Chargers vs Falcons: Key Matchups

Chargers Training Camp Dan Feeney, Chargers offensive line
Los Angeles Chargers Guard Dan Feeney. Photo Credit: Monica Dyrud - Sports Al Dente

The Los Angeles Chargers suffered their worst loss in franchise history last week against the New England Patriots. It was an absolute embarrassment from start to finish. Now, we’ll get to see how the Chargers respond. Are they as mentally tough and resilient as head coach Anthony Lynn has repeatedly said this season? Will he be able to keep them motivated to play hard all through this last month of the season? We’ll find out on Sunday.

The Atlanta Falcons are a very talented team. They have been one of the more talented rosters every year since Matt Ryan and Julio Jones were paired up, at least offensively. That’s why they fired their own coach in Dan Quinn. They have been very underwhelming ever since they blew the biggest lead in Super Bowl history a few seasons ago.

Raheem Morris seems to have righted the ship and has the Falcons playing at a higher level than Quinn did. There are reports that he is under serious consideration of keeping that head coaching job beyond this season, but there are others that suggest that team owner Arthur Blank is going to make a hard push to get the pairing of Jon Dorsey and Eric Bieniemy. Will be interesting to see how that plays out.

This will only be the fifth matchup in the last twenty years between the two franchises, so it should be a very fun one to watch on Sunday. Now, let’s get to this week’s key matchups. 

Chargers Interior Offensive Line vs Grady Jarrett and The Falcons Interior Pass Rush

There’s been a lot of chatter this week about whether or not the Chargers offense has been figured out recently. Or have teams figured out Justin Herbert? Or were the Chargers just simply not prepared for what the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots were doing on defense? The answer is pretty simple to me: the offensive line has been downright awful, and it’s finally catching up to them. They’ve had a revolving door at right guard and right tackle due to injuries and positive covid cases, and the lack of continuity has not been conducive to positive offensive line outputs. That had been a big problem for this team, but Trai Turner’s return has stabilized the right guard position for now. Hopefully, Bryan Bulaga doesn’t have any more last-minute illnesses pop up from here on out. 

While the right side has had its own issues, the left side is experiencing major regression. In the team’s first six games, the duo of Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney allowed a total of just 16 pressures. Lamp in particular was outstanding in those first six and was easily the team’s best lineman. However, over the last six games, that duo has combined to allow a whopping 39 total pressures. For those counting at home: 16 divided by six equals a 2.66 per game average. 39 divided by six equals a 6.5 per game average. They’ve nearly tripled the number of pressures that they are allowing on a per-game basis. That is not going to cut it against Grady Jarrett and the Falcons on Sunday, or anyone else for that matter. 

Jarrett is one of the best defensive tackles in the league. He’s third in total pressures at the position and has added four sacks this year. The Falcons also bring all three of their linebackers on blitzes up the A gaps as much as any defense in the league, since Quinn was fired. Foyesade Oluokun and Deion Jones have combined for 28 pressures and six sacks so far this season. The Patriots didn’t really do anything special on defense, and still gave the Chargers interior fits. The Falcons like to bring pressure up the middle and they have much more talent up front than the Patriots do.

Herbert through his first 10 starts was incredibly effective while under pressure, producing numbers that were up there with the best quarterbacks in the league. But at the end of the day, he’s a rookie, and he’s still figuring it out. That kind of output against pressure was never sustainable. Every quarterback in the league needs help, but ESPECIALLY the young ones. Look at how the constant threat of pressure has broken Carson Wentz in Philadelphia. 

As it stands, the Chargers offensive line is the worst in the league. This current unit has four games left in the season to prove that they can end on a positive note, otherwise certain members of it will not be on the team next year.

