Week 4 Key Matchups: Chargers Vs Buccaneers
The Los Angeles Chargers are still seeking their first win in the Justin Herbert era, and it will come against an old nemesis in a new place. Herbert was just two years old when Tom Brady made his debut in the NFL all those years ago for the New England Patriots. Obviously, the Chargers knew this point for Herbert would come eventually, after taking him sixth overall last April, but the circumstances of their first starts are eerily similar. Drew Bledsoe was the starter for the Patriots, and Brady was the backup. Bledsoe got hurt and Brady was thrust into the starting role, and the rest is history.
In the twenty years since Brady has been in the NFL, he has broken the hearts of Chargers fans plenty of times, especially in the playoffs. The Marlon McCree fumble game in 2006, Philip Rivers playing on a torn ACL in 2007, and of course two years ago when they demolished the Chargers in the divisional round.
The Brady vs. Chargers will obviously be the main storyline this weekend, and rightfully so, these two parties have been connected throughout Brady’s entire career. That continued this summer when he chose the Buccaneers over the Chargers in free agency. Now, Brady will look to prove that he made the right decision and the Chargers will look to showcase their uber-talented rookie quarterback.
The Chargers Offensive Line vs. The Buccaneers Defense
The offensive line play has been a key staple in this article series, and it comes down the core belief that when a team wins in the trenches, that team should be in good shape. In the past, the focus has been on one specific matchup for the Chargers offensive line. The Buccaneers present a very unique challenge, and the entire Chargers offensive line has to step up, or this is going to be a long game for Herbert and company.
The Tampa Bay defensive line simply does not have a weakness. Let’s start off with Shaq Barrett, who led the league in sacks last year in a breakout season for the Buccaneers. He’s going to present a similar challenge as Brian Burns did last week as a speed rusher off the edge. The Chargers REALLY struggled to contain Burns and it didn’t really matter who was blocking him. As it stands, it would be a surprise if Bryan Bulaga plays this week. If he doesn’t, Trey Pipkins will make his first start of the season. Pipkins had a great game in Week 2 after Bulaga got injured on the first drive against the Kansas City Chiefs, but he was one of many that struggled last Sunday. He’ll need to bounce back.
On the opposite side of Barrett for the Buccaneers is Jason Pierre-Paul. Pierre-Paul has been an extremely productive player in this league, even after his infamous fireworks incident. The Buccaneers will move both of their edge rushers around a lot and will be a big challenge for Pipkins and Sam Tevi. To his credit, Tevi has improved a TON since last season. Through three games he has only given up five pressures, which is exponentially better than last season. Last year, he averaged three allowed pressures a game and ended up totaling 40 in twelve games. The problem with Sam Tevi in years past has always been consistency, and the dramatic drop off from serviceable to terrible. Right now he has been serviceable, and hopefully, that continues to be the case.
The interior of the offensive line will have its work cut out for them this week, as well. Vita Vea is the best nose tackle in the NFL, yes really. Now, it’s not a super common position anymore as the league continues to look for more defensive tackles in the Aaron Donald and Chris Jones mold, but Vea is not just a stereotypical run-stuffing nose tackle. He’s much more than that. He has incredibly quick hands, and when you pair that with his massive frame it presents a very unique challenge as an offensive lineman. He is currently what Linval Joseph was in his prime: a playmaking nose tackle.
The pairing of Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney has been executing double teams and reach blocks at a very efficient level through three games. Don’t expect that to be the case against Vea. When he is in the game, he determines where the offensive line goes, not the other way around. Add in the experience and explosiveness of Ndamukong Suh, the Chargers interior group is in for their toughest challenge yet. And they might be without Trai Turner, yet again. This one could get ugly, really quickly, for this Chargers offensive line.
Vita Vea appreciation post, part two. pic.twitter.com/DkmefAJiIG
— Guilty As Charged Podcast (@GACPodcast17) September 30, 2020
Grab your popcorn for this one, folks. Casey Hayward was targeted a lot in Week 1, most of that was rookie Joe Burrow relying upon A.J. Green so heavily, and some folks around the league wondered what that really meant for Hayward. Was he losing a step? Were teams no longer going to fear throwing his way? Was he still capable of shutting down opposing number one receivers? Well, things have moved back to the norm for the star cornerback over the last two weeks, as he’s allowed just a single catch against the Chiefs and Panthers.
