Initially, I was going to reserve this space for a reactionary article from the actual game-watching experience each week for the Chargers but as the season has progressed it’s become more about what I’ve been watching on the all-22/coaches film. This works better for my schedule and also allows me to take a step back and watch the events from each game more objectively. Let’s get started with my week four takeaways.
Justin Herbert Is Back
The returns from the Chargers offense, in general, this week were very positive, but at the top of the list is Justin Herbert’s health and confidence. He was clearly affected by the rib injury last week more than people want to let on. There were several instances on tape that showed a lack of confidence or trust in his ability to get the ball out to receivers on time with his usual velocity. That changed this week and the Chargers offense obviously benefit from it.
Of course, there was the touchdown pass to Gerald Everett where he ripped a ball up the seam. The two passes before halftime to Michael Bandy up the sideline actually confirmed this take for me though. Part of what makes Herbert so great is that he is able to fit balls into these tiny windows of opportunity. Against the Jaguars, he was not willing to take basically any chances with the ball. I felt like watching that game last week that there were a few chances for him to hit Mike Williams or Josh Palmer down the sidelines and he just couldn’t bring himself to attempt the throws. That was not the case this week, clearly, as he was comfortable enough to consistently rip passes to the sideline.
There’s still a long recovery ahead from a physical standpoint, but him having the full range of motion as a thrower back already is a great sign going forward. He was also able to throw on the first practice of the week today (Wednesday) which is another good sign about how he is progressing. (Herbert currently leading the league in passing yards while only playing 7 quarters of healthy football is pretty freaking insane if you ask me.)
Experimental Run Game Takes A Positive Step Forward
The Chargers’ run game was an utter disaster through the first three weeks of the season. I’ve covered this a lot in this space, but thankfully they made some positive changes on Sunday against the Texans. Totaling 86 yards on 23 running back carries against the worst run defense in the league is hardly a resounding success but still a good step forward for sure.
The biggest adjustment they made was an increase in pre-snap motion. It felt like Palmer or DeAndre Carter were motioning on every play when I was watching the tape back. The Chargers were clearly not used to this timing and it messed with them on a few occasions, like at the goal line in the second quarter when Herbert and Austin Ekeler nearly fumbled the ball exchange. Overall, I think this strategy is smart though. It creates misdirection and confusion on the defensive side of things and gives the offensive line and backs easier solutions within the running game. So while it messed with the Chargers’ timing on Sunday, that is something that they should be able to improve upon if they continue to get reps with it in practice and in games. It also gives them some potential play-action wrinkles to work off of.
The other thing they were able to do more effectively was committing to more inside run concepts like split zone and counter, and particularly concepts aimed towards running to the right side of the line behind Corey Linsley, Zion Johnson, and Trey Pipkins. Outside concepts towards the left side AKA Rashawn Slater were such a strong focal point of their scheme last year and early on in this season because of Slater’s ability to dictate the line of scrimmage. Obviously, you can’t keep doing that without him, so pivoting towards the strengths of your better blockers is another smart thing. Those three were dominant in the run game on Sunday.
I do expect the left side to improve as the season goes along as Jamaree Salyer and Matt Feiler begin to gel like Johnson and Pipkins are beginning to on the right side. Still, the production split is pretty jarring. Per PFF, the Chargers ran 11 times to the right side for 59 yards (5.36 per attempt), scored two touchdowns, produced four first downs, and three explosive runs of 10 yards or more. Conversely, they ran to the left 12 times for 27 yards (2.25 per attempt), only one first down, and only one explosive run of 10 yards or more. Some of the production split is also attributed to which back(s) they were using though, especially in the second half.
The Chargers don’t need to be a great running team, obviously. I’m not asking them to morph into the 49ers or Browns by any means, but they do absolutely need to be a functional running team and Sunday’s performance overall was a step in the right direction there.
Chargers Interior Defenders Showing Out
The Chargers spent a lot of resources on their interior defensive line after the group was a major weakness in 2021. So far, the group has really held up well and they were major difference makers in the win over the Texans. Sebastian Joseph-Day and Morgan Fox each totaled five pressures and registered a sack and an additional quarterback hit. Jerry Tillery also had a crucial strip-sack after Carter fumbled on a kickoff return. Overall the Chargers were able to hit Davis Mills 10 times and pressure him on over 40% of his dropbacks. They simply do not win that game without that kind of ferocious interior pressure and the three of them all deserve a lot of credit in that regard. Fox has been an outstanding addition to the room and he is constantly showing up on tape. His effort and hand-fighting technique are always popping. On a per-play basis, PFF has him as the 10th most efficient interior pass rusher in the league.
The run defense as a whole is still a pretty big concern, but the issue is not up front this year. Austin Johnson and Joseph-Day are leading a pretty stellar effort within the room. Johnson had three run stops on Sunday and Joseph-Day had two. The two of them are excellent tone setters in the middle and shed blockers at a very high level. Otito Ogbonnia didn’t play on Sunday but he has flashed some great potential at times as well. Even Fox has had some great moments in the run game. Football Outsiders measures defensive rushing success based on the level of the defense and the Chargers rank 14th in adjusted line yards and 12th in stuffed percentage after ranking in the bottom three in both of those categories last season. The bigger problems with the run defense are the over-pursuit of the linebackers and the poor angles taken by secondary players not named Derwin James.
The Chargers overall rank 18th in run defense DVOA, which is a vast improvement over last season, and the lion’s share of that credit should go to the interior defensive line, along with Khalil Mack. Joseph-Day and Johnson each rank within the top 15 in total run stops and run stop percentage among interior defenders. Now if only the secondary could start figuring out how to play the run effectively behind the defensive line…
Key Takeaways From The Chargers Week Four Film Study. Photo Via Mike Nowak