Chargers safety James looking to eliminate penalties

Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. runs during a game last month against the Dolphins in Inglewood, Calif. (Associated Press)
Chargers safety Derwin James Jr. runs during a game last month against the Dolphins in Inglewood, Calif. (Associated Press)

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Derwin James has more to worry about this week than preparing to face Travis Kelce and the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Los Angeles Chargers safety is leading the league in a category very few players want to top.

James has been called for three unnecessary roughness penalties in the four games he has played. Before this year, he had been flagged for unnecessary roughness three times in five seasons.

James acknowledged Wednesday his hit on Indianapolis’ Ashton Dulin late last season during a Monday night game is one reason he’s drawn more attention from officials. He was ejected from that game after hitting a defenseless receiver with the crown of his helmet.

“I think I am a little bit,” James said about receiving increased scrutiny. “I’m not here to referee what they need to call. I’m here to play football and help my team win games.”

James received two 15-yard penalties during the second quarter of Monday night’s 20-17 loss to Dallas. He was flagged for roughing the passer and then unnecessary roughness when he hit Jake Ferguson in the head and neck area as Ferguson was being tackled. The latter penalty put the Cowboys in field goal range, and Brandon Aubrey connected from 32 yards on the last play of the first half to put Dallas up 10-7.

In Week 2 at Tennessee, James’ unnecessary roughness penalty came on a third-down incompletion, extending a drive that resulted in a touchdown for the Titans. The following week at Minnesota, the foul occurred near the end of the first half and eventually led to a Vikings field goal.

“He needs to change his approach because he needs to stop being penalized,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said. “He needs to lower his target and play the aggressive game that he plays, but he has to lower his strike zone and make sure that he’s making good decisions.”

James said he has already lowered his targeting area, but will have to aim a little bit lower to avoid further flags.

“I’m already going low, and then guys are ducking. I just have to get low, I guess,” he said. “If they’re going to call it like that, I have to be responsible and not hurt my team and get better from it. It’s that simple.”

James’ more immediate focus is trying to contain Kelce, something the Chargers have not done during Staley’s tenure as coach. In 17 meetings with the Chargers, Kelce has three games of at least 100 yards receiving -- all of them during the past two seasons. Five of Kelce’s seven touchdowns against Los Angeles have also happened in the past four games.

During his career, James has been matched up against Kelce on 46 coverage snaps. On those plays, Kelce was targeted 12 times and has six catches for 35 yards.

In last season’s first meeting, James tackled Kelce with a body slam after an 18-yard reception in third quarter.

Kelce regained bragging rights in the second game. He scored two of his three touchdowns when matched up against James, including a 17-yard score with 31 seconds remaining in a 30-27 victory. The All-Pro tight end finished with six catches for 115 yards.

Besides the three-TD game last season, Kelce had 10 receptions for 191 yards and two scores in a 2021 game against the Bolts.

“He’s always finding his way to get open. Yards after the catch, he’s one of the best at doing that. I just have to be ready,” James said. “You have to be physical. You have to go out there and you have to guard him. That’s all it comes down to.”

The Chargers (2-3) have a three-game losing streak against the Chiefs. They need a win Sunday to avoid falling further behind in the AFC West and among the many contenders for AFC playoff spots.

All five of Los Angeles’ games have been decided by one score and its three losses have come by a combined margin of eight points.

“Every game is a critical game from here on out. We have to win them,” James said. “We’re both 1-0 in the division, so it starts on Sunday.”