Chargers know they have to avoid slow start against hard-charging 49ers

For starters, the Chargers of late have been much better finishers.

Four consecutive games have brought double-digit deficits after the opening quarter.

Yet the team has gone 3-1 over that stretch by rebounding from two-score differences against Cleveland, Denver and Atlanta.

“It’s hard to come back in the NFL,” safety Derwin James Jr. said. “If we’re coming back from down two possessions, we gotta be doing something right.”

True, but the Chargers also are doing something wrong in repeatedly putting themselves in positions to have to rally in the first place.

They’ve been outscored 51-3 in their past four first quarters, a trend that more than likely would doom them Sunday night against a San Francisco team that is expected to present a sharp upgrade in opposition.

The 49ers lead the NFL in total defense and feature an offense that includes Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle. They also are rested and healthier after having last week off.

Sitting at a modest 4-4, San Francisco has become a popular Super Bowl pick after trading for McCaffrey last month and then throttling the reigning NFL champion Rams on Oct. 30.

The Chargers’ locker room is dotted with former Rams, including defensive linemen Sebastian Joseph-Day and Morgan Fox and linebacker Troy Reeder, each of whom previously knew the 49ers as NFC West rivals.

Joseph-Day said he and Fox recently shared with teammates “how fast and how physical it’s going to be. Troy was saying, ‘You can’t be caught with your cleats not in the ground. They’ll punch you in the mouth.’ ”

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San Francisco figures to come out swinging against the Chargers, who have to discover a way to avoid another slow start.

Only twice this season have they entered the second quarter with a lead: 3-0 versus Kansas City in Week 2 and 7-0 at Houston in Week 4.

That game against the Texans — on Oct. 2 — was the last time the Chargers were ahead at any point of an opening quarter.

In attempting to find a kick-start, coach Brandon Staley explained that he altered practices this week. He structured the sessions so that the Chargers got into team periods sooner.

“I want to make sure that our players know that we’re going to make that a point of emphasis,” Staley said. “Hopefully, we can start faster. … I think our guys know that, ‘Hey, we made it tough on ourselves and why did that happen?’

“It comes down to the execution early on in the game and being aggressive, being aggressive and bringing that mind set. … We’re going to be practicing on it. We’re going to be working on it. Hopefully, it will translate.”

The sluggish starts have been comprehensive, the Chargers lagging on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

Here’s what their eight first-quarter possessions have yielded over the last four games: one field goal, three punts, two failed fourth downs and two turnovers.

Here’s what their opponent’s 11 first-quarter possessions have yielded: six touchdowns, three field goals, one punt and one interception.

Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said there’s no “magic formula” to solving the Chargers’ early struggles. Linebacker Drue Tranquill noted that there isn’t a common thread, saying that it has been something different each week.

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Lombardi suggested the problem could simply defy explanation.

“One of my favorite books is ‘Fooled by Randomness,’ ” he said. Football is “17 games. It’s different than baseball where there are 400 at-bats or however many. Sometimes, the coin comes up heads four times in a row.”

The pregame toss Sunday will prove interesting, a quicker start for the Chargers dependent on either Justin Herbert moving the ball or the defense stopping Jimmy Garoppolo from doing the same.

Staley said things haven’t reached a point where he’d consider receiving the opening kickoff as opposed to deferring — the more traditional decision — if the Chargers were to win the toss.
Whether on offense or defense first, Staley’s team will be on national display, the Chargers set to play a second consecutive Sunday night game.

“I don’t think the lights or the cameras add anything,” Joseph-Day said. “Playing this game, you [always] want to put your best product out on the field. It just happens to be in prime time. It’s cool and it’s a blessing. People are going to be able to watch our team, watch who the Chargers are.”

And, of particular significance, watch how the Chargers start.

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