Tuesday, January 25, 2022

How to fix Chargers: Run defense is Brandon Staley’s biggest problem, not game management

The Los Angeles Chargers have a franchise quarterback in Justin Herbert, who is off to the greatest start for a quarterback in NFL history. Herbert has the most passing yards (9,150) and passing touchdowns (69) through a player’s first two seasons ever, yet has yet to make a playoff start despite his record-setting numbers. 

That’s no fault of Herbert, who is just 15-17 in his two seasons starting for the Chargers. Los Angeles has plenty of issues that have prevented Herbert from making that coveted playoff start, even if the Chargers are on the right path toward becoming a contender in the AFC. Those issues were evident in the Week 18 loss to the Las Vegas raiders, and coach Brandon Staley will have to correct them heading into Year 2. 

This offseason will be a big one for Staley, who has been under fire all season for his over-aggressiveness and his analytical decisions. General manager Tom Telesco will also be under the microscope as he will seek to reshape this roster into a playoff contender in the talented AFC West (the Chargers finished third in the division). 

The Chargers don’t have to fix much, but there are some glaring issues on this roster that need to be addressed. 

Improve the run defense

The Chargers run defense was the team’s biggest problem throughout the season, allowing over 100 yards on the ground in 12 of 17 games. Los Angeles was 30th in the NFL in run defense, allowing 138.8 rushing yards per game — including 174 in the Week 18 loss to the Raiders that took them out of the playoffs. 

Think about this: Brandon Staley called timeout with the Raiders trying to run the clock out to get the right personnel on the field — and the Chargers still gave up a big run to Josh Jacobs that set up the winning field goal for the Raiders. Los Angeles allowed 4.6 yards per carry on the year (28th in the NFL) and 22 touchdowns (29th in NFL), showcasing the run defense needs to improve in order to make the playoffs in 2022.

The development of Kenneth Murray (who did not have a good 2021 season) would help, but Los Angeles needs to improve on the defensive front. With $57 million in cap space available. Staley — hired for his defensive expertise — has to be aggressive in getting the players he wants to correct this glaring hole on his roster. 

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Add a right tackle

Watching Storm Norton trying to block Maxx Crosby in Week 18 was brutal, as the Chargers right tackle allowed 11 pressures and two sacks in the regular season finale. Norton was brutal filling in for an injured Bryan Bulaga this year, allowing 60 pressures and nine sacks, including four games which he allowed five-plus pressures. 

The Chargers hit a home run with first-round pick Rashawn Slater (who allowed just 26 pressures and four sacks in his rookie season), but the right tackle position was an albatross. Bulaga played just one game (the season opener) due to an ankle injury, a year after suffering a bunch of injuries throughout the 2020 season. Los Angeles may move on from Bulaga, but the Chargers can’t go back to Norton to protect Herbert in 2021. 

There’s enough cap space to find a good veteran to play right tackle, but the Chargers nailed the Slater selection. There’s no reason why they can’t find another right tackle in the early rounds of the draft again. 

Brandon Staley shouldn’t change

Whether the late timeout by Brandon Staley cost the Chargers or not, did his over-aggressiveness really play a huge role in the Chargers’ demise throughout the season? The Chargers went for it on fourth down 34 times in 2021 and converted them 64.71% of the time — fourth in the NFL. 

Staley going for it on fourth down is not the problem in Los Angeles, especially when he has Justin Herbert at quarterback. The Chargers were 5 for 9 on fourth down from their own territory, including 3 of 4 in the Week 18 loss to the Raiders. Perhaps Staley is a bit over-aggressive, but Herbert is 3 for 5 for 64 yards (104.2 rating) on fourth down in his own territory. 

If Staley is looking at the analytics, Herbert was 15 of 22 for 197 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions (126.5 rating) this season. That should justify Staley’s decision to go for it on fourth down as much has he did, especially with a conversion rate near 65%. 

Staley shouldn’t change his aggressive approach, especially with an elite quarterback like Herbert. The numbers indicate his decisions aren’t the wrong ones — at least on fourth down. 

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