Brandon Staley Has The Chargers Ahead Of Schedule, Now What?

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Chargers coach Brandon Staley patrols the sideline at SoFi Stadium.

Brandon Staley Has Chargers Ahead Of Schedule, Now What?

The Los Angeles Chargers are inching closer to their Week Seven bye, and with it will come the close of a gauntlet opening slate of games for Brandon Staley’s first season. Staley’s squad was the recipient of the constant stream of “dark horse Super Bowl team” talk that always seems to surround the Chargers franchise in the summer. 

It was widely assumed, however, that the team would start off relatively slow. Both because that’s generally how things work for first-year head coaches, and because of the aforementioned gauntlet open to the 2021 schedule. 

The Chargers were going to open the season with four 2020 playoff teams, a Monday Night Football game with the division-rival Raiders, and a sixth team that would be returning quarterback Dak Prescott. The consensus seemed to be that if the Chargers could enter the bye week at 3-3, that would be considered a win for a first-year head coach. This was a notion that I prescribed to myself, scarred by continuous slow starts from Norv Turner, Mike McCoy, and Anthony Lynn

However, Staley has the 2021 Chargers sitting at 4-1 and in sole possession of the AFC West for the first time since 2011 – aka before the Andy Reid era. We’re not that far removed from the Chargers going winless in the division. But that was then, and this is now. Staley’s Chargers have won their first two divisional matchups, and Justin Herbert has won his last five AFC West games. 

The Chargers have had the typical first-year coaching kinks – namely the illegal formation penalties. The good news is that it hasn’t cost them games outside of the loss to the Cowboys where two penalties took two touchdowns off the board. The fact that they have been able to win these games, despite some execution gaffes, is incredibly encouraging for their long-term future. Instead of struggling out of the gate, they will head to Baltimore this weekend with the chance to win their fifth of the season, a feat that they did not achieve until Week 14 of last season.Make no mistake about it, the Chargers are very much ahead of schedule and that deserves to be celebrated. With the celebration comes elevated expectations. Wins over the Chiefs, Raiders, and Browns prove the Chargers are for real and should be viewed as strong playoff contenders. We knew this COULD be a possibility, but now we know it IS. In fact, the majority of Vegas’ sportsbooks now have the Chargers as the favorites to win the division. READ AGAIN: THE MAJORITY OF VEGAS’ SPORTSBOOKS NOW HAVE THE CHARGERS AS THE FAVORITES TO WIN THE AFC WEST!

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Staley has become the darling of the NFL and is the clear favorite to win coach of the year. With his aggressive play style and electric personality he has the team playing at an incredible level, and that includes the 2020 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year who has elevated his play to an MVP level.

The question now moves from “are the Chargers dark horse Super Bowl contenders” to “how do the Chargers ensure that they are reaching their peak in January and February?” The expectations have changed, already, because this team truly feels DIFFERENT. Staley and Herbert have injected an incredible amount of energy into a franchise that really needed it. It’s a feeling of WHEN not IF for this Chargers team.

That being said, there are three areas where immediate improvement would allow the Chargers continued growth that would make life easier on their MVP candidate quarterback and by extension help the team reach its peak into February.First, they must find a way to increase early-down efficiency on the offensive side of the ball. Herbert has given a herculean effort on third and fourth downs thus far, but they have to be careful to not rely upon that going forward. Increasing efficiency on first and second down will help the team overall. They’ve been running a ton of run-pass-option looks on the early downs that often result in Herbert throwing the ball towards the sideline. He’s placing the ball accurately but there have been some drops and batted passes as a result of the direction of the passes that set them behind the chains.

They need to mix up the action and challenge defenses between the numbers, whether that’s using some more bootlegs, allowing Herbert to use his own legs more frequently, or actually running the ball. Staley is leading a staff heavily influenced by analytical data and I have no doubt that they are making these adjustments.

Second, they need to find a way to salvage the run defense. The Chargers’ defense is too talented to be the worst run defense in the league, which is where they currently stand. The absence of Justin Jones has hurt, but he shouldn’t be making THAT big of a difference. The bottom line is that the first level of the defense has not been good enough. They were recently linked to Akiem Hicks by ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler. That would be a great addition. Even at his age, Hicks is still a highly disruptive player, and pairing him with Jones (once he does return) and Linval Joseph would greatly improve the Chargers front line. Fowler also mentioned Cleveland’s Andrew Billings and Miami’s front line as potential trade possibilities – the Dolphins have a few very talented interior defensive linemen, most notably Christian Wilkins who would be expensive but well worth the price in my opinion.

The second level of the defense could be going through a challenge for the next couple of games as well. Kenneth Murray is already on injured reserve with an ankle injury, although he could be back in time for the Patriots game. However, it appears as they will also be without Drue Tranquill this week as he deals with a chest injury. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there is an immediate solution and it doesn’t get any easier with upcoming games against strong rushing attacks like the Ravens, Patriots, Eagles, and Vikings.

The Chargers are currently 29th in special teams DVOA ratings, according to Football Outsiders. That’s where the third and final area that needs improvement comes in, and that is the return game. Staley is committed to Tristan Vizcaino as the team’s kicker, so we will have to deal with some growing pains in that regard. However, the Chargers need to inject some juice into the return game. The Buffalo Bills currently lead the league in yards per kickoff return at 28.53 yards. The Chargers are DEAD last at 21.91, which is a huge gap for two elite offenses. The punt return side of things isn’t much better. Larry Rountree and K.J. Hill are decent options, but neither really possess the explosive athletic ability to make strong impacts as return men.

They have used Nasir Adderley sparingly as a kick returner, clearly not wanting to overwork him since he’s an integral part of the defense. They also appear to be comfortable with Jalen Guyton as a punt returner. He made his regular-season debut this last week against the Browns as a punt returner. The bottom line is that the Chargers need a true return ace to give Herbert and company shorter fields, like the Bills are doing with fellow MVP candidate Josh Allen

Similar to the first-year coaching kinks, these areas aren’t necessarily costing them games, but every inch counts in the playoffs. It’s on the Chargers to maximize the potential of these units like they are in other areas.

Regardless, the future is incredibly bright for this football team and Chargers fans should be pinching themselves. Up next: another big game with Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens.

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Chargers coach Brandon Staley patrols the sideline at SoFi Stadium.