The Los Angeles Chargers were not expected to compete for a Super Bowl ring this year. On top of moving into their new stadium in LA, they also moved on from 16 year starter Philip Rivers who started a consecutive 224 games for them at QB. The Chargers’ few fans (myself included), found themselves looking to journeyman QB Tyrod Taylor to take the reins going into the season. What moves did the Chargers do this past offseason to get here?
The Chargers had a pretty good offseason. They let Philip Rivers leave after a down year and a few other players walk in free agency. On the flip side, they traded for Trai Turner and signed Bryan Bulaga to bolster up their offensive line, signed Linval Joseph to replace Brandon Mebane, and they added All-Pro slot cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to round out their secondary. In the draft, they addressed almost every need, starting with the QB position.
When the Chargers selected Justin Herbert at 6 overall, it meant the organization was looking to him to be the future of the franchise. The 6’6 Oregon QB definitely looked the part but had some issues coming out of college that left coaches and analysts worried about his ability to transition to the NFL. People questioned whether or not he would be able to play in an NFL system, as he only took 1 snap under center at Oregon (a QB sneak in the Rose Bowl). Additionally, he struggled under pressure when being blitzed and made mistakes when his first read was taken away by the defense. While GM Tom Telesco is normally a conservative GM, he made a surprising move to trade back into the first round and select 3 year starter LB Kenneth Murray at 23 overall to improve a weak LB core. The rest of their draft was meant to fill holes such as adding a bruising RB to replace Melvin Gordon in UCLA’s Joshua Kelley, and trying to find a third WR by adding KJ Hill from Ohio State.
Many believed the Chargers had one of the best defenses in the league on paper. The front 7 of the Chargers included Pro Bowlers Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and Linval Joseph, first round rookie LB Kenneth Murray and rising LB Drue Tranquill and their back-end looked even better. First team all-pro as a rookie S Derwin James led the group followed by stud CB’s Casey Hayward, Chris Harris JR, and 2018 first team all-pro Desmond King.
On the offensive side, Tyrod and Herbert had a great offensive core to lean on. Keenan Allen is one of the best receivers in the league, Mike Williams is a huge 6’4 jump ball threat, Hunter Henry is a top 10 TE who boasts a 132.3 passer rating when targeted according to PFF since 2016, and Austin Ekeler is one of the most dangerous backs out of the backfield and in space. So how did a team of this talent fall to 1-4?
The injury bug hit the Chargers yet again: It seems that every year, the Chargers have 2-3 major injuries that leaves their team with a void to fill. According to Football Outsiders, the Chargers were 30th in 2019 in adjusting games lost, this stat measures how many games a team lost due to injured players. Even in 2018 when they went 12-4, they were 20th in AGL, in 2017 they were 16th, and in 2016 they were 31st. Pretty much, the last 5 years they are in the bottom half of the league in injuries suffered and this year was no different. The first major injury this year came near the end of training camp: Derwin James tore his meniscus and was out for the year. This left a huge hole at SS for the Chargers to fill. Subsequently over the next 6 weeks, the Chargers have lost starters: C Mike Pouncey for the year, starting RG Trai Turner has only played 1 of the 5 games, starting RT Bryan Bulaga has played less than 30% of the snaps, starting WILL LB Drue Tranquill broke his leg and is out for the year, starting QB Tyrod Taylor has been out with a punctured lung from week 2, starting DE and DT Melvin Ingram and Justin Jones were placed on IR following week 2, starting CB Chris Harris Jr. was placed on IR following week 3, and starting RB Austin Ekeler was placed on IR after week 4. All in all, those are 10 Chargers starters that have been out for an extended period of time. Incredible to say the least. All these injuries have played a major role in the Chargers falling to 1-4.
