The Los Angeles Chargers left much to be desired against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. It was easily their worst performance of the season. Even though they technically only lost by one possession, it was never really that close. The game was over as soon as the Dolphins blocked that punt (more on that later). If you go through and compare the two rosters, it’s not a reach to say that the Chargers have the more talented team. The difference from Sunday’s game was simply that the Dolphins are well-coached, and the Chargers are not. All the credit in the world goes to Brian Flores and his staff.
Over the last few weeks, the Chargers have been able to compete on a weekly basis because they have a special player at the quarterback position, who is able to keep them in games with his arm. On Sunday, Justin Herbert played ok. It wasn’t his best performance or even his worst. But at this point in the season, the Chargers simply do not have the ability to withstand an average game from their star quarterback.
The season outlook is as bleak as it’s ever been for this team. Chargers fans have been able to cling to the outburst from their rookie quarterback to give them hope. Moral victories can only take a fanbase so far. The portion of the schedule after the bye week was supposed to be the easy part for the Chargers. And instead, they are sitting at two and seven.
Let’s dive into some of the numbers that defined this Chargers loss at the hands of the Dolphins.
That is the number of touches the Chargers decided to give Kalen Ballage this weekend. Ballage has played well in his two games for the Chargers, and he has run hard. But the reality is that Ballage was on their practice squad for a reason. He was cut from the Dolphins and the Jets for a reason. Twenty-three touches for your fourth starting back (Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, and Joshua Kelley being ahead of him) in a game where you are trailing for the majority of the game is simply a very poor decision-making process.
It would be one thing if Ballage and Kelley were having lots of success on the ground. Running the ball a lot in a game script like the one from the Denver game makes sense. The Chargers ran for over 200 yards that day. If you take out Herbert’s 10 yards rushing, and only include the output from the running backs, the Chargers gained 89 yards on 25 carries. That equates to a very below average 3.5 yards per carry.
The Chargers leaned into an inefficient run game, instead of putting the game in the hands of their star quarterback, and it cost them. After the game, head coach Anthony Lynn said they were never too far out of reach to abandon the run. He emphasized that the game plan was to keep pressure off of Herbert, and they tried to do that by running the ball.
On Monday, Keenan Allen said they were trying to run the ball so much to avoid catastrophic mistakes. That is simply unacceptable. That is a losing mentality. And it’s one that doesn’t make any sense.
The Chargers best chance of being competitive in games, as stated above, is on the back of their rookie quarterback. We’ve seen Herbert make progress each and every week up until this point. But really, he wasn’t even given a fair chance this weekend.
The aforementioned Chargers special teams unit has reached an all-time low. They are dead last in DVOA rankings. They’ve had minor issues pop up every now and then, but on Sunday they exploded like Old Faithful. To be fair, the Chargers let all their best special teams players walk this offseason. Derek Watt, Adrian Phillips, Geremy Davis, and Nick Dzubnar were all key contributors over the last few seasons and they are all on other teams this year. But it’s now past the midway point of the season and not only have we not seen any kind of progress from this unit, but they’ve also clearly gotten worse.
The Chargers kick coverage has been bad all season. On Sunday they allowed Jakeem Grant to average nearly twenty yards per punt return. Add in the blocked punt and that led to the Dolphins starting FIVE of their offensive drives in Chargers territory. When you have a bad defense, and the Chargers defense is REALLY bad without Joey Bosa, that is a recipe for disaster.
The Dolphins’ first two touchdowns came because of special teams blunders, the blocked punt, and the offsides penalty from Quenton Meeks on a field goal. Then it just got worse from there. The Chargers had four penalties on special teams in that game. Good teams, and teams that are well-coached, just don’t shoot themselves in the foot like that. Anthony Lynn said they’ll make some personnel changes this week against the Jets, but really the one personnel decision this special teams unit needs is a new coordinator.
Since Herbert took over the starting quarterback spot, he has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league at converting on third downs. Much of that has been due to his relationship with Allen, who entered Week 10 leading the league in targets, receptions, and conversions on third down. On Sunday however, the Chargers really struggled and only converted FOUR out of 13 times on third down.
The challenge with relying upon that trend to continue is that a large portion of that success has come when the team has been in third and long situations – due to poor execution and play calling on first down. They punted five times on Sunday. The average distance on the third down prior to those punts was 10.6 yards, including the third and twenty before the punt that was blocked.
Anthony Lynn, rather famously at this point, prides himself on having a balanced offense. One that uses the running game to their advantage, specifically to set up a play-action passing attack. And that has worked in their favor this season, at times. But it’s pretty obvious to everyone watching that their first down play calls are NOT working. It’s something Philip Rivers struggled with mightily last year too.
You cannot keep asking your rookie quarterback to convert third and long situations on a consistent basis and expect to be competitive in games, especially against a defense like the Dolphins that can really rush the passer. To put it simply, the Chargers game plan set Herbert up to fail on Sunday. And as a result, they were not competitive in Miami.
The Chargers are certainly capable of winning some games down the stretch and playing spoiler to other teams. At this point, the focus is on carrying some positive momentum into next season. Fans can look at the Arizona Cardinals, a team with their own young quarterback, as an example of hope. The Cardinals won two of their last three games in 2019, and are firmly in the playoff hunt in 2020. At some point, this Chargers team needs to get their rookie quarterback some wins.
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