The sun has set on the Los Angeles Chargers 2022 season. It’s time to take stock of this season. Here are some lessons learned:
Make Sure Your Offense and Defense are Deep and Multiple
The motto of the Chargers this year might as well have been “Injuries Happen” with a little shrug emoji after. There was Justin Herbert’s rib injury in Week 2 which took weeks to heal. There was Keenan Allen’s hamstring. Rashawn Slater’s bicep tear in Week 3, as well as the injury to edge rusher Joey Bosa. Then there was J.C. Jackson’s knee injury in Week 7.
In addition to the injuries, there were questionable decisions made surrounding them, such as having Herbert play in Week 3 and having Allen and Mike Williams play in the last regular season game against the Broncos. That resulted in Williams, who was in and out all season with an ankle injury, fracturing in his back.
Injuries can wreck a team, but the Chargers made it as far as they did because they not only stacked their team with replacements but acquired players during the off-season who could play multiple positions.
Kyle Van Noy was added this year because of his ability to play inside and outside linebacker, which ended up being extremely helpful when filling in for Joey Bosa. Jamaree Salyer, who was originally playing guard, stepped into the left tackle position for Slater. From the start, this team was built out differently, and that will be something the Chargers will have to continue to do moving forward. Run defense can make or break your team.
Run Defense can Make or Break your Team
Inadequate run defense plagued the Chargers this year. They allowed some explosive run plays in a handful of games. James Robinson had a 50-yard run in week 3, Dameon Pierce had a 75-yard run in Week 4, and Nick Chubb had a 41-yard run in Week 5.
The team had 98 missed tackles on rushing plays this year. 10 more tackles in this area than last year. On top of the missed tackles and busted coverage, some of the poor run defense was also because of the many changes in the defensive line due to injuries.
Halfway through the season, there was a shift. Rays of hope started to shine through during the 49ers game. Powerhouse runners, Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel were held to 38 and 27 yards respectively.
And between the zone coverage and the unrelenting pressure on Tua Tagovailoa, coupled with Alohi Gilman and Van Noy finding their rhythm, the rays became blinding during the Miami game, where despite all the changes, everything just started to click.
The aggressiveness that this team developed over the last few weeks against opposing teams’ running game, stayed true throughout the majority of the Wild Card matchup against the Jags.
And though Travis Etienne did have 109 rushing yards, at least there were no runaway rushing touchdowns. During his end-of-season press conference, Brandon Staley mentioned more than once how he wasn’t worried about his job security and confirmed that he would remain the defensive signal caller this coming season. This turnaround on defense definitely helped seal Staley’s job security for the 2023 season. The Chargers will likely start next season as fiercely as they ended, and perhaps we won’t be seeing so many explosive plays from opposing teams.
You Can’t Have Your Running Back Doing Everything
Staley talked last week about not having continuity in the personnel for their run game. They want to get back to the fundamentals and techniques of how they do things in that area. For the most part, one of the only things that were continuous about their run game was the Chargers running back, Austin Ekeler, who had 950 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns, along with 717 receiving yards and five receiving touchdowns. Joshua Kelley, who was the number two back, ended the season with 303 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns, and 113 receiving yards.
Ekeler was the workhorse in the absence of Williams and Allen, morphing into a hybrid running back and receiver, which was scary to witness. There was a point and time when if Ekeler went down, the offense would have collapsed. Isaiah Spiller, who was drafted 123rd overall in 2022, looked like he was going to take on more of the backup role but was plagued by injuries, only playing double-digit snaps in three games this season.
Tom Telesco mentioned that they want to get him more snaps moving forward, and as he has another few years left on his contract, I expect he’ll take on more of a role in the coming season. Having watched Josh Kelley play more this season, he is capable of taking on a larger workload, it’s just a matter of getting him the necessary reps.
While Ekeler looked phenomenal, he did way too much. The Chargers have to figure out a way to lighten his load by utilizing Kelley and Spiller more or finding alternative running back talent.
You Gotta Protect Your Quarterback
There were 26 sacks allowed this year. The players allowing the most sacks were left guard Matt Feiler (6), left tackle Salyer (5), and right guard Zion Johnson (5). Center Corey Linsley allowed zero sacks this season. There were also 51 hits, 168 hurries, and 245 quarterback pressures, while last season 35 hits were allowed, 118 hurries, and 178 quarterback pressures.
Right tackle Trey Pipkins and Johnson worked well together, but Pipkins often struggled due to injury, and sometimes Johnson had trouble picking up the slack. Salyer, due to his inexperience in the NFL and the position, couldn’t always hold against some of the higher-powered defenders. It’s great to know there is a developing backup if Slater gets hurt again, but it will definitely help to get Slater back next season.
