Johnson to a season-ending injury last Sunday and after the team released Jerry Tillery this week due to philosophical differences.

That left three players to finish off the game on the interior defensive line — Joseph-Day, Morgan Fox and Breiden Fehoko — against a 49ers offense well-rested coming off its bye week.

“That s—- is hard. It’s hard,” safety Derwin James said in the locker room. “This is the NFL; you need rotation, you need depth. To have three guys out there the whole time and they’re tempo-ing, s— hard on those guys.”

“It’s tough,” Fehoko said. “You can’t prepare for that kind of stuff. It’s not like we go into a week saying, ‘Oh, if this guy goes down you’re going to have to carry the load.'”

Despite the injuries, the defense held the 49ers offense, which saw its first complete game with Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey working together, to two touchdowns and 387 yards of total offense.

The Chargers defense, which entered ranked 29th in rushing defense, managed to keep McCaffrey to 38 yards rushing, while Samuel finished the night with just 51 total yards. Elijah Mitchell, who made his return after suffering an injury in week one against the Bears, led the team with 89 rushing yards.

“It don’t matter because we f— lost,” Joseph-Day said.

“You have three guys playing every snap, legit in the second half, most of the fourth quarter,” Fehoko said. “It’s a grind. We just have to get healthy and I can guarantee once this team gets healthy nobody wants to see us.”

The Chargers put up a fight all night long, leading until a McCaffrey touchdown with just under eight minutes left to play.

“Defense played their a—- off, played great,” DeAndre Carter said in the locker room after the game. “It’s a good offense that we held down to 22 points. We got to execute better on offense. We have to put up points and score touchdowns in the red zone. We have to execute.”

Joseph-Day, Fox and Fehoko leaned on each other throughout the game reminding one another of the opportunity.

“We just need stops. Don’t be Superman. Everybody do your job,” Fehoko said as he recounted the conversations the three linemen had throughout the game. “At the end of the game when we needed to hold them to a field goal or we needed to stop the run … we did that.”

James finished the game with 13 tackles (seven solo) and a forced fumble, marking his first fumble forced of the season.

“All week long we were saying that this offense is all-world and they’re getting everybody back,” James said. “We took that challenge as a defense. Nobody gave us a chance on defense. They said we couldn’t stop the run. ‘They’re going to go for 300 or 400 yards,’ but I feel like we gave our offense and everybody a chance to win the game.”

The offense had a chance to win it with a minute to play down six points. Justin Herbert and the Chargers needed to go the length of the field. In the huddle, Carter said Herbert told his teammates, “let’s go win the game.”

“We’re going to go win the game we have a shot,” Carter said of what he was thinking in that moment. “When 10 is back there we know we always have a shot.”

An interception by Talanoa Hufanga ended the Chargers’ hopes of a comeback victory with 49 seconds left to play, though.

“We had it. We just have to finish,” Joseph-Day said. “We could do the pointing game all we want, but at the end of the day, we’re in the NFL, everyone here is in the NFL. We have to execute and find a way to figure it out.”

Said James: “I feel like we’re still in a great spot because if you look at the AFC West I feel like everything is still right there. We just need to get guys healthy and keep playing hard.”

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