Three Things That Need To Change For The Chargers To Start Winning

Chargers Players To Watch. Los Angeles Chargers Defensive End Isaac Rochell During 2019 Training Camp. Photo Credit: Ryan Dyrud | Sports Al Dente
Los Angeles Chargers Defensive End Isaac Rochell During 2019 Training Camp. Photo Credit: Ryan Dyrud | Sports Al Dente

The Los Angeles Chargers head into an unexpected bye week sitting with a 1-4 record. This season has been a roller coaster ever since training camp kicked off just over two months ago. The unfortunate injury bug has struck the Chargers, yet again. The team went into their week five Monday Night Football matchup with the New Orleans Saints down eleven projected starters. Then during that game, they lost Keenan Allen, Uchenna Nwosu, and Casey Hayward to injury. Thankfully none of those three seem to have major injuries (knock on wood). Sam Tevi also left early after being poked in the eye. Not to mention Joey Bosa, battling three injuries was almost unable to play. And yet, they still were one missed kick away from coming out of New Orleans with a win.

While many Chargers fans were hopeful of a return to the playoffs at the start of the season, the reality is that this season was always going to be a transition year. That’s what happens when you draft a quarterback in the first round. Thankfully, we are now seeing the fruits of that draft pick. Justin Herbert looks like he’s going to be the real deal going forward. There was some concern about whether or not his debut against the Kansas City Chiefs was a bit of fool’s gold. We’ve seen that from some other rookie quarterbacks in the past (looking directly at you Daniel Jones). Thankfully, that has proven to not be the case for the Chargers’ quarterback.

Since that game in week two, Herbert has continued to improve at a tremendous level. His poise within the pocket is truly amazing to watch. He’s got a little Andrew Luck in him in that way. Both were excellent in the pocket and seemed to always know when to escape or when to stay patient and let the plays develop. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers he threw three touchdowns to three undrafted players, then against the New Orleans Saints he threw three separate touchdowns to Allen, Mike Williams, and Hunter Henry. That proves his ability to make those around him better, which is something that few quarterbacks have in this league. 

Despite Herbert’s fantastic play on the field, the Chargers have lost four games in a row. There’s been a TON of criticism thrown the coaches way, and rightfully so. Ultimately it is the coaches’ jobs to put their players in positions to win games. There have been slight adjustments from both sides, in particular from the Chargers first-time offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, as he’s had to shift from game-planning for Tyrod Taylor to game planning for Herbert. Gus Bradley has mostly stuck to his guns on the defensive side, despite losing most of his high-end playmakers. The Chargers are close, and could easily be 4-1 instead of 1-4. These coordinators don’t need to make drastic changes, just some slight adjustments. These will be featured here. 

Better Efficiency On The Early Downs On Offense

Most people tend to forget that this is Steichen’s first time calling his own system. Yes, he was the interim coordinator in 2019 but he was calling Ken Wisenhunt’s offense, and Head Coach Anthony Lynn was heavily involved in the offense after the team fired Wisenhunt. Steichen is regarded internally as a great offensive mind, and if you watch the film you can see hints of a well-designed offense. But he has one main deficiency as an offensive coordinator right now.

The Chargers have one of the most efficient passing games in the league since Herbert became the starting quarterback. Herbert is averaging 292 yards passing per game as the starter. That would be good for fourth-best in the league if he had been the starter since week one. However, they are one of the least efficient rushing teams in the league. Something that has gotten exposed since losing Austin Ekeler to injury. Joshua Kelley and Justin Jackson are fine complimentary backs but they simply are not capable of making up for the offensive line deficiencies that Ekeler is. 

Not only are they not overly efficient running the ball, but they are also overly reliant on the rushing attack. As Daniel Popper of The Athletic points out in the tweet above. Lynn said in his press conference that they wanted to establish the run to protect their young quarterback because he was running for his life in passing situations. That’s a fine logic IF you are actually capable of running the ball effectively. Instead, the Chargers are actively choosing to consistently set their young quarterback up with third and long situations. When you have a struggling offensive line, that is a recipe for disaster. 

There are some easy solutions to solving this problem, and to put it simply they need to give more responsibility to their young quarterback. Any time they have gone to a quick passing game, it has resulted in positive plays. When they’ve gone to this route, Henry and Allen have been very efficient. Those two are obviously very talented players, but they’re also very savvy route runners that can get open quickly. Ramping up the tempo a bit and employing a quick passing attack helps all parties involved, including Herbert. One of the things that has been very successful for them is Herbert throwing out of run-pass-option looks, like this one:

There certainly is a logic behind not abandoning the run, the last thing anyone wants is for Herbert to be throwing the ball 50 times a game behind a makeshift offensive line. Joe Burrow went through that in the Bengals’ Thursday night game against the Browns, and while they were decently competitive in that game, Burrow took an absolute beating. There is a delicate balance between giving more responsibility to Herbert and forcing him into tough situations. The Chargers, although not their intention, are currently choosing the latter due to their obsession over establishing the run. Whatever the goal, they HAVE to do a better job on first and second downs going forward.

Get More Pressure On Opposing Quarterbacks

The Chargers’ reliance on getting pressure with the front four has been a problem over the last three weeks. In the first two games when Justin Jones and Melvin Ingram were healthy, they were rushing the passer at an incredible clip. In those two games, they totaled 53 pressures. However, since Jones and Ingram have been out, that efficiency has decreased dramatically. Over the last three games against Carolina, Tampa Bay, and New Orleans they only generated 41 pressures. Twenty-one of those 41 came this past week against New Orleans, so that is somewhat of a positive sign. But that rate over three games is simply not good enough. Part of the reason they can’t protect all these leads is because opposing quarterbacks have had all the time in the world to sit behind clean pockets and march down the field. 

