'He can do it all': Derwin James remains a rare constant for Chargers defense

Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce caught a pass, then spun to his left for a sprint downfield.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end dodged two Los Angeles Chargers defenders, but had no luck avoiding a third.

At the Chargers three-yard line, Bolts safety Derwin James Jr. upended Kelce in a move that resembled a signature slam from the WWE's most famous wrestler the Undertaker.

“WWE style right there!” Chargers defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day said of James’ tackle.

“That was crazy,” Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams said. “D.J., he brings the wood, he tackles real hard.”

James’ stop was one that even Kelce had to admire.

“You good, brother?” James asked after the ensuing snap.

“That was a hell of a play,” Kelce admitted.

The Bolts fell to the division-rival Chiefs in that Week 2 matchup, 27-24, but will have a chance to split the season series when they meet again at SoFi Stadium on "Sunday Night Football" (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).

Void of a postseason appearance since 2018, the Chargers (5-4) are clinging to the final spot in the playoff race, and are chasing the division-leading Chiefs (7-2) in the AFC West.

The Bolts have a 48 percent chance to make the playoffs entering Week 11, and their chances improve to 69 percent with a win, but fall to 42 percent with a loss, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

This will be the Chargers' second consecutive game in primetime, a place James has shined this season, but where his team has otherwise fallen flat at 0-2.

Last Sunday night, in a 22-16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, James set the tone early in a stout defensive performance when he delivered a punishing hit to strip the ball loose from wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, forcing a turnover recovered by cornerback Asante Samuel Jr.

“We had really talked about attacking the football in that game,” coach Brandon Staley said. “It was kind one of those virtuoso Derwin performances. He was everywhere, doing everything, for us.”

“Teamwork made the dream work,” said Samuel, who made initial contact with Aiyuk before recovering the loose ball. “Derwin was right there.”

Being “right there” is a common theme for James, a 26-year-old, fifth-year pro, who signed a record-breaking four-year, $76.5-million extension before the season.

“Derwin James is a guy that just is all over the place,” Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Pederson said before facing James in Week 3. “They line him up as an outside rush or a stack back, or they line him up in as a secondary safety position, potentially a nickel guy. I mean it's just all over the field and it's a credit to him and his knowledge and understanding of the defense.”

Prior to handing Houston a loss in Week 4, Texans coach Lovie Smith said, “He can do it all ... He's one of those guys that you love watching and you're not all excited when he is on the other side of the football field.”

James has played free safety for most of the snaps this season and spent significant time lining up as an outside linebacker and slot cornerback, while also competing as a cornerback and inside linebacker.

He has amassed 85 tackles, a league-high among defensive backs, and three sacks, ranking him tied for second among DBs.

“To be able to do as much as he does on the football field, not only what he is doing, but how he is doing it -- and how challenging that is physically and mentally, like the tax -- it would just be hard to explain to people the tax that Derwin has on him during a week,” Staley said. “That’s what special players in the league get paid for, for that tax. But he always answers the bell and there is no role that he won’t perform.”

This season, arguably more than any other recently, the Bolts have needed it.

The Chargers entered the season expecting to field playmakers, like edge rushers Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa, at every level of the defense. Interior linemen Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson, both signed in free agency, along with cornerback J.C. Jackson.

But they have been decimated by injuries.

Bosa, Jackson and Johnson all have been placed on injured reserve, along with backup linemen Otito Ogbonnia and Christian Covington. Tempered optimism remains that Bosa could return this season, but no timeline has been provided.

The Bolts defense ranks 23rd in efficiency, allowing 25.3 points per game (Ranks 29th), an average of 146.8 rushing yards (30th) and 5.4 rushing yards per attempt (31st).

The crux of their run defense has been explosive plays. The Bolts have allowed six runs this season of more than 40 yards and four that have gone for 50 or more yards --- the most in the NFL in both categories.

“It’s been a huge emphasis for our team. We’re going to continue to do it,” defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill said of limiting explosive runs. “The only way that I know how to get better is to continue going onto the practice field, continue trying to meet together, make sure that we’re seeing the puzzle in the run game the same way.”

Coaches and players have avoided using injuries as an excuse for any shortcoming, and some have gone so far to say that no excuses are even necessary.

“We can’t make excuses, no one cares,” James said. “KC don’t care. So we have to go play.”

“We’ve kind of been winning,” Samuel said. “We can’t just give excuses. This is the NFL and other people are getting hurt on other teams.”

The Chiefs boast the top-scoring offense, averaging 29 points per game behind quarterback Patrick Mahomes league-best 25 passing touchdowns.

"He’s one of the best, mobile quarterback, being able to not only throw from the pocket but being able to throw on the run," James said. "Right when you think you got him, he can make that last throw or right when you have him, he can make it, so just being able to play him honest, straight up, so you got to be ready."

The Chargers will look to James, who is often described by coaches and teammates as the "heartbeat" of the team, to establish a presence early.

“Tough, rugged, physical, smart, dependable and he’s not afraid to get his nose bloody,” Joseph-Day said of James.

James said he has not watched his WWE-style tackle on Kelce since Week 2.

“I’ve been every week worrying about the next team,” he said.

However, Hill said the body slam has appeared in film sessions throughout the week and that an encore would be welcome.

"It has shown up just being a crossover game and we’re gonna look back at that game and it’s still the oohs and ahhs," Hill said. "We know we have to be physical with these guys and it’s going to take everybody, not just Derwin. But if he can do that again I think it would be a tone-setter."