Three years ago, the Los Angeles Chargers were in need of some help on both sides of the ball, but especially on defense. And they were searching for a new head coach. They didn’t have to look far to find Brandon Staley, who was coming off a terrific season as the Los Angeles Rams’ defensive coordinator.
L.A. finished the 2020 season having allowed the fewest yards and points in the NFL, and Staley received a lot of credit for bringing his Vic Fangio-style scheme with him and putting players like Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and more in position to succeed. With the Chargers’ defense having taken a significant step backward despite being loaded with talent, the team identified Staley as the one who could maximize it.
Things have not worked out that way at all. Three years into Staley’s tenure in Los Angeles, the Chargers’ defense looks worse than ever. And that’s despite the team’s repeated efforts to fortify the base of talent with infusions from the draft, free agency, and in trades.
Prior to the 2021 season, the Chargers drafted Asante Samuel Jr. When that wasn’t enough, they went all out in 2022: they splashed the pot for J.C. Jackson, Austin Johnson, Sebastian Joseph-Day, Bryce Callahan, Kyle VanNoy, and Morgan Fox in free agency, traded for Khalil Mack, and drafted J.T. Woods and Ja’Sir Taylor. They also extended Derwin James. Again, it didn’t work. So this offseason, they signed Eric Kendricks and drafted Tuli Tuipulotu. It still didn’t work. A few weeks into the season, they traded Jackson away, admitting defeat on the biggest free-agent signing of the Staley era.
After all this maneuvering, and with Staley calling the defense, the Chargers have what looks like a bottom-five-to-10 defense at best. They rank 23rd in FTN’s DVOA against the run and 28th against the pass. They’ve forced opponents to punt at the 23rd-highest rate in the league, per Tru Media. They have gotten a three-and-out less often than all but three other defenses. They continually give up explosives: opponents have gained 10 or more yards on 23.5% of their plays and 20 yards or more on 7.5%. Both of those figures are the second worst among NFL defenses.
The Chargers will try to fix things and halt a two-game losing streak when they play host to the Chicago Bears on Sunday night (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC, stream on fubo).
They continue to have massive issues stopping the run, largely because they cannot win up front. According to FTN, they are 22nd in opponent’s Adjusted Line Yards, which assigns credit in the run game based on a percentage of yards gained. They’re also 22nd in the league in yards before contact per carry. Ball-carriers too often reach the second or even third level of the defense before they get hit, so even though the Chargers have been a pretty good tackling group, they are still getting gashed on the ground.
That would be bad enough, but it’s been compounded this year by a pass defense that has taken a massive step backward. The defense is designed to take away big plays, but has given up the single-highest rate of explosive passes per dropback in the NFL, according to Tru Media. They can’t get pressure, ranking 25th in the share of dropbacks on which they have generated a sack, hit or hurry despite employing Joey Bosa and the aforementioned Khalil Mack.
In other words, this is a defense that is good at almost virtually nothing. They don’t stop the run. Opponents throw the ball all over them. They give up big plays. They don’t force punts. They allow opponents to sustain drives. And they do all this despite paying more money to defensive players than almost any other team in the league. That’s just about as bad as it gets. They are lucky to face a team starting a quarterback who was starting for Division II Shepherd University last year (Tyson Bagent of the Bears) and they get the Jets next week. But over the second half of the season the Chargers have games against each of the Lions, Ravens, Bills and Chiefs. That’s less than ideal. If things don’t change, fast, on this side of the ball, it seems more likely than not that someone else will be entrusted to fix them next year.