With Joey Bosa out until the later part of the season, coupled with the loss of Austin Johnson for the rest of the season, things are looking bleak for the Los Angeles Chargers run defense. According to Daniel Popper of The Athletic, “ ..Johnson had been crucial in improving the stoutness and physicality of the Chargers’ front at the point of attack. Johnson and fellow free agent acquisition Sebastian Joseph-Day — with their size, length, and strength — had noticeably changed how the Chargers played on the interior as compared to last season.”
The themes of the season have revolved around adding to the run game on the offensive side and adding the right pieces to stop the run on the defensive side, all while trying to contend with players getting hurt at every turn.
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The Chargers lost another defensive piece in Jerry Tillery this past week, who was waived from the team on Thursday. According to Popper, “When healthy, Tillery has been the Chargers’ worst interior run defender by a considerable margin.” Popper’s 100 percent right on that point.
Though Tillery had one of the higher run defense grades of the team according to PFF at 59.8%, he hasn’t exactly been a star in that area over the past few years. This has actually been his best-run defense grade ever as he’s mostly ranked in the 40s and 30s over his other years with the team. His tackle number was low for this season and his tackling grade was last for the team at 25.8%, so the Chargers won’t miss him as much as they will Johnson.
Their Week 10 game marked the time for others to step up and fill the shoes of Johnson and Tillery and was the ultimate test to see if the ship could stay afloat amidst the tough waves of Christian McCaffrey and Elijah Mitchell—and let’s not forget the dual running and receiving ability of Deebo Samuel. The Chargers had trouble completely containing some of these powerhouses but definitely proved that they can keep the course through rough waters.
Let’s take a look at some key people outside of Joseph-Day, who made this run defense better than expected this week and may have enhanced roles with the increasing injuries.
Chargers Run Stoppers
Mitchell was coming in hot after having missed several weeks on injured reserve and when McCaffery wasn’t barreling down on this Chargers defense, Mitchell most certainly was. Kenneth Murray stepped up for the injured players in a big way. Even after having to go in for a head injury evaluation in the second quarter, he came back not having missed a beat. He had a few tackles on Mccaffery throughout the game.
On one in particular during the fourth quarter, he had this great burst through the defensive line to tackle McCaffery for a four-yard loss as he was trying to swing around and run closer to the sideline.
Though Murray’s run defense grade was toward the bottom for the team, he had three STOPS, which tied quite a few of his teammates, and he looked more explosive than in other games he’s played this year. We’re probably going to be seeing a lot more of him with this interior so banged up.
Derwin James was everywhere on Sunday, helping wherever there were any weak spots. In terms of the run, he did a great job of teaming up with others to aid in containing players. He worked with Murray to help contain Samuel and then with Michael Davis to contain Mitchell. He had the second most assisted tackles of the game at six and tied with Drue Tranquill for the most solo tackles at seven.
He spent the majority of his snaps in the box at 33 but also spent 10 on the defensive line, 10 in the free safety position, 15 in the slot, three at the corner, and 10 on the defensive line outside the offensive tackle. For the rest of the season, expect James to be a little bit everywhere and expect his positioning to be wildly unpredictable for opposing defenses.
During this last game, Alohi Gilman had his best-run defense grade of the season at 66.8% and the second-best of the team, right behind James. In the third quarter, he had two tackles on McCaffery and was credited with five solo tackles overall and one assist. Though he didn’t have any STOPs during this game, anyone that can go toe to toe with McCaffery is surely someone to count on.
And like James, he played in a variety of positions. Two on the defensive line, six in the box, 11 at free safety, one in the slot, two at the corner, and two on the defensive line outside the offensive tackle, so he definitely seems to have that flexibility that will be crucial with so many injuries.
Gilman has been steadily improving in terms of tackling and coverage, and though his run-defense grade has been up and down, he definitely had an impact on this game. Hopefully, his upward trend can continue into next week when he’ll need to switch gears, focusing more on receiver coverage and a very mobile quarterback.
I feel like there’s not a week that goes by where I’m not writing about Tranquill. Though his run grade defense was the second lowest of the team for this last game at 42.8%, you wouldn’t have known it looking at the film. During the first quarter, he had a couple of tackles on McCaffery. And in the second quarter even took Jimmy Garoppolo down when he was on the run.
As mentioned he was tied with James for the most solo tackles at seven and had the most assists at eight. If he can stay healthy, he should be taking on even more responsibility within this defense and the Chargers are in capable hands with him.