Coming off of a 2020 campaign in which the Los Angeles Chargers went 7-9 with many blown leads, changes needed to occur in the offseason after a second straight season of missing the playoffs. Changes were made, and they are proving to be very good ones five games into the 2021 NFL season. Currently, the Chargers are 4-1, and they find themselves atop the standings in a talented AFC West division. There are many reasons why the Chargers have revamped themselves into serious contenders within a single offseason; let’s take a look at these changes and how they have translated into better results.
Brandon Staley is a Genius
After firing Anthony Lynn, the Chargers turned to former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley to fill the void at head coach. Staley guided the Rams defense to finish 1st in points and total yards allowed in the 2020 season, and being young and experienced made him an intriguing pick for a head coaching job. One of the biggest changes with the philosophy of Staley is the Chargers effectiveness while being aggressive. On 4th down this season, the Chargers have been successful in converting on seven of eight tries, which has been important in their ability to score touchdowns instead of settling for field goals. An important change within the Chargers system has been Staley’s use of analytics. In preparation for upcoming games, Staley works with the Chargers analytics department to construct fourth down models, which are used in determining the right and wrong places to go for it. They take into consideration factors such as down and distance and weather, and taking everything into account allows for accurate models to be constructed. For example, during the Chargers thrilling victory over the Cleveland Browns in Week 5, a fourth down decision had to be made in the fourth quarter. The Chargers faced a 4th and 4 from their own 41 yard line, and they decided to go for it. Per the Next Gen Stats Decision Guide, the Chargers chances of winning would have increased from 18% to 25% if they converted successfully. If not, their chances of winning plummeted to 11%. If they opted to punt, their win probably was at 15%. Ultimately, the Chargers decided to go for it, and WR Mike Williams was able to draw a defensive pass interference, giving the Chargers a 33 yard gain and a first down. More importantly, their win probability increased to 33%. The NGS Decision Guide recommended the Chargers go for it in this situation, giving them an advantage of 3.1 percentage points in expected win probability value. In certain situations like this, Staley has been excellent in deciding what to do, and these outcomes have positively impacted the Chargers ability to win close games. Furthermore, they show the football intelligence Staley possesses.
The Chargers Offense is Elite
In 2020, the Chargers offense ranked 12th in Dropback EPA and 28th in Rush EPA. Through five games in 2021, the Chargers rank 7th in Dropback EPA and 6th in Rush EPA, giving them an overall EPA/play of 0.156, which ranks 6th in the NFL. Based on looking at these numbers, the most evident observation is the Chargers rushing attack has improved tremendously. Something important to consider with the statistically improved run game is Staley’s attitude about running the football. While talking to reporters, Staley acknowledged that running the ball is important, but not for the typical and traditional reasons. Contrary to a common belief held that running the ball opens up the passing game, Staley cites data behind his belief that running brings a physical dimension to the football game, not an advantage in the passing game. As a result, the Chargers are running the ball about four times fewer per game, but they are gaining nearly 0.5 more yards on average per rushing attempt. These changes hint towards the efficient style of football Staley prefers to play. In addition, the running game has benefited by having RB Austin Ekeler healthy and key additions in 2021 first round pick LT Rashawn Slater and C Corey Linsley to the offensive line. Ekeler currently ranks 6th in PFF rushing grade for all running backs, while Slater and Linsley rank within the top 25 in PFF grade for run blocking. Another important piece of the line to mention is OG Matt Feiler, who ranks 6th in PFF grade for run blocking. The combination of a good run blocking line and a healthy Ekeler has greatly improved the Chargers rushing attack.
The more notable part of the Chargers offensive dominance is their passing game, led by second year QB Justin Herbert, who is developing into a superstar MVP candidate. After a season in which Herbert set rookie passing records in most completions and touchdown passes, he has only gotten better. He ranks 5th in EPA/play and 3rd in offensive PFF grade for all quarterbacks. Additionally, he has been able to improve in areas he was knocked for in his rookie year. His play from a clean pocket is some of the best in the NFL (90.3 passing grade), as well as ranking 3rd in passing grade on non-play action throws. Displayed by his Week 5 performance in which he threw for 398 yards, accumulated 5 total touchdowns, and led the Chargers to an improbable win, Herbert has proven that he has the ability to take over a game and lead his team to victory.
At the disposal of Herbert is a group of talented skill players, featuring Ekeler and WR’s Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Ekeler has been arguably one of the best receiving backs over the past few years, serving as an important secondary option in the Chargers passing attack. The main threats, Allen and Williams, have been very good to begin the season, with Williams producing by far the best and most consistent numbers of his career (2.11 yards per route run). Keenan Allen and Mike Williams also lead all wide receiver duos in receptions, receiving yards, and first down catches. The combination of elite quarterback play, an effective rushing attack, talented receivers, and a solid offensive line with OC Joe Lombardi calling the plays has pushed the Chargers offense into elite territory, making them one of the most difficult units to stop in the NFL.
The Defense is Healthier
Although the numbers are not in favor of an improved Chargers defense so far in the 2021 NFL season, one of the most important things is that their defense is healthy again. They were able to limit the Dallas Cowboys to 20 points and the Kansas City Chiefs to 24 points, units that both rank within the NFL top 5 in EPA/play this year. One of the problems with the defense is their ineffectiveness in stopping the run, struggling to stop good rushing attacks from teams like the Browns and the Cowboys. The defense ranks 31st in Rush EPA, which is slightly inflated due to playing several good offenses already, but it still shows that they struggle to stop teams on the ground. However, a good pass defense can neutralize these rushing deficits a bit, as the Chargers defense ranks 11th in the NFL for Dropback EPA. Overall, the unit ranks 19th in EPA/play, and that ranking should improve as several underwhelming offenses lie ahead on their schedule.
One of the most important players returning for the Chargers defense has been All-Pro S Derwin James. After missing all of the 2020 campaign, James has returned and served as a valuable and versatile component to the Chargers defense, lining up at safety, slot corner, and in the box.
Illustrated by the table above, James is able to fill various roles on defense based on certain opponents and matchups, which shows the importance of having a player like him back. DE Joey Bosa has remained healthy to begin the 2021 season after missing some time last year due to various injuries, and he currently ranks 7th in defensive PFF grade amongst all edge rushers. In addition, he has recorded 24 pressures, 5th among edge rushers this year. Veteran CB Chris Harris Jr. has already missed some time, but he has been effective in his two games played this year, ranking 6th in defensive PFF grade amongst cornerbacks. 2021 second round pick CB Asante Samuel Jr. has recorded 2 interceptions through the first five games, serving as another solid piece to the Chargers secondary. Bringing in former NFL safety Renaldo Hill as the defensive coordinator gives an experienced mind that the defense, especially the secondary, can benefit from. His influence, as well as Staley’s, should only result in a defensive unit that improves as time goes on.
After taking a look through the components of the Los Angeles Chargers, I view them as a team with an elite offense and a defense that is good enough to the point it will rarely lose the team games. The defense is a work in progress compared to their high-powered offense, but the defense is solid and should continue to improve statistically as the season goes on. It may be a little early to say, but I do think the Chargers are Super Bowl contenders. With an offense that can put points up in a hurry against just about any defense in the NFL, I have confidence in Brandon Staley to coach the team well and for the offense to rank among the best in the league. It will be interesting to see if the Chargers can sustain their early season success, but I do not see any reason currently for them to slow down.