As Chargers’ defense drew criticism, their offense produced

Buried in their stinging defeat and dreadful pass defense Sunday was a stellar effort by the Chargers’ offense, especially when running the ball.

Coach Brandon Staley on Monday called it “an exceptional performance” as his team totaled 234 yards on 40 carries, an average of 5.9 per attempt.

Since Week 6 of the 2018 season, the Chargers have run for more yards in a game only once.

Austin Ekeler finished with 117 yards on 16 carries and Joshua Kelley 91 yards on 16 carries. Both scored touchdowns in the 36-34 loss to Miami.

But there is something to monitor. Ekeler suffered an ankle injury and was not on the field for the Chargers’ final series. Staley said his status for the next practice, on Wednesday, has yet to be determined.

Staley praised Ekeler and Kelley, noting each had broken multiple tackles. He also said the Chargers blocked “at a high level.”

“We were consistent running the football from quarter one to the last quarter,” Staley said. “That’s something that we need to build off of.”

Staley said he liked the patience new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore exhibited as the Chargers remained committed to the ground game. He said the 40 carries were “just as key as the rushing [yardage] total.”

The Chargers also scored touchdowns on four of their five trips inside the Dolphins’ 20-yard line. They were nine of 15 on third down and totaled 30 first downs.

“That was a performance,” Staley said, “that we’re proud of offensively.”

Fitting Jackson into the plan: The Chargers are potentially in a tricky spot regarding cornerback J.C. Jackson, who is battling back from a significant knee injury that ended his 2022 season in Week 7.

In his first game action since rupturing his patellar tendon on Oct. 23, Jackson was credited with two pass breakups by Pro Football Focus and had his first interception as a Charger.

Chargers cornerback J.C. Jackson (27) celebrates after intercepting a pass thrown by the Dolphins' Tua Tagovailoa.

Chargers cornerback J.C. Jackson (27) celebrates after intercepting a pass thrown by the Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa. He did not have much success after the pick.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

But he also was beaten for a 35-yard touchdown by Tyreek Hill, surrendered 99 yards receiving, according to PFF, and was called for a pass-interference penalty that cost the Chargers three points.

Staley said there’s a need for Jackson to rediscover his rhythm and timing after being out for so long. The coach was asked about dealing with that reality on a team built to contend.

“We’re going to put the players out there who give us the best chance to win,” Staley said. “So what we see in practice and what we feel like gives us the best combination of players, that’s what we’re going to do.

“We also know that there’s a progression and a ramp-up as he continues on in his return to play. He’s proven he can practice and practice consistently the whole way.

“He’s proven that he can play in a game against an outstanding team that’s throwing the football. Now, we just gotta keep building his confidence, rep by rep. That’s only going to come in time.”

Jackson had company: Before he talked about Jackson, Staley made a point to mention that the entire secondary struggled as the Chargers gave up 466 passing yards to Tua Tagovailoa.

No quarterback has thrown for more yards against a Chargers defense, Staley taking the blame, too, for failing to put his players in better position.

Each of the team’s four cornerbacks — Jackson, Michael Davis, Asante Samuel Jr. and Ja’Sir Taylor — surrendered a completion of at least 28 yards. Staley blamed bad leverages and saluted Miami’s playmakers.

He also said Week 1 was a factor.

“There are a lot of things that happen in the first game that don’t happen later on in the season,” Staley said. “First time out there, some unscouted looks and then really tough matchups. … Give credit to Miami. Their players played a really good game.”

Preseason rust?: After the game, linebacker Eric Kendricks referenced the fact that few of the Chargers’ regulars played during the preseason, following a leaguewide trend in recent years.

“A lot of us missed the preseason, which is a huge wake-up call on some of those plays,” Kendricks said. “We gotta lock in. We gotta play on a string, play together.”

Since Staley’s hiring in January 2021, the team has taken a conservative approach to August games, prioritizing player health. The Chargers suffered no significant injuries this summer.

Asked about Kendricks’ comment, Staley said he stood by his decision to hold out most of his starters until Sunday.