The cornerback position has evolved a lot over the years, they’re no longer judged solely on interceptions and tackles. Generally speaking, not hearing a cornerback’s name all that much on the broadcast, that’s a good thing. Hayward gives the Chargers a lot of flexibility because he essentially shuts down a third of the field. This especially helps a young safety like Nasir Adderley, or Rayshawn Jenkins last year, because they don’t have to worry too much about helping Hayward over the top.
This week could be a little different in that sense. There are obviously a lot of injuries in this game to be concerned about, but there are two that specifically will impact the overall game plans for each team: Chris Harris and Chris Godwin. Godwin has been a target monster out of the slot for the Buccaneers offense over the last couple of years. Losing him means more targets should get funneled to Mike Evans.
Losing Harris means that Hayward should be shadowing Evans most of the game. Michael Davis has improved a lot this year, but the worst thing you could ask of him is to match up one on one with a jump ball receiver, like Evans. That’s asking for trouble.
Also of note in this game and this particular matchup, is the fact Keenan Allen specifically called out Evans and Tyreek Hill before the season as the two wideouts in the league that he had a beef with. Allen was targeted a whopping nineteen times this past week and has clearly been the main beneficiary of Herbert’s presence. Got to think that tweet is plastered in Evans’ locker this week. Should be a lot of fun watching how this one plays out.
The only way to beat Brady is to pressure up the middle. That was blatantly obvious as Brady ripped our hearts in the playoff loss in 2018. Bradley’s scheme is not aggressive at all, so he relies upon a front four to get after the quarterback. In the first two weeks, that worked out pretty well for the Chargers. Joey Bosa, Jerry Tillery, and Uchenna Nwosu were all rushing at a highly efficient rate. Especially Bosa, who had 17 total pressures in those two weeks, which was the most in the league.
Losing Melvin Ingram and Justin Jones hurts. With those two, it could be argued that the Chargers’ main six-man defensive line rotation is the best in the league. They certainly played like it to start the season. Without those two, they really struggled to generate a consistent pass rush against the Panthers. Some of that is a credit to the Panthers for executing a well thought out game plan, but it’s also more likely to have an effective pass rush when you have great depth.
In Week 3 Bosa played 98-percent of the team’s defensive snaps, that’s up from 74-percent in Week 2, and 69-percent in Week 1. Nwosu obviously played 92-percent of the team’s snaps in Week 3, obviously much more in previous weeks due to Ingram’s injury. Tillery’s snap % nearly doubled without Jones in the lineup. All of this is to say that it’s harder to rush the passer when you are fatigued.
If the Chargers are to win this weekend, they have to make Brady feel the heat somehow. That means Bosa, Nwosu, and Tillery have to hit home more frequently than last week. Or, Bradley has to mix it up and bring more blitzes. The coaching staff talked all offseason about mixing up coverages more often and bringing more blitzes. To their credit they have played more man coverage, much of that is due to the skill set Harris brings to the table, but they have yet to make due on their promise of more blitzes.
It’s not for a lack of having the pieces to do so. Kenneth Murray was extremely effective as a blitzer at Oklahoma, and Desmond King has shown some explosiveness in this regard as well. They have flirted with the idea several times, including doing so out of their NASCAR package. They’ve shown this look in the tweet below a few times, but have yet to actually bring the pressure. The Chargers blitzed at an NFL record low of 14.5% last year. With their front four they don’t HAVE to blitz at an insanely high rate, but getting that percentage up to around 20 would be nice. Especially in the next two weeks against Brady and Drew Brees.
The Chargers only ran this look once all game, and Jerry Tillery jumped offsides, so who knows what would've happened. PLEASE give us more of this! pic.twitter.com/L30CjndZhs
— Guilty As Charged Podcast (@GACPodcast17) September 17, 2020
Maybe it’s the pessimist in me, but I just don’t see a Chargers win being very likely this weekend. This is simply a bad matchup. The Buccaneers have a great front seven and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles runs a hyper-aggressive scheme. Add in Brady and his quick passing game, and it does not make me feel overly confident. The Chargers have to come out swinging, in every regard. But I just don’t see it. Vegas has the Buccaneers favored by 7, and I think they cover. Buccaneers 27 – Chargers 17. An unfortunately tough day at the office for Herbert and company.