COSTA MESA, Calif. (AP) — Derwin James Jr. is accustomed to putting up great statistical seasons.
He did that as a rookie in 2018 with the Los Angeles Chargers and was an All-Pro selection. But if anyone had doubts about how James would be coming back after missing most of the past two seasons because of injuries, he has put those to rest and reclaimed his spot as one of the top safeties in the league.
James goes into Sunday's game at Cincinnati leading defensive backs with 93 tackles.
James had a season-ending knee injury during training camp last year and played in only five games in 2019 because of a foot injury that also occurred during the preseason.
“That definitely was one of my goals, over 100 tackles," James said.
James is also the only defensive player in the league this season with at least 75 tackles, a sack (1 1/2) and multiple forced fumbles (three). He also has two interceptions, including one in last Sunday's 28-13 loss at Denver.
Besides coming back from injuries, first-year coach Brandon Staley put a lot of responsibilities on James, including calling the plays in the defensive huddle.
When Staley was hired, one of his first objectives was making James the central figure in the defense, not only because of his versatility, but in the energy he can provide to the team.
“What he allows us to do, defensively, he makes a lot of people better because of all of the places that he can play for us. We’re asking him to do a lot because we need him to be doing a lot right now," Staley said.
"You’re just not going to see a lot of players play like him, a guy that can play man-to-man, a guy that can play in the deep part of the field, the guy that’s your signal-caller, keeping everybody calm.”
Staley has said throughout the season that the best thing for James would be to play him strictly at safety. But it wouldn't benefit the team in the long run.
In addition to his natural position of free safety, James has been used at linebacker on run plays and also as a slot cornerback at times. It is extremely familiar to James, because he was used at multiple positions at Florida State.
Staley also believes that despite last week's loss, James is coming off his best game of the season with seven tackles, a quarterback hit and an interception.
“He’s getting better each game. I’ve told him that because sometimes when you have a premium player like him, what you can’t do is you can’t take them for granted. You have to keep coaching him so that he’s improving at a high level,” Staley said.
James and the Chargers though face a tough test on Sunday against a Bengals offense that is firing on all cylinders. Quarterback Joe Burrow is third in passing yards per attempt (8.36), Joe Mixon is third with 924 rushing yards and rookie Ja’Marr Chase has eight receiving touchdowns.
The Chargers are last in the league in run defense and are facing their seventh running back this season who is ranked in the top 10.
“We know Joe Mixon is one of the top backs in the league. At contact, he knows what he is doing. We have to come out and be ready to stop the run," James said. "They are very balanced. They can run, they can pass. We just have to be ready to play our style of ball and get off the field.”
It is also a big game for both teams' playoff hopes. Cincinnati (7-4) has won two straight and remains one game behind Baltimore in the AFC North, but has a one-game lead for a wild-card spot. Los Angeles (6-5) hasn't won two straight since early October, and is hanging on to the final AFC playoff spot.
“Every game we play from here on out is going to be a big game. We have to be ready,” James said.
NOTES: Guard Matt Feiler was limited during Wednesday's practice because of an ankle injury, but Staley is optimistic that Feiler could be back in the lineup at left guard this week. Senio Kelemete was in at left guard last week and allowed a sack, two QB hits and six pressures. ... DT Linval Joseph is expected to come off the reserve/COVID-19 list Thursday. ... Staley has already ruled out S Alohi Gilman for a third straight game because of a quadriceps injury. ... CB Asante Samuel Jr. remains in concussion protocol.
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