Injured Chargers running back Austin Ekeler took a potentially significant step toward returning Wednesday when he participated in practice on a limited basis.
Dealing with a high-ankle sprain suffered in Week 1, Ekeler took part in individual drills and did some running.
“It’s kind of like climbing the stairs,” he said. “You’re not going to just jump to the top stair. You kind of go one by one. We’re progressing toward going 100%. I haven’t been there yet.”
Ekeler did not rule out returning Sunday when the Chargers play Las Vegas at SoFi Stadium. He said his availability will be determined as he ramps up his activity this week.
After rushing for 117 yards — tying his third-best total — in the Chargers’ season-opening 36-34 loss to Miami, Ekeler has missed the last two weeks.
In his absence, the Chargers struggled running against Tennessee’s beefy front and Minnesota’s blitz-heavy approach. Joshua Kelley, Isaiah Spiller and Elijah Dotson carried 31 times for 67 yards.
The Chargers also have missed Ekeler in the passing game. Their running backs had only three catches (on four targets) for 18 yards the last two games.
“Not being on the field; not being able to help the guys,” Ekeler said when asked what’s been toughest for him. “That’s what we’re here to do. We’re on a mission. We feel like we have everything that we need. …
“Being on the sidelines and not being able to contribute because of stuff that you can’t control sucks. But it’s part of the game. … I’m doing everything now. It’s my job. ‘Hey, get back. Get back to help these boys out.’ ”
The Chargers have their off week following Sunday, but Ekeler said sitting out against the Raiders to give his injury more time to heal isn’t a consideration.
“When this ankle is ready, it’s ready,” he said. “If it’s tomorrow, if it’s next week, so be it. If I can play this game, I’m going to go out there and help the team.”
Ekeler was injured late in the third quarter of the opener when he was tackled by Dolphins linebacker Jaelan Phillips. The Chargers immediately went into hurry-up mode and Ekeler had to remain in the game. He even carried again, gaining five yards before hobbling off the field.
He returned for a stretch of the fourth quarter but was unavailable during the Chargers’ final drive in the last two minutes.
Ekeler explained Wednesday that he didn’t want to cost his team a timeout or a 10-second runoff if he aggravated the injury and needed assistance leaving the field.
“That’s when I knew it was a little worse and something different than just an ankle sprain,” he said.
With a high-ankle sprain, Ekeler said the pain is more above the ankle. He said his issue isn’t running straight ahead but rather cutting or moving laterally.
“I’m trying to get back as fast as I can,” Ekeler said. “As a competitor, we do everything we can to make sure we can help our team. But you always have to be smart as a human to make sure you don’t come back and reset yourself.”
Ruled out of the Chargers’ Week 3 game at Minnesota late last week, Ekeler said he watched his team’s rollicking, emotional, 28-24 victory sitting at home.
Well, he mostly was sitting.
“When you’re in the game, you’re focused,” Ekeler said. “You’re locked in. You’re really like in the zone. So you don’t have those swings because you’ve got a job to do. You’ve got a mission, and you’re laser focused.
“When you’re at home, I wasn’t in that zone. So I was feeling the ups and downs. … I’m doing push-ups. I’m blowing off steam. I’m like this close to the TV. I’m screaming. I’m yelling, just supporting the boys as much as I can.”
The Chargers’ first injury report of the week was a stacked one. Among the starters unable to practice were safety Derwin James Jr. (hamstring), edge rusher Joey Bosa (hamstring/toe), center Corey Linsley (illness), linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. (groin), safety Alohi Gilman (heel) and tight end Gerald Everett (illness).
Two other starters — left tackle Rashawn Slater (ankle) and linebacker Eric Kendricks (hamstring) — joined Ekeler as being limited.
The Chargers already know they’ll be without wide receiver Mike Williams, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against Minnesota.
If James and Gilman are unable to play against the Raiders, an already struggling secondary will be very thin.
The Chargers would be left with JT Woods and Raheem Layne as the only safeties on their active roster. Veteran Dean Marlowe and undrafted rookie AJ Finley are on the practice squad.
In his second season out of Baylor, Woods has played 91 defensive snaps in his career. He has struggled in the deep part of the field and missed a tackle against the Vikings that led to a 52-yard Justin Jefferson touchdown.
Layne, who was undrafted out of Indiana last year, has played 27 defensive snaps in nine games over the last two years. He played two snaps against the Vikings and was called for unnecessary roughness on one of those plays.