There needs to be a solution on the left side. Feiler is not the answer. Allowing 40 quarterback pressures this year on 853 pass-blocking snaps, while he only allowed 25 on 737 pass-blocking snaps last season, shows regression. And though he does have one more year on his contract, he should be a backup option instead of the primary one.
Keep Justin Herbert Mobile
During the season Herbert used play action on 28 percent of his dropbacks, and when using play action, had a completion percentage of 71.9 percent with 10 passing touchdowns and only one interception. When not using play action, his completion percentage was 66 percent and he had nine interceptions.
The same story happened last year. His completion percentage increased and his interception number decreased when using play-action. Herbert excels when he’s on the run and is less likely to have batted passes and can save himself if the pocket collapses.
Telesco noted that they’re a passing first team. Maybe with a different offensive coordinator who lets Herbert move more, he’ll be able to return to his roots and make more of those big-time throws that he’s known for.
Get Herbert More High-powered Weapons
When wide receiver Jalen Guyton tore his ACL during Week 3 and Allen was already out due to his hamstring injury. It was clear that others would need to step up and everyone was looking to Williams. And then when he went out, all that was left was Josh Palmer, DeAndre Carter, and Michael Bandy, and at that point, it was harder to get some things going offensively.
Carter made a splash during training camp but some of that explosiveness didn’t translate to the regular season. He only had three receiving touchdowns and is better suited for the punt returner role that he was originally acquired for. Bandy didn’t play that many games to make an impact. And Palmer was consistent, with a few great games where they needed some offensive power. But he disappeared during key moments when he should have made more of an impact.
Given the injuries between Allen and Williams, there needs to be more depth in this position. The Chargers need to acquire players that could be starters and maybe even someone so good that they could eventually replace Keenan Allen, whose contract is up in 2025.
Most of the improvements from veteran Charger players were on the defense side this year. I wrote about all of the defensive players during a series a few weeks ago, but considering the money that was spent, and the amount of time it took for them to start looking like a quality defense, it’s worth mentioning again some of the standouts. Inside linebacker Drue Tranquill ended the season with five sacks, marking the highest sack total of his career, and his pass rush grade went from 68.8 last year to 77 . There was rarely a time this year when I didn’t mention how well Tranquill was playing, and I wholeheartedly think he’s earned a contract extension.
Cornerback Michael Davis has been a force and was critical in coverage, especially these last few games. Every single one of his PFF grades went up this season, especially his wide receiver coverage grade, which went from 54.4 to 74.7. During the Jags game, he kept Zay Jones to nine receiving yards. And he had his first interception of the season during the Indianapolis game. Asante Samuel Jr. and he made a great pairing and I’m looking forward to both playing off one another next year.
Samuel is another who has improved, especially with the three picks he had during that Jags game. He has trouble with more of the high-powered receivers, like Davante Adams, whom he just couldn’t seem to beat during Week 13, and Daniel Popper did note his issues on coverage on the edge, but for the most part, he’s been solid.
Other standouts on defense include Gilman and linebacker Kenneth Murray. Defensive lineman Morgan Fox and edge rusher Khalil Mack, who was added in the off-season, also had stellar seasons. Fox is up for a contract extension and certainly deserves one.
There were a few standouts on offense other than Herbert and Ekeler. Linsley had another solid season. And though Pipkins was responsible for double digits in terms of hurries (20) and quarterback pressures (32), he did fairly well in the midst of battling an injury. Though not a perfect year, he was a vast improvement over Storm Norton. And if the Chargers end up extending Pipkins, he’ll hopefully get a lot more reps at the position during training camp, as he won’t be competing for the role.
Special Teams Can Win Games
The Chargers are currently 12th in the league in special teams according to PFF, with a grade of 86.4. Last season they ended 28th, with a grade of 68.6. Part of that huge improvement is the new special team’s coach, Ryan Ficken, who taught some of the rookie cornerbacks, Ja’Sir Taylor and Deane Leonard, extremely well. Who can forget that forced muff punt during the Week 6 game against the Broncos? And having an experienced punt returner like Carter, provided that extra layer of security to get good field positioning.
Acquiring punter JK Scott from Jacksonville was another key piece. According to PFF, his average hang time for the season was 4.71 seconds and overall he got 33 kicks inside the 20-yard line. Having an experienced long snapper in Josh Harris and a slew of kickers like Dustin Hopkins, Taylor Bertolet, and eventually, Cameron Dicker also played a big part.
The emphasis on special teams during training camp, and the disastrous Cowboys preseason game when there were two touchdowns during a kickoff and a punt return, definitely helped the Chargers fine-tune the unit. The momentum needs to continue into this season, and the emphasis needs to be there early and often for any rookies drafted.