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Can New Blood Revitalize Brandon Staley’s Defense in Los Angeles?

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The moment the Chargers’ 2021 playoff hopes ended changed the course of the offseason. Remember Brandon Staley’s timeout? The one before third and fourth in an overtime tie with the Raiders in Week 18? The Chargers wanted to make sure their best defensemen were on the field for what would almost certainly be a Raiders game. But it didn’t matter. Vegas running back Josh Jacobs slammed 10 yards out; The Raiders made the playoffs while the Chargers went into an absolute frenzy trying to fix one of the NFL’s worst defenses.

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That the Chargers failed to stop the streak at the most critical moment of the season came as no surprise. Los Angeles ranked 28th in yards per allowed carry (4.0) and allowed rushing over 100 yards in 12 of 17 regular season games, including a 174-yard riot from the Raiders in Week 18. Only two teams allowed more yards per game (138.9).

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The severity of the team’s defense of the run cost the unit across the board. While the pass defense was closer to the middle of the pack (12th in EPA clearance allowed), the Chargers defense ranked 31st in success rate allowed on early down runs according to, which is usually put the defense at a disadvantage with a third down. , and enemy attacks were successful in 50% of cases. Only Houston, Washington, and Atlanta have experienced their first falls at higher rates in 2021.

Star power wasn’t a problem. Guard Joey Boza and safety Derwin James, two of the NFL’s best players in their respective positions, each made the Pro Bowl, but the Chargers struggled to stop just about everyone, finishing 24th in the EPA for games allowed by season’s end. The problem was the severe lack of proven NFL talent surrounding Boza and James, so Staley during his second offseason and longtime general manager Tom Telesco prioritized adding not only the best players, but players who would also be better suited to defend Staley. relies heavily on dual security schemes and complex aisle coverage schemes. This means, however, that there is often one less defender in the penalty area designed to stop a run. Staley isn’t about to give up his basic defensive principles to load the box, so the answer must lie in more talented inside players.

“All of the guys that we have acquired through trade or free agency are proven NFL players,” Staley said last Friday. “As far as what I expect from them, I expect us to play as a team defense. Last year, this was the weakness of our football team. And I don’t expect it to be like this [this year]. That’s why all these guys are here.”

It all started with the biggest recruit: Khalil Maka. The Chargers traded a 2022 second-round pick (48th overall) and a 2023 sixth-round pick to acquire a three-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowl quarterback from the Chicago Bears just before the free trade began in March. agency. believing that Mack is a fit not only because of his proven passing ability, but because of what Staley believes he can also provide as a running back. He was a top-five cornerback in the NFL, playing over 200 Pro Football Focus defensive snaps in each of his first seven seasons in the league. He will replace Uchenna Nwosa, who took over 41st in PFF Defense Rating (56.1) last year.

“We’re looking for playmakers, and we’re also looking for style of play,” Staley told reporters at the time. “As well as [Mack] brings both of these things. It brings playability. He also brings a style of play that we truly believe in. And I didn’t think that was enough for us. [in 2021]. Not even close.”

The Chargers are looking to a rebound season off Mack at age 31 as he recovers from a foot injury that ended his season in Chicago last year. He couldn’t choose a destination when Chicago decided to trade him, but joining the Chargers could give both the team and the player what they desire – an improvement on the field for the Chargers, and for Mack a real shot at success. Super Bowl for the first time in his career.

“Ultimately, we want to get to the Super Bowl and win it,” Mack said on Wednesday. “And that’s the only thing on my mind at this point in my career.”

Mac is getting the buzz as the bigger name, but Sebastian Joseph-Day could be just as important to Staley’s plan to fix his team’s biggest problem. In March, he signed a three-year, $24 million contract with the Chargers to reunite with Staley, for whom he played with the Rams in 2020. PFF run stops (35) and run stop percentage (14.2 percent) in his only year in Staley’s defense. And according to Warren Sharp, the Rams’ early downrun defense ranked first in yards per allowed carry (3.0) with Joseph-Day on the field and 27th (4.7) when he was sidelined. Before tearing his pectoral muscle last October, Joseph-Day led every defensive tackle in the NFL. PFF run stops (18) and run stop percentage (15.8 percent).

The 2021 Staley Chargers had no one but Joseph-Day to secure a 3-4 front. Veteran Linval Joseph was 6ft 4ft 329lb but simply couldn’t break the line of scrimmage enough to make a positive impact on defense and finished the season in 59th place in the PFF defensive rating (49.8). ).

Now reunited with Staley, Joseph-Day will be paired with fellow free agent Austin Johnson, the 314-pound guard who is ending a year of his career with the Giants in which he played a career-high 664 defensive snaps and finished 10th in the rating. total number of stops (37) and percentage of stops (10.4%) on PFF. And more importantly, Johnson has played in every regular season game of his career over the past five years.

“For those two guys, when I saw we signed them, I was like, ‘Man, they’re amazing,’” Chargers center Corey Linsley, who was lining up opposite the new Chargers tackles, told reporters. camp on Monday. “Sebastian is a phenomenal nasal grip. He is definitely one of the best I have ever played against. For us to get him and Austin, that’s two huge pickups.”

Joseph-Day and Johnson ran with first-team defense during the first week of training camp and are expected to start inside Mack and Boza along the defensive line. Joseph-Day will replace Joseph on the nose, while Johnson will take the snap from Jerry Tillery and Christian Covington on defense. Tillery and Covington, like Joseph, were among the worst PFF defensemen in the NFL last season.

The three new players on the defensive line are the most significant changes, but not the only ones for Los Angeles. The team also entered 2022 with questions about the off-the-ball linebacker, and part of the answer should be another offseason with the same experience, versatility and physicality that Staley pursued Mack, Joseph-Day and Johnson.

Kyle Van Noy signed a one-year contract with the Chargers in May. He is already taking first-team representatives to the middle linebacker position, replacing Kenneth Murray, a former first-round pick who is recovering from ankle surgery. Paul for Van Noy’s role provides valuable depth in several defensive positions and the experience of a veteran who won two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots, but it’s not out of the question that he will retain his starting position as linebacker as he continues through camp. and in season.

“We are only at the beginning of the journey with Kyle. [Van Noy]”, Staley said on Friday. “And I think he is capable of a lot. We are going to use this training camp to find the best role for him. Luckily for us, he can play in many places. I really enjoyed working with this guy. This guy is really special.”

Van Noy, Murray and 2019 fourth-round pick Drew Tranquill will compete for the two starting off-the-ball linebackers in Staley’s defense. Murray struggled hard, even while healthy, for the first two years of his NFL career, and he won’t even have a chance to prove otherwise until he starts training again, which may only be three to five weeks later. Van Noy and Tranquill should be the favorites of the first week.

Investing in defense is an all-out push to ensure no running back runs away with their 2022 playoff bid. Boza is the only returning starter among the Chargers’ top seven to play more than 50 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. in 2021, a complete overhaul that is already drawing attention to the Chargers’ attack at camp.

Running back Austin Eckeler said on Friday he’s noticing the bigger bodies in the box and how the additions make it harder to manage football. And Keenan Allen sees a completely different unit.

“Defense already looks like a 360 team,” Allen said Thursday. “They kicked our ass today, which is good. Hopefully we can continue to develop it.”


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