The Flaws That Could Sink the NFL's Top Contenders: Part II
Third down issues for the Rams; the Chargers defensive front; a lack of variability in Kansas City; what's going on in Tennessee?
This is Part II of the ‘flaws’ series. If you missed Part I, you can check it out here.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers’ defensive front has been an apocalypse all season — and it’s getting steadily worse. Right now, they rank 32nd in the league in rushing success rate, which measures how well a team performs on a down-to-down basis compared to the historical norm. If a team picks up five yards on first down, that’s a success; if it gets just three, not so much.
The Chargers have held a dynastic run over the league’s bottom rung throughout the season, currently sitting with a 47.6% success rate, per RBSDM. That means that damn near half of all runs against the Chargers front this season has been a quantified success. Gulp.
Much attention has been paid to Brandon Staley’s scheme. Staley runs what is known as a ‘light box’ style, something championed at the college level and given professional juice by Staley in Los Angeles and Vic Fangio in Chicago and then Denver.
The idea is simple: to sit in two-deep safety sets, playing the pass before the run, to purposely lighten to the box to tempt an offense to run, and then to quick trigger when an offense takes the bait, with safeties flowing from depth to attack specific gaps along the defensive wall. The style might concede extra yards compared to a more loaded box in the early phase, but it should, in theory, eliminate big plays on the ground — with a clean-up unit at the second and third levels. Most importantly, it should take away explosive pass plays due to the variability a coach can introduce with a two-deep safety structure and the temptation given to the offense to run the ball. I mean, if they’re just going to give us the box count… let’s run the ball!
The theory is sound. Staley had tremendous success running the style with the Rams. His unit finished 1st in EPA per play by some distance and finished second in rushing success rate.
The style worked with the Rams because Staley had great players. With the Chargers, he does not.
What’s worse is that Staley isn’t even working with okay-to-decent players. He’s working with a whole lot of blah. Floors in the system have shown up. The success rate totals make grim reading. What’s worse: Through 16 weeks, the Chargers have given up the 14th highest total of explosive runs and the 12th most explosive passing plays.
But the issue has little to do with the system or scheme all on its own. It’s a talent concern as much as how that talent is being deployed. It’s a structure built to limit explosive plays, to force an offense to drive down the field in 12-15 play increments, with the hope that the defense can force a turnover or a negative play, or that the offense makes a bad decision. The Chargers’ defense is doing neither. It’s allowing teams to churn out successful plays and hit explosive ones.
Staley’s style calls for everyone to play fast. To know their job. To trust the structure. And to attack the line of scrimmage with reckless abandon. You get to where you need to get too fast, the coaching staff will figure out how the wider jigsaw fits together. It also demands size and hops from the first level. Players must be able to absorb double-teams and then shuffle and move at speed to wherever the ball is heading.
Upfront, the Chargers line has been mauled by so-so offensive lines all season. They lack the springs, size, and mass to sit their ass down in a three-man trench and play the two-gap (or gap and a half, in Staley lingo) style that the setup demands. The experiment of kicking Kenneth Murray from linebacker to edge defender has been what one might politely describe as a crime against football.
At the second and third level things are, somehow, even worse. The Chargers linebackers are passive. Rather than firing to their spot in attack mode, they tippy-tap their feet, waiting for things to develop before trying to play catch-up. By the time they’re ready to play ball, the whole setup is in a world of trouble:
If you need to go and take a cold shower after watching that, I understand. You are excused. It is a tour de force of yikes. Jerry Tillery, a first-round pick in 2019, was mushed off the ball by a double-team, as he has been all season. There was no pop, no fight, no holding the surge. He was walked back, effortlessly – as ever. It would be rude to call Tillery the least disruptive, least effective, most-damaging-to-his-own team’s-success interior defensive lineman if it were not true. Bluntly: It is.
Drue Tranquill, the team’s top linebacker, by dent of being upright and possessing legs and arms and transport to the stadium, was, as usual, late to the party.
Tillery getting wiped by the double-team early in the play forced Tranquill to stamp his feet rather than seeing-then-firing. If he tried to undercut the double team to shoot into the A-Gap, the center could clean him up and offer the running back an escape hatch through the B-Gap. If Tranquill tried to scrape over the top to the B-Gap, well, then he’d be vacating the middle of the field with a lead blocker peeling off the double-team and climbing up into open space with a back behind him.
There were no good answers. Only wrong ones. Tranquill sat and waited. The center slipped off the double-team and pinged Tranquill. The guard cleaned up Tillery. On the edge, there is Murray, getting hit-and-hinged like a freshman stepping onto a college field for the first time. It was ugly, one example among hundreds this season.
Rip through any Chargers game this season and you will find the same themes: no first-level wall; unsure linebacker play.
At the safety level, things are just as concerning. Derwin James, when healthy, remains a super-duper star, and Staley has been savvy in ditching some of his doctrinaire thinking in favor of inching James ever closer to the line of scrimmage, using James as he traditionally has been (and should be) as a pseudo linebacker against heavy sets.
But James is only one player, and often the player trigging from the third level of the defense — and is one of the players whose alignment and responsibility the opposing offense can manipulate through formation, motion, and shifts.
At the annual scouting combine, Bill Belichick, often joined by Nick Saban, sits directly behind the derrières of college players on d-line day (now is not the time to go into all that is problematic with that sentence from a societal perspective). He is looking for one thing: Girth. Belichick, one of the strongest advocates for an odd-front, two-gapping defense across decades, isn’t as interested in weight or height or a big fellas stride pattern or any of that lateral speed nonsense. He wants mass. And wants mass with some width, and a hint of wiggle.
He wants someone who can, to paraphrase Greg Williams, sit his testicles in the B-Gap. Someone who cannot be shoved of his spot by one player, and who puts up a real fight against the double-team, allowing the second and third-level players to quickly trigger to the ball.
The Chargers lack girth. They lack the explosivity of the Rams defense that Staley piloted last season, one that paired big bodies inside with quick-twitch penetrators along the interior. Without either, the light box concepts from an interesting, intellectual strategy into a mess.
Staley has at times moved to more traditional odd-front looks, hoping to pile more mass into the box to try to slow down the run-game. It hasn’t worked.
Houston on Sunday represented the nadir. Against a bad offensive with a bad offensive line, the Chargers were not just beaten. They were embarrassed. They were missing a stack of players who were in the COVID protocol, but their front still featured the vast majority of the early-down ambassadors who’ve struggled all season long.
When you are the league’s most visually poindexterous head coach, one who likes to take a bat to some of football’s rar-rar constructs (“Analytics never threw a block”, is a real, actual thing Mark Schlereth said on a professional broadcast in relation to Staley’s instance on going for it on fourth down), you’re ripe for focus on your system above all else.
If you’re someone who gives off outsmarting the room, there will soon be a degree of schadenfreude when those smarts get clobbered over the head by a bad Texans team. You invite hyperventilating headlines like “BRANDON STALEY IS NOT THE GURU THAT WAS PROMISED” (emphasis from this author).
But pinning the blame on the coach for this failing is misguided. A reminder: this is Staley’s first year. The Chargers simply lack the players to implement the style fully, confidently, and effectively. It will be fascinating to see who Staley and general manager Tom Telesco target to try to correct the issues in the offseason.
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