COSTA MESA, Calif. — Keenan Allen knew his durability would be tested while the Los Angeles Chargers played two games in five days last week. He is paying close attention to injury prevention after his previous two seasons ended early, so the receiver was understandably concerned.
Allen then caught 23 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns in the best back-to-back performances of his NFL career.
Better yet, he emerged completely healthy.
“It actually wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Allen said with a shrug. “I was feeling good, and then I was rehabbing and lifting all weekend.”
Not much can slow down Allen during his bounce-back season with the Chargers (5-6), who are relying heavily on their No. 1 receiver as they try to get serious in the AFC playoff race.
Allen is rocketing up the NFL receiving charts after his consecutive monster games for Los Angeles, which hosts Cleveland (0-11) on Sunday at StubHub Center. He sits fifth in the league with 927 yards receiving, and is seventh with 67 catches.
Allen also is putting on a master class in route-running and getting himself free from defenses that are well aware of his abilities, but unable to stop him. Los Angeles is using him frequently as a slot receiver in recent games, yet he still finds space in the middle of the field.
“He has great instincts, so he understands how to get open,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “Just like if you’re on the basketball court and a guy is guarding you, how you have to get free. He has great instincts and athletic ability in knowing how to separate. To me, that’s what separates receivers. One-on-one coverage, can you find a way to create separation?”
Allen is doing it constantly these days, and Rivers is finding him just as frequently as he did during Allen’s 1,046-yard rookie campaign in 2013.
Allen immediately proved capable of excelling in the NFL while catching 148 passes during his first two seasons as a third-round pick out of California, but the past two years were largely erased by injury. After getting off to an outstanding start in 2015, he lost the final eight games to a kidney injury.
He then tore a knee ligament in the first half of last season’s opener, sidelining him for the entire year. Mindful of Allen’s injury history, the Chargers chose Clemson receiver Mike Williams with the seventh overall pick in April.
“One of the things that’s really good about him is how he worked hard to come back from the injury last year,” said Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who had the same job in 2013 during Allen’s dynamic rookie year. “He’s lost a little bit of weight. He’s moving really well, and you can see it in his explosiveness.”
Allen’s coaches all speak glowingly of his mature focus on rehab from his injuries, and they see that grown-up attention to detail manifesting on the field this fall. He has lost 11 pounds since training camp.
“I’m just trying to prevent it before it happens,” Allen said. “I have pretty much the same mindset, but I’m working a little bit harder in the weight room.”
Allen’s maturity is showing up on the field as well: While he still has elite speed, he also gets open by reading the defense with a veteran savvy. When he made 12 receptions for 159 yards and two touchdowns in the Chargers’ last home game against Buffalo two weeks ago, the opposing defensive backs left with respect.
“You play inside, and he will go out,” Bills safety Trae Elston said. “You play outside, and he will go in. So he was basically playing off of us.”
Allen said he always felt confident he had Pro Bowl talent, but he now has the health to show it off. Coach Anthony Lynn is grateful to see Allen leading the way.
“Keenan has a lot of confidence anyways,” Lynn said. “Sometimes too much.”
NOTES: Williams missed practice for the second straight day with a knee injury. … Kicker Nick Novak participated fully in practice after missing much of last week’s game with a back injury. The Chargers still haven’t decided whether Novak or newcomer Travis Coons will kick against the Browns.