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A Deeper Look at the Chargers’ Start to the Season

It’s been a long seven weeks for the Los Angeles Chargers. The start to the season was expected to be difficult, but just not this difficult. Prior to the season, the Chargers’ expected most difficult games would be against the Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens. The Browns and Ravens lived up to those expectations, but what was not expected was how good the Dallas Cowboys would be. While there were expected struggles early in the season, the Chargers are doing better than expected, sitting at 4-2 with big wins over the Browns and Chiefs.

Unfortunately, the Chargers got blown out in their last game before the bye against the Ravens, 34-6. This bye week could prove useful to the Chargers, though. The blowout against the Ravens helped highlight some glaring issues with the team to address. The Chargers have some very damaging issues, such as their terrible run defense and ineffective special teams. However, since they were winning, there was no real reason for them to address it. The blowout against the Ravens, therefore, serves as a wake-up call. The Chargers need to address these issues as soon as possible, or they won’t be able to make a deep playoff run.

With that said, how are the Chargers doing so far? What are they doing well, and what do they need to improve on? This is a deeper look at the Chargers’ start to the season.

What is Going Well

The Pass Offense


Justin Herbert has not lost any momentum from his fantastic rookie season. (Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)

Justin Herbert is continuing to shine in his sophomore season, somehow improving on his miraculous rookie campaign. Herbert, who is having a Mahomes-esque start to his career, is firmly in the MVP conversation for 2021. In 6 games, Herbert has thrown 161 completions on 246 attempts for 1,771 yards and 14 touchdowns, while only throwing 4 interceptions. With Herbert at the helm of the offense, the Chargers’ passing game will continue to be a massive threat for opposing defenses.

Herbert’s ability to maintain excellence, though, is due in large part to the excellence of his weapons. Wide receiver Keenan Allen has been magnificent, as per usual, with 39 receptions, 419 yards and a touchdown. Running back Austin Ekeler continues to prove that he is an elite playmaker in the passing game, with 27 receptions, 242 yards and three touchdowns. However, the biggest contributor (and the most surprising) is wide receiver Mike Williams. Williams, deemed a “bust” by detractors, is the biggest threat in the Chargers’ arsenal. With 33 receptions, 498 yards and six touchdowns, Williams is proving that he was well worth the seventh pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Pass Defense

For all of the Chargers’ run defense woes, their pass defense is playing quite well. Through six games, the Chargers’ defense has allowed 1,211 yards and 9 touchdowns to opposing quarterbacks. That comes out to averages of 201.8 passing yards and 1.5 touchdowns per game. Add on the fact that the Chargers defense has intercepted quarterbacks 6 times, for an average of 1 per game, and the Chargers pass defense looks almost elite.

Derwin James is both the best player and leader of the Chargers defense, and hasn’t slowed down at all from past injuries. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

So what led to such a strong performance for the Chargers’ pass defense in the passing game? Well, a few things. The biggest factor is likely the return of Derwin James and drafting of Asante Samuel Jr. James was the do-it-all safety that immediately became the Chargers defense’s focal point during his 2018 rookie campaign. There were concerns that his level of play would deteriorate due to his past injuries, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Through 6 games, James has 50 tackles (35 solo), 1.5 sacks, 2 passes deflected, 2 forced fumbles, and an interception. He has an absurd lead over his teammates in tackles, having 15 more than the next highest (safety Nasir Adderley, 35). James is on a mission to prove that he is still a premier safety in the NFL.

Cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. is having quite a rookie campaign himself. When he was drafted, Samuel was expected to be a Day 1 starter, replacing Casey Hayward Jr., who left in the offseason to join the Las Vegas Raiders. Through 6 games, Samuel has 20 tackles (15 solo), 5 passes deflected, and 2 interceptions. He was voted the Pepsi Defensive Rookie of the Month in September thanks in large part to the efforts of passionate Chargers fans. Samuel is looking to live up to the team’s lofty expectations for him.

What is Not Going Well

The Run Defense

Nick Chubb (center) completely embarrassed the Chargers’ run defense in the Browns-Chargers game. (Harry How/Getty Images)

For every good thing said about the Chargers’ pass defense, an equally bad thing can be said about their run defense. To put it simply, the Chargers’ run defense is just terrible. The Chargers defense has allowed 975 rushing yards to opponents this season, which comes out to an average of 162.5 yards per game. That is good for the second-worst in the league. Only the Houston Texans allow more rushing yards.

Granted, there is some context necessary for these abhorrent stats. The Chargers have faced off against the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, and Dallas Cowboys so far this season. Those three teams are 1st, 3rd and 4th, respectively, in total rushing yards per game. That means that the terrible Chargers run defense has faced off against three of the best rushing offenses. It’s no wonder why the Chargers have such glaringly bad performances against the run.

So does that mean that the Chargers’ run defense is actually not as bad as they look? Maybe, maybe not. They were effective at shutting down the Las Vegas Raiders in the run, allowing only 48 yards on 18 carries. Granted, the Raiders are mediocre in the run game anyway, but this game showed the Chargers defense is at least capable of shutting down the run.

The Not-so-Special Teams

The Chargers’ special teams unit has been horrible so far this season. The only saving grace is punter Ty Long, who has been a solid punter throughout his career with the Chargers. Aside from Long, the special teams unit has been lackluster at best. Former Chargers kicker Tristan Vizcaino was a major source of frustration for Chargers fans on different social media platforms, such as Instagram and Twitter. Vizcaino made 6/7 field-goal attempts, good for a field goal percentage of 85.7%. However, the source of frustration regarding Vizcaino for fans was his extra-point attempts, in which he made only 10 of 15. At an extra point percentage of 66.7%, which is 34th among all active kickers in the NFL. Much to the excitement of Chargers fans on social media, the Chargers released Vizcaino on Tuesday, opting to sign talented free agent kicker Dustin Hopkins.

Another issue with the Chargers’ special teams unit was their return game. Former Chargers return specialist KJ Hill played decently, but there was much room for improvement. The Chargers were experiencing issues with field position. Too often, the Chargers’ offense would start their drives deep in their own territory, leaving them to try and claw their way down the field. This was especially apparent in the game against the Ravens, where the Chargers started half of their drive within their own 15-yard line. The Chargers decided to improve this by releasing KJ Hill and signing former All-Pro return specialist Andre Roberts.

Summary

The Chargers had modest expectations for the 2021 NFL season. With a new coaching staff led by rookie coach Brandon Staley, it was unclear how well the team would perform. However, the Chargers started to win. They were winning games that they were fully expected to lose. The two games they lost, against the Cowboys and Ravens, were games they were also expected to lose. Staley is having a wonderful first campaign, already showcasing his confidence and aggressive play-calling.

Arguably the biggest issue with previous head coach Anthony Lynn was that he was too conservative with his play-calling, often opting for the “safe route”. In comparison, Staley is willing to make risky play calls if the potential benefit outweighs the risk. For Chargers fans, this is preferable because it shows that Staley tries to win rather than tries not to lose”. Sure, his gambits sometimes fail, which can be disappointing, but NFL fans tend to prefer their team tries and fails over never trying at all. One thing’s for sure: Brandon Staley and Co. have been extremely promising so far. Chargers fans can look to their future with excitement and pride. This has been a deeper look at the Chargers’ start to the season.




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