In 2012, the Chargers defense finished 9th in the NFL in total net yards allowed per game. That, in large part, was thanks to their rush defense that finished 6th in the NFL. Were the Chargers really that good last year? Seven different times last year the Chargers allowed 24 points or more. I know that number is also contributed to offensive turnovers and poor special teams, but there were many times when the defense struggled last year.
It's not rocket science, if teams know they can throw the ball on you, that's what they're going to do. Even if you don't agree with it(and I don't'), it's very telling when you let both your starting corners walk for next to nothing. Improvement was needed on the back end, and it was obvious why.
If it seemed like every game the Chargers were giving up big plays, it's because they were. Whether it was Quentin Jammer biting on a double-move and giving up a touchdown, or flat out getting beat because he couldn't keep up with the receiver. Then you had everyone's favorite Jamaican safety, biting on phantom play-action leaving gaping holes that even the best safety in football couldn't make up for. Then you had Antoine Cason, who astonishingly enough, was rarely instructed to play press coverage, would give up a 3rd & 6 route in front of him like it was an incentive in his contract.
As good as the run defense seemed to be last year, they weren't exactly the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. In half of the Chargers games last year, the defense gave up at least 115 yards. While those numbers should improve this year due to addition by subtraction, (looking at you #95 and Mr. Martin) it still should be noted that they gave up their fair share of chunk plays. There were games last year that really stood out to me(Bengals/Browns) and plays throughout the year where the Chargers really needed to stop the run, and couldn't.
If the Chargers want to sniff the playoffs next year, they must improve in every phase. Now, that doesn't mean they have to turn into the San Francisco 49ers to win games, but they'll need to get progressively better as the season goes on. There were 3 areas in particular where the Chargers really hurt themselves last year, and should primarily focus on fixing this coming season if they really want to take the next step in becoming a truly good defense.
- 3rd down defense
- Creating Pressure
- Forcing Turnovers
3rd Down Defense
The 3rd down defense of the Chargers in 2012 was about as good as the offensive line, but somehow gets swept under the rug and forgotten by fans. It was bad you guys, real bad. They were 29th in the league, and about 4 or 5 plays from being at the bottom of the barrel. If I had to describe the 3rd down defense in a word, it would be predictable. That's one of the reasons why I thought the Chargers really struggled last year on 3rd down. Whether it was rushing the same 4 from the exact same spot or leaving playing to tendencies, the offense knew what was coming and they took advantage.
How do you make an average secondary look good? You create pressure. Simple. You put your best players on the field and in a position to get after the quarterback. This didn't happen last year. Predictability comes into play here again. Corey Liuget, who's arguably the best pass rusher on the roster, didn't play more than 10 downs on the left side of the line last year. If you're going to bring 4, why not maximize your strength against the other teams weakness? Move him and Reyes around, line them up next to each other, change it up. The Von Millers' of the world are moving around snap to snap to keep the defense off balance, and that's what the Chargers should be doing, too.
Even with the decent amount of sacks(most overrated statistic in football)the Chargers put up last year, good for 11th best in the NFL, it still didn't feel like they generated much pressure. I wish there was a "meaningful" or "impact" sacks stat, that would clear up a lot of confusion on how much that said sack really meant to making a difference. Even with that number, there were too many instances where the opposing teams quarterback either had too much time to throw, or could get rid of it and not have to worry about the blitz. I put most of that blame on Pagano.
Why you ask? Well, like I touched on earlier you have to put your best players in to give yourself a chance to be the most successful. Far too many times early in the season were fans screaming at the TV as the opposing quarterback was sitting in the pocket making a PB&J while waiting for his receivers to come open as Melvin Ingram, Kendall Reyes, and Antwan Barnes were all on the bench.
The last issue on creating pressure is the biggest point I want to make, that few ever bring up. You can create pressure with your secondary. Not by blitzing, but by being in the face of receivers. This was another issue where Pagano failed to execute. Another occurence that happened all too often last year was that he would dial up a good blitz, but because he would have the corner playing so far off, it negates any quick pressure making for an easy completion and a first down. Playing press coverage and creating tight windows for the quarterback are just as important when you blitz as is getting after the quarterback.
This is what makes an average defense a good defense, and a good defense an elite defense. Creating turnovers. It's the name of the game. Yet, this was another area the team struggled in. While many people I've came across believe that recovering a fumble is proven luck, the Chargers can do a much better job in 2013 by getting there hands on the football and forcing some of their luck. Sack fumbles are not only literal drive killers, but they cause huge momentum swings. Of San Diego's 38 sacks last year, the Chargers only forced 7 fumbles, and recovered 3 of those, a small percentage when you think about how many times they got there(Note: The 3 recoveries came from Cassel & McElroy.)
The other area where the Chargers can really help themselves is getting their hands on more passes. Whether it's tipping more passes at the line of scrimmage, or breaking up more in the secondary, they really struggled in this area last year. The Chargers were below average in interceptions and passes defended in 2012. The lack of aggressiveness in the secondary was alarming, and that's a big reason I believe the starters from last year were let go.
Why They'll Be Better
Speaking of the corners, I believe this years starters in Derek Cox and Shareece Wright both will allow Pagano to play more press man. There's a slight difference in the two's game, Wright likes to get in your face and get his hands on you, while Cox likes to mirror the receiver, or as some call it "shadow and run." It's not as if Cason couldn't play up, because he could, but playing press coverage is both a strength of the two. Both also have shown enough speed to play man on a consistent basis. The 10 interceptions last year from the secondary was dreadful, with more aggressiveness from the secondary, and with even adequate safety play, that number should increase.
Pagano has the pieces now to get creative and dial up pressure. Reyes will play the whole season, Dwight Freeney is on board, Cam Thomas will get the bulk of the pass rushing snaps. Last year Pagano loved to blitz the inside linebackers, and as much flack as rookie Manti Te'o has gotten, he's an excellent blitzer. He and the pass rush as a whole are significantly upgraded from last year. With better players it'd be foolish not to expect better results. With a little bit of added creativity to the scheme, that shouldn't be an issue.
Everything ties into each other, by creating pressure you magnify your chances of creating turnovers or getting off the field on 3rd down. This upcoming year the Chargers will be counting on a handful on young guys to be impact starters. With the core players from last years defense still in place, this isn't a bad thing and they'll be in a great position to succeed. It's a big if, but if Gilchrist or Wright can make the adjustment in their first full season as starters and gradually get better as the season goes along; if Thomas and Reyes can take the next step similar to Liuget did in his sophomore season, this defense can be very, very good.