Chargers Second Level Defenders vs Hayden Hurst

I was initially going to put the Chargers secondary and Falcons wide receivers here, but then Jones was ruled out this morning. The key battle now is Calvin Ridley and Michael Davis. Everyone knows the Falcons receivers are great and the Chargers secondary outside of Davis has been really bad this year. (If you don’t think Davis is the team’s best corner right now you haven’t been paying close enough attention.) However, since Jones is out, I decided to pivot and shift my attention here to Hayden Hurst.

The Ravens surprised a lot of people when they took Hurst in the first round a few years ago. And then surprised again when they also drafted Mark Andrews a few rounds later. Hurst is a big-time talent at the position but was never really given the opportunity to thrive. He started out behind Andrews on the depth chart, and certainly behind him on the pecking order in terms of targets. Not to mention they’ve had Nick Boyle on the roster since 2015 and he’s arguably the best blocking tight end in the league. 

Since he’s been traded to the Falcons, Hurst has been Ryan’s security blanket over the middle. His role in Atlanta is very similar to that of Hunter Henry in Los Angeles. Hurst ranks 10th at his position in receptions, 13th in yards, 16th in touchdowns, and is 15th in yards per game. He’s been consistent, but not overly explosive. 

The problem here is that the Chargers are one of the worst teams in the league in covering tight ends, particularly in the red zone. Whether it’s Travis Kelce, Dawson Knox, Jared Cook, or Mike Gesicki hasn’t really mattered this year. They’ve all had good games against the Chargers.

The one inkling of success they’ve had is when they lined up Davis on Darren Waller for a large portion of that game, but they cannot do that against a team with Jones and Ridley. Rayshawn Jenkins, Nick Vigil, and Nasir Adderley have to do a much better job of covering Hurst this weekend. 

Shane Steichen vs Dirk Koetter

This matchup in general is a battle of two anemic teams. The double Spider-Man meme has never been more relevant to a football game. Nowhere is that more relevant than in the matchup between the two offensive coordinators: Shane Steichen and Dirk Koetter. Morris has done an incredible job turning around their defense, but unfortunately, the firing of Quinn left the offense under the sole control of Koetter. 

If I were to describe a particular scheme that a coach in this matchup runs as “predictable, vanilla, and lacking adjustments”, you’d probably assume I was talking about Gus Bradley’s cover three scheme. But those same adjectives apply to both offenses as well. Both units lack creativity and urgency. Both get into third and long situations way too frequently because they can’t run the ball. Both offenses move the ball rather easily but struggle to convert in the red zone. Steichen’s group is coming off a shut out, and Koetter’s group will be without their best player. These two coordinators and how they call plays will be a major contributing factor to the outcome on Sunday. 

Steichen in particular needs to be much better than he has been. I’ve written about him a bunch in the past and yes he’s technically in his first season as the play-caller of this system, but he’s regressed in a bad way over the last few weeks as well. The Chargers coaching staff spent all offseason talking about how excited they were about having mobility at the quarterback position. They emphasized that they were creating an offense that any of their three mobile quarterbacks could run.

In week one against the Bengals, they called four rollouts and four run-pass-options for Tyrod Taylor. That seemed like the benchmark in terms of passing attempts outside of the pocket. Then Herbert came in and has had a ton of success with those play calls. Last week against the Patriots, however, they called just one rollout and zero run-pass-options. Just ONE passing attempt centered around Herbert’s mobility.

Steichen needs to get Herbert on the move more often if they are going to close out the year with some positive momentum as an offense. His mobility helps him get into a rhythm in games and it helps take the pressure off of the offensive line. Asking him to take five and seven-step drops and sit in the pocket 50 times a game is just not a sustainable path to success for Herbert. 

This game has shootout written all over it. Neither defense is particularly all that good. Both offenses have some explosive elements to them, led by two quarterbacks playing at a very high level. It’s going to come down to which quarterback makes fewer mistakes. I think the Chargers will bounce back in terms of effort, and play a close game, but I cannot pick them after losing 45-0 last week. I’ll say the Falcons win 30 to 27. Herbert will have a good game and get back on track for breaking some of those rookie passing records.