The Chargers can’t finish close games: Dating back to 2019, the Chargers are 3-13 in one-score games. The only one-score games they have won have come off 2 missed game winning FG’s by Eddy Piniero and Randy Bullock, and a GW TD in OT by Austin Ekeler. The trend of losing one score games has continued this year as the Chargers have lost all their games this year by one score. This year so far, the Chargers have scored 5.2 points in the 4th quarter in comparison to averaging 14.2 points in the first half. That is horrible and amounts to them being 30th in the league in 4th quarter scoring. In back to back weeks, the Chargers have blown 17 point leads despite playing solid football on both sides of the ball in the first half. The Chargers are top 10 in points allowed in the first half on defense but drop to 18th in the second half due to inconsistent play by the defense and bad play calling by defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. This can be attributed to him not having 5/11 starters on defense, but he has never been a big blitz guy, and would rather sit in his cover 3 shell for the majority of the game. His cover 3 zone worked initially against Mahomes, Brady, and Brees, as he only gave up 30 combined points in the first half but failed later in the game as they gave up 61 points in the second half. According to PFF analyst Seth Galina, the Chargers have run cover 3 on 60% of their defensive plays since 2017, the highest in the league by 15%. While they have had one of the lowest big plays allowed percentages, they get picked apart by veteran QBs that know how to beat zone coverage. This means in the 4th quarter when the game is close and the Chargers need a stop, what does Gus Bradley do? He plays his conservative prevent cover 3 defense which allows the opposing offenses to dink and dunk their way down the field into the red zone. The Chiefs ended with 4 straight scoring drives, the Bucs ended with 5, and the Saints with 2. If it’s broke, you should fix it which is something Bradley hasn’t done this year.
The Chargers are very inefficient on offense:
As seen by the graph, the Chargers have not been good offensively. Their run game has suffered due to the entire right side of the offensive line being out, and they have played 2 of the best run defenses in back to back weeks with the Bucs and the Saints (both are top 14 in rush yards EPA defensively). Justin Herbert has been a revelation at QB and a clear candidate for OROY, but the pass game has been average due to inconsistent playcalling.
The inconsistency is seen further here, as their rushing efficiency on early downs is 7th worst in the league, and the Chargers have the 3rd lowest pass rate in the league on early downs. Since they are missing 3 OL starters, it is not advised to run it so often on early downs on top of statistics generally advising teams not to run on early downs.
Even though Herbert has had one of the best third down CPOE, it shouldn’t be the goal of the Chargers to get into third down situations as much as they do (14.2 times a game according to teamrankings.com). Their system of run, run, pass needs to change if they want to compete for a wildcard spot this year, and similar to what’s happening in Seattle, the Chargers need to have a new hashtag: #LetHerbieCook.
Turnover Problems: Since taking over as coach in 2017, Anthony Lynn has always preached winning the turnover battle. In 2018 while going 12-4, the Chargers were +1 in turnover difference. Last year with Philip Rivers turning the ball over 23 times, the Chargers were dead last in the league with a -17 difference. So far this year they are -3. In both the Chiefs and Panthers games, the Chargers failed to protect the ball and it cost them the game. The across the body throw against the Chiefs by Justin Herbert was horrendous as he had a wide open first down if he just ran for it. The Chiefs followed that up with a 55 yard TD to Tyreek Hill following the INT. Against the Panthers, the Chargers turned the ball over 4 times, and 3 of those times led to the Panthers putting up points. Up 17 against the Bucs with 54 seconds remaining, Herbert handed the ball off to rookie RB Joshua Kelley, who fumbled inside their own 10 yard line and the Bucs recovered. The Bucs went on to score 21 unanswered points and won the game. Point being, if the Chargers want to win close games, they need to protect the ball, and while Herbert has looked better in doing that, other players need to protect the ball as well going forward.
Ultimately, the Chargers are still talented enough to make a wild card run but they need to fix a lot of the problems I’ve outlined. Their first 5 opponents have a combined record of 14-10-1, while their next 5 are combined 7-17. If the Chargers stay healthy (and that is a big if), they should be able to beat the Jaguars, Broncos, Jets, and Dolphins, all of whom they have a better total EPA/play than. The only opponent that is better is the Oakland Raiders as their 5th opponent. They realistically could be 5-5 or 6-4 going into week 11 which leaves them in the heart of the playoff race. To be there, hopefully they don’t suffer any more injuries, and close out games by being able to score and defend well in the second half.
Stay tuned for their week 7 matchup vs the Jacksonville Jaguars following their bye this weekend.