Will the San Diego Chargers defense be better in 2013?

USA TODAY Sports

John Pagano heads into his second year as Defensive Coordinator of the San Diego Chargers with a lot of talent, but not a ton of depth. Can he get more out of them this season than he did in 2012?

Yesterday, we predicted who would be the breakout player on the 2013 San Diego Chargers. Today, we preview the defense.

The defense has seen 4 coordinators in the past 5 years, and has been up and down in each of those years as far as performance goes. Instead of going off of total yards, which can be highly skewed, I'll show you how the defense has performed based on 2 factors: Their DVOA (explained here) which takes into account the situation of each play per Football Outsiders. The second factor is how the team did on defense per Pro Football Focus. What they do is grade each player on each play, then add up each players grades to form a cumulative grade for the team (how they grade is explained here.)

I also think it's important to judge a defense based on how many yards per play they give up, as opposed to "total yards." So that will be included, too.

Year Rank FO Rank PFF YPP/Rank DC
2012 18 18 5.2/11 Pagano
2011 29 23 5.8/25 Manusky
2010 7 14 4.6/2 Rivera
2009 23 29 5.2/14 Rivera
2008 22 26 5.4/19 Cotrell/Rivera

As you can see, the defense has been consistently below average over the last 5 years. Last year, the defense was exactly that, below average. Even when it mattered the most, they were at their worst, ranking 29th in the league in 3rd down conversions allowed. I won't say it was all the fault of the defense. They did play roughly 200 more plays than the offense, so fatigue played a part.

What can we take away from this chart? The improvements Rivera showed from year one to year two, that's what many fans are hoping Pagano can do in 2013. There are already areas that he's showed improvement on based on some looks that he's shown in the preseason, and he'll have to continue to diversify his blitz/coverage looks to keep offenses off balance, something he struggled with mightily last year.

Aggressiveness

Last year Pagano blitzed 37.2% of the time, which was the second most in the NFL. The issue wasn't the frequency of the blitzes being called, it was the blitz in itself, or the coverage behind it. At times, Pagano would have the perfect blitz called but, for whatever reason, he'd have the defensive backs playing so far off that it would negate the good call he had made.

We've already seen that change this year. More often than not on passing downs, both corners were rolled up in press man looks. I'm not sure whether he has more confidence in this year's duo than last year, or whether it's coming from a higher up voice and he's was told to do so. Either way, it should make the defense better, by forcing tighter windows for the opposing quarterback to throw to.

Since the goal when you bring pressure isn't to solely get sacks, but to get the ball out of the quarterbacks hand quickly, you should always have your cornerbacks rolled up in coverage, especially when the majority of the time they have safety help over the top.

Formations/Personnel

This was another big issue last year that looks like Pagano has taken steps towards fixing, based off some looks in the preseason, but he hasn't gotten there all the way. We won't get into how he used Melvin Ingram so horribly wrong in 2012, but I will talk about how predictable he was. On passing downs, you knew it was going to be Corey Liuget on the right, Kendall Reyes on the left, with either Ingram or Jarret Johnson or Larry English lined up to their outside. Every. Single. Time. That predictability made it incredibly easy for opposing offenses to game plan for third down situations.

When it came to blitzing, Coach Pagano loved to blitz up the middle. He has a go-to blitz where both inside linebackers "stunt". The design is set up with the hope that an offensive lineman picks up the first inside linebacker and the second linebacker comes free. Early in the preseason, we've seen that blitz, but we've also seen defensive backs blitz from everywhere. Whether it's pressure off the edge, or Eric Weddle coming from up the middle, I think Pagano has worked on making it much harder for the quarterback to figure out where the pressure is coming from pre-snap.

Last thing I want to touch on, and it might be a shot in the dark. Hear me out on this...

