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Chargers RB Ekeler prepared to seize starting spotlight

When Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn says that Austin Ekeler is pound for pound the strongest player on the team, he isn’t just dealing in hyperboles.

“It’s not an opinion, that’s a fact. We go through the offseason program with the weights and percentages. We were very surprised how strong he was. I mean, pound for pound, strongest guy on our team.”

The 5-foot-10, 200-pound running back said he continues to lift four days a week during the season because it is therapeutic. Ekeler said he took it easy during Wednesday’s session because of a sore neck, lifting 295 pounds.

Despite being short in stature, it is Ekeler’s strength which is a big reason why he has earned the confidence of teammates and the coaching staff.

“I just take pride in the weight room. Because I have a small frame people think they are going to light me up,” Ekeler said. “My strength allows me to take hits. Defensive backs take a hit on me but I absorb it and keep going.”

The weight room isn’t the only place where Ekeler has made his mark. He leads the league with an average of 7.5 yards from scrimmage per play.

With Melvin Gordon out because of an MCL sprain to his right knee, the second-year running back will have more attention focused on him on Sunday when Los Angeles travels to Pittsburgh for a key AFC showdown.

Even though Ekeler is likely to get the start, he isn’t trying to approach the game with a different mindset.

“Every week is a big opportunity to make plays and show what you’re made of,” he said. “The situation this week is unfortunate because of what happened to Melvin, but now I’m the next guy up.”

Ekeler made the team last season as an undrafted rookie out of Western State Colorado and split time between offense and special teams. He had 539 yards from scrimmage with five touchdowns, including three receiving, but there were only four games where he saw 20 or more plays on offense.

This season Ekeler has become a more integral part of the offense. He has seen 20 or more offensive snaps in all but three games and has touched the ball 102 times (70 rushing, 32 receiving).

“You see how low he is when he’s cutting it in and out of holes. I think sometimes you can see it from afar, but he’s just so powerful and tough to bring down. Very seldom does the first guy get him,” quarterback Philip Rivers said.

Ekeler is the first undrafted back in team history to have a rushing and receiving touchdown in each of his first two years in the league. Ekeler’s 10 receptions in last week’s 45-10 win over Arizona made him the fifth running back this season to have double-digit catches in a game.

“I feel like last year I had to prove something and establish a role. Now I’m trying to build and increase on it,” Ekeler said.

The Chargers (8-3) will face a Steelers defense that is ranked sixth in the league in total defense and 10th against the run. However, the Steelers (7-3-1) have allowed 398 yards on the ground the past three games, including 124 in last week’s 24-17 loss to Denver.

The Broncos’ Phillip Lindsay was the first running back in 11 games going back to last season to post a 100-yard game against the Steelers (110 yards on 14 carries).

“He’s going to be in a different role in this game, but you can tell he’s a dynamic player. You can tell that in the different ways that they use him,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Ekeler.

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