How Will The Chargers Adjust Without Rashawn Slater?

The Chargers face the daunting task of moving forward without All-Pro left tackle Rashawn Slater. How they adjust will likely determine their fate.

How Will The Chargers Adjust Without Rashawn Slater?

How Will The Chargers Adjust Without Rashawn Slater?

I hear you, Bolt Fam. The Chargers season is looking incredibly gloomy right now. Justin Herbert, Joey Bosa, Keenan Allen, JC Jackson, and Corey Linsley are all banged up, and Rashawn Slater and Jalen Guyton are out for the year. The Chargers are REELING in the worst way possible after getting destroyed by the Jaguars at home. 

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The loss of Slater cannot be overstated. He is arguably the top offensive tackle in the AFC. The Chargers going from him to (presumably) Storm Norton is a massive downgrade. I want to focus on some things that the Chargers can change in order to make life easier on their offensive line and their quarterback by extension.

Get Austin Ekeler And The Run Game Out Of Their Funk

The biggest problem with the Chargers’ offense as it relates to the topic at hand is their rather porous run game. They are currently thirty-second in rushing yards per game and 31st in rushing offensive DVOA. Austin Ekeler ranks among the worst starting running backs in the league in success rate, EPA per play, and rushing yards over expected

If the Chargers are going to keep their season afloat, they have to get significantly more out of their rushing attack. Asking Herbert to throw as much as he did on Sunday behind this offensive line is simply not a recipe for success.

Thankfully, there is some silver lining ahead here. The first is that Linsley and Donald Parham should be back soon enough. Allen is also the team’s best blocking receiver so his return will help as well. The second is that the Chargers two primary ball carriers are running into a lot of light boxes (seven defenders or less). According to NextGenStats, Only 12.5% of Sony Michel’s attempts and 15.6% of Ekeler’s attempts happen when there are eight defenders in the box. Teams are essentially daring the Chargers to run the ball because they know how good Herbert and the passing game can be. They need to start leaning into that.

The fix here is pretty simple to me and it’s to bring more big bodies into the box and muddy it up. When you’re dealing with talent deficiencies up front you have to find ways to mitigate the risk. Jumbo packages aren’t really a very common concept in a San Francisco or Green Bay-style running game which is where a lot of the Chargers run game is based out of, but they are in New Orleans where Joe Lombardi and Brenden Nugent obviously came up in the league. In fact, Chargers backup center Will Clapp logged 256 snaps (124 in 2019) as an in-line tight end during his four years with the Saints. Sean Payton generally always had a sixth offensive lineman that was taking about 15 snaps a game as an additional blocker.

They haven’t really leaned into that concept in Los Angeles and that needs to change. It doesn’t have to be Clapp who takes those reps, and since he is the team’s backup center he probably won’t. This could be the perfect way for the Chargers to get sixth-round pick, Jamaree Salyer, onto the field more often though – unless he’s part of the plan in place to replace Slater. It’s simply become a numbers game for the Chargers at this point. Giving Salyer about 15 snaps a game as a jumbo package tight end could help the Chargers be much better in the margins and allow Ekeler and the rest of the running back room to get going. It won’t be pretty, but it will keep Herbert upright more often and allow the Chargers to sustain drives at a greater level.

More Wide Receiver Splits

The next thing I would do is increase the amount of empty and spread looks, which the Chargers really only run when they are trailing in games. Opposing defenses know the Chargers cannot protect against the blitz. The Jaguars and Chiefs each blitzed Herbert on over 40% of his dropbacks and had a ton of success with that approach. Spreading defenses out with empty formations at a more frequent level will give Herbert easier and quicker answers against pressure as he plays behind this makeshift offensive line and deals with his injury. 

The Bengals have lived in this world for the last two seasons with Joe Burrow as they’ve put him behind subpar offensive line talent. Adopting this approach does require an adjacent step of changing how they have been handling the wide receiver position group this season. They need more bodies and a heavier rotation.

Mike Williams and Josh Palmer have each carried snap count percentages over 90 in each of the last two games. DeAndre Carter didn’t start seeing the field until Allen left the first game with his hamstring injury. You simply cannot live in a world where you’re asking three receivers to play that many snaps.

The Chiefs reportedly felt that they were much better conditioned than the Chargers and a lot of that is because the Chargers are asking their players at premium positions to play a ton of snaps. 

With Guyton officially out for the year, I think they need to add two players to the room and start carrying six wide receivers. They apparently signed former Boise State standout John Hightower today, which is a good start. He’s a very similar player overall to Guyton and should step into the field stretcher role but they need another option. Whether that’s Joe Reed, Michael Bandy, or someone else, I don’t really care. The mission in the passing game needs to evolve. Spread people out and give Herbert more freebies. Both of these changes should ultimately help the Chargers hunt explosive plays well.

Be Flexible Up Front

Ekeler and Michel’s inefficiencies and Parham’s injury have certainly played a role in the struggles in the run game, but the group up front has simply not played well enough either. The Chargers have harped on chemistry, cohesion, and patience along the offensive line ever since Staley has gotten here. When they signed Matt Feiler last year they talked about his experience at right tackle as something that was so appealing to them. Yet, despite an early injury to Bryan Bulaga and multiple COVID issues throughout the season, they never moved him out from the left guard spot because they wanted to keep the Feiler-Slater combination together. 

In a vacuum that approach worked as Slater and Feiler became one of the best left-side combinations in the league last year. However, it left their offense incredibly vulnerable from the right side as they started Michael Schofield and Norton for the majority of the season. Now, the Chargers have a similar dilemma on the left side because of Slater’s injury. Their past method of operation tells us that they will simply plug Norton into the left tackle spot in order to not mess with the budding chemistry on the right side between first-round pick Zion Johnson and Trey Pipkins, who is finding his groove at right tackle.

That simply cannot be the path that they choose. Norton’s inability to avoid avalanche games was one of the biggest reasons the Chargers were not a playoff team last season and that has not changed this year. In 25 pass-blocking snaps against the Jaguars on Sunday, he allowed eight total pressures including three quarterback hits. In terms of pressure percentage, it was the worst performance that PFF has tracked from an NFL offensive tackle since 2018. Under no circumstances can he be the blindside protector for Herbert for the rest of the season.

If they do not want to shuffle the deck, they really don’t have any other choice but to sign former Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher and hope he still has some juice left in him. I’ve long been a fan of potentially signing former Bills right tackle Daryl Williams and that has only increased with Slater’s injury. They’d still have to switch Pipkins to the left tackle spot if they opted for Williams since he’s never played on that side in his career. If they don’t make any moves, they need to take advantage of the flexibility that Pipkins and Feiler have. They are the two best tackles on the roster right now. All of these options are better than rolling with Norton, frankly, I’d even rather see what they have in Zack Bailey.

How Will The Chargers Adjust Without Rashawn Slater? Photo Credit: Ty Nowell | Los Angeles Chargers