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Chargers-Chiefs takeaways: Why defense is still L.A.’s Achilles’ heel

The Chargers lost to Kansas City 30-27 in the closing seconds Sunday night at SoFi Stadium, their second one-score, fourth-quarter defeat in prime time in as many weeks.

They fell to 5-5 and into ninth place (the top seven advance to the playoffs) in the AFC. They are a game behind New England, Cincinnati and the New York Jets.

The Chargers next travel to Arizona to face a 4-6 Cardinals team that plays San Francisco on Monday night in Mexico City.

Some observations from the Chargers’ latest tough loss to the Chiefs:

THIRD AND TROUBLE: The Chargers rank 25th in the NFL defensively on the third down, their opponents converting 43.8% of the time. Kansas City finished five for 10.

Even worse, the Chargers have struggled stopping third and long throughout the season. The Chiefs converted on third and 17, third and eight and two third and sevens.

“There were a few times we really had that team pinned,” linebacker Drue Tranquill said. “Against that team, you have to get off the field when you have them in those situations. We didn’t do that …

“We gotta do better [pass] rush and coverage working together. Guys gotta be tighter on their assignments, play their leverage. And you have to give [Kansas City’s] Pat [Mahomes] credit, one of the best in the league.”

Chargers coach Brandon Staley’s rebuilt defense continues to have a difficult time sustaining performance.

The Chargers forced consecutive three and outs in the second quarter and produced a turnover when linebacker Troy Reeder knocked the ball out of Jerick McKinnon’s grasp for a fourth-quarter fumble.

Chargers linebacker Troy Reeder forces the Chiefs’ Jerick McKinnon (1) to fumble in the fourth quarter.

(Robert Gauthier / VFAB)

But they were unable to rise up in the most crucial moments, when they could have put the ball back in quarterback Justin Herbert’s hands.

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“We have to make more plays,” Staley said. “It’s as simple as that on third down. We’re not covering well enough on third down. That’s all there is to it.”

NOT ENOUGH ON OTHER DOWNS EITHER: The Chargers surrendered a season-worst 485 total yards, Mahomes becoming the first opposing quarterback to top 300 passing yards, finishing with 329.

Kansas City had a 100-yard rusher in Isiah Pacheco and a 100-yard receiver in Travis Kelce.

The game also marked Kelce’s first career three-touchdown performance. He did have a career-best four-touchdown game in October against Las Vegas.

“I don’t think it was good,” Tranquill said of the defense’s showing. “We didn’t do good in the run game. We didn’t do good in the pass game.”

PALMER CONTINUES COMING ON: For the second time in three games, Joshua Palmer reached 106 receiving yards, his career high.

When Mike Williams was lost in the first quarter after tweaking his already sore ankle, Palmer emerged as Herbert’s top target.

Keenan Allen was back for the Chargers after being limited to two games and 45 snaps because of a hamstring injury, but the plan was for Allen’s snap count to be limited, further increasing Palmer’s role.

“Great things, coming alive everywhere,” Allen said of Palmer. “Short game, intermediate, deep. Full game for him.”

The Chargers' Joshua Palmer (5) catches a pass for a touchdown in front Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill.

The Chargers’ Joshua Palmer catches a pass for a touchdown in front Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill.

(Robert Gauthier / VFAB)

A third-round pick in 2021, Palmer also had the first two-touchdown game of his career. He already has topped his reception and yardage totals from his rookie season.

“He’s one of those guys that is able to win against man coverage,” Herbert said. “He’s not playing like this is his second year. We trust him completely.”

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NO FOURTH AND STALEY: The situation was one that Staley has described in the past by comparing it to a green light, as in a full-go. But Sunday, with the Chargers facing fourth and one at their 34-yard line with about five minutes left in the third quarter, Staley opted to punt.

The Chargers were leading 20-16 at the time, and running back Austin Ekeler had just been stopped for no gain on third and one.

“I really felt like flipping the field position there was the right thing to do,” Staley said. “The game was even, and I didn’t want to swing the momentum their way. We had been stopped on a couple short-yardage plays. I just felt like our defense was playing at a high enough level and wanted to give our defense a chance to compete.”

JK Scott delivered a 52-yard punt that the Chargers downed at Kansas City’s 14-yard line. Despite the field position, the Chiefs went on a 10-play, 86-yard touchdown drive to take a 23-20 lead, scoring on the first play of the fourth quarter.

For the season, the Chargers have gone for it on fourth down 19 times, tied for fourth most in the NFL. Their success rate of 42.1% ranks 26th.

STRAIGHT FACTS: Injury fill-in kicker Cameron Dicker made field goals of 46 and 21 yards and all three of his extra points. The Chargers’ kickers have made 39 consecutive attempts. Dustin Hopkins (hamstring) could return Sunday against Arizona. … Safety Derwin James Jr. reached a career high with his fourth sack of the season when he dropped Mahomes for a seven-yard loss in the third quarter. … Ekeler has 69 reception for the season, the most in NFL history for a running back through his team’s first 10 games.

IN HIS OWN WORDS: “Close is not good enough in this league. I didn’t make enough winning plays. We didn’t make enough winning plays. It hurts, but we gotta move on.” — Derwin James Jr.

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