Joey Bosa has been fantastic this season, even while dealing with three injuries. He is currently tied with Khalil Mack for the second-most quarterback pressures in the league with 27. (Aaron Donald and Myles Garrett are tied for the lead with 33.) He’s gotten four sacks in five games and has been highly productive.

Uchenna Nwosu has played very well in Ingram’s absence and has shown the capability to be the full-time starter should the Chargers decide to move on from Ingram in the offseason.

Jerry Tillery started off the season on a tear, getting a sack on Burrow, and blocking a PAT against the Chiefs. But he hasn’t been super productive since being elevated to the full-time starting role. There have been some people already suggesting that he’s approaching bust territory, but that’s still premature. It’s clear that he is not overly productive against the run right now, but if the Chargers can get the kind of pass rush production out of Tillery – even if that means he’s serving in a complementary role – they will still get a lot of value out of him. Don’t forget that it took DeForest Buckner a few years to develop into the well-rounded defensive tackle that he is now. Tillery will get there, just be patient.

The overarching problem with the Chargers’ pass rush is that it has been mostly non-existent in the second halves. Bosa has had two sacks in the fourth quarter against the Panthers and Saints, but that has been it. The Chargers held big leads against the Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Saints and in large part blew those leads because those quarterbacks had all day to throw. The aforementioned offensive issues certainly play a part, but when your defense gives three of the best second-half quarterbacks of all time all day to throw, that is a problem. 

Gus Bradley has been much maligned these last two years for this same problem. To his credit, he has made some small adjustments this season. When Chris Harris was healthy they were playing a lot more man coverage, and they played a lot of cover two looks in the first half against the Saints on Monday night, but when push comes to shove he always reverts back to his comfort zone that is the cover three. That scheme has been proving to work around the league over the last few years, but it is 100% reliant on having the right players. That is simply not the case for the Chargers right now due to all the injuries. 

On the rare occasion that Bradley has actually called blitzes, they have done well. Kyzir White was called on three blitzes on Monday Night and two of them resulted in quarterback pressures. Denzel Perryman was called on two blitzes against the Buccaneers and both of them resulted in hits on Tom Brady. The problem is that the Chargers are yet again at the bottom of the league in blitz frequency. A zero to sixty change to the opposite end of the spectrum is unrealistic, but with the injuries both in the secondary and upfront for the Chargers, he needs to bring pressures at a higher frequency. Even if it’s a slight increase to their current pace of 12% to say 16% percent, that would help tremendously. 

String Together Some Wins

This one might seem obvious, and maybe a little vague but let’s dive into the context of the last few Chargers seasons. There has obviously been a lot of mention throughout this week of the Chargers’ record in close games the last few years. The problem with relying on that statistic to point to potential coaching incompetence or any perceived problem is that the Chargers have truly had three different teams in the last three seasons.

In 2018, the Chargers were one of the few teams in the NFL that managed to stay healthy. Outside of Bosa missing nine games that year, they mostly managed to avoid the injury bug. They obviously won twelve games that season and eventually won a playoff game.

The next season, the Chargers were relying upon a lot of older and cagey veteran players. Thomas Davis, Russell Okung, Mike Pouncey, Brandon Mebane, and of course Philip Rivers chief among them. In 2019 they were hit hard by the injury bug, dealt with a ridiculous holdout, and had major regression from their quarterback.

This season, they’ve dealt with installing a new offense amidst a national pandemic, being hit hard by the injury bug again, a quarterback change after one game, and now a previously very accurate kicker can’t make a 50 yarder. 

All of that might sound like excuses to some, but the Chargers really have been drastically affected by all these injuries and they are relying upon a TON of young players to step up in key positions. Their first three picks in the 2020 NFL draft are all starting right now. They have two members of the defensive line who are starting for the first time in their careers. Both safeties are starting at their respective positions for the first time. There’s been a ton of movement on the offensive line and they almost always have had four starters upfront on rookie contracts, three of which (Sam Tevi, Dan Feeney, and Trey Pipkins) are playing new positions. They’ve been very reliant on Jalen Guyton, Tyron Johnson, and K.J. Hill at the receiver position. Even their special teams unit is manned by players on rookie contracts: Alohi Gilman, Gabe Nabers, Joe Reed/Johnson, and Hill. And not to mention their starting quarterback is a rookie who found out five minutes before kickoff against the Kansas City Chiefs that he was going to start. 

The bottom line here is that they are an extremely YOUNG football team. When Anthony Lynn says he has to teach them how to win, he’s right. Now of course there’s been some debate if Lynn is the right man for that job, but that’s a conversation for another day. Thankfully, right now the Chargers are very close. Monday night felt like a season altering win, instead, Michael Badgley suddenly forgot how to kick. Drue Tranquill (another starter that’s on Injured Reserve) tweeted out after the game that both winning and losing are contagious. All the Chargers need right now is a win to jump-start their season, and thankfully the Jacksonville Jaguars should be just what the doctor ordered after the bye week. 

These losses are frustrating, no doubt about it. But the Herbert era has gotten off to a MUCH better start than anyone ever could have predicted. He is the reason for optimism for the Chargers. They probably won’t make the playoffs this year, but as long as they continue to be competitive and Herbert continues to progress, the season should be considered a success. As soon as he took the field, this season became all about his development and that is all that matters. Any wins that come this season are just a bonus.