If the Chargers are in need of an edge rusher opposite Dwight Freeney, is Donald Butler not the best option? I think Pagano has already taken a huge step on 3rd downs, in putting Weddle in the box to take away intermediate routes. How fearsome of a pass rush would it be to have Butler, Liuget, Reyes, Freeney from right to left? That's when he can get creative with his blitz packages and dial up even more pressure. Just a thought, Butler's proven to be a consistent pass rusher, and I know he's athletic enough to win the edge.

Turnovers

Moving on, winning the turnover battle is more about luck than anything else. I do think that if you play sound, assignment football, that your odds increase to get turnovers, but there's no way to really force turnovers. They're fickle.

For example, take the Arizona Cardinals the past two years. In 2012, they had the 6th highest DVOA defensively, and were also 4th in the NFL in creating turnovers. Rewind to 2011, where they were 20th in DVOA, and 27th in turnovers, coincidence? Hardly.

The downside to the Chargers cornerbacks being more aggressive and in press coverage where they can jump routes is that they will be more susceptible to big plays.

Expectations

Now let's get into what the rest of the staff thinks. Personally, with another year under his belt, much like Rivera had, I think Pagano gets much more aggressive. I also think the addition of Weddle in the box on passing downs helps the Chargers become better in defense in 2013. Butler would be a great addition as a pass rusher on a consistent basis, but there's still a lot to work with here, barring injuries. I am a little worried about what happens if Bront Bird sees extended playing time, but with Weddle lurking around the line of scrimmage now in his new role, I'm more comfortable than ever. I see this as a top 12 defense.

Nick Shepherd

The defense will be drastically improved. I look at basically every position 1-11 and I see either an All-Pro-esque player like Weddle, Liuget or Freeney, someone that can't possibly be worse than the trash we threw out there last year like Spikes, Jammer and Cason-as-badly-as-he-was-misused (his official name), or a promising young player like Wright, Te'o or Reyes.

Where it gets scary is depth. If Liuget, Cox, Wright or Weddle get hurt, this unit could be really, really bad.

Really, it all depends on Pagano. If he's willing to mix it up, throw different looks: blitzes, coverages, personnel, etc. at offenses they could be very, very good. If we are going to run a soft cover-3 roll/shell on every 3rd down, we'll suck again!

Superduperboltman

I see this defense improving ever so slightly. The front seven is a small improvement, but the secondary is still a question mark to me. Weddle is a MONSTER, but there are ways to avoid monsters. While I have some faith in Shareece Wright and Derek Cox, their success is not affected by how much I believe in them. Cox has talent demonstarted by his days in Jacksonville, and Wright has teased us with good preseasons, but not enough to know what they bring to the table. If they can be marginally better than their predecessors, it might be enough for this defense to be a top ten unit.

Manti Te'o can't be slower than Takeo Spikes, and Dwight Freeney on a bad ankle is better than Shaun Phillips. Shaun Phillips with bad ankle is better than Shaun Phillips, actually, because he'd likely be benched for someone more effective. Corey Liuget was my highest rated palyer last year on the defensive front. If he improves even a little bit from last year, we're looking at one of the NFL's best lineman. Kendall Reyes could be a beast if he improves just a bit over last year.

Finally, if Melvin Ingram comes back this season and has an impact, we could see a defense that for 2014 would easily be a top 10 unit. The potential is ridiculously high. It's up to Señor Pagano to make it work, and I hope he does.

Jason Peters

By traditonal yardage measurement, the San Diego defense finished 9th in the league last year. According to DVOA, the Chargers were 18th in defenisve efficiency. Assuming the defensive line can stay healthy and the corners can play to their potential, I can easily see this unit being a top 10 defense this season. A few key injuries, and this seems like a defense that would rank around 20. I think this team will be improved over last year, but there is a high variance with the way things could end up.

SDNativeTX

I am concerned about Nose Tackle, the secondary, and overall depth. Several of our opponents play no-huddle scheme and savvy offensive coordinators will pick up on being able to wear down this defense. Another problem I see are the mobile QB's on the schedule. Seeing Wilson escape and get positive yardage on the 1's was not encouraging. If the offense specializes in ball control and time of possession, that could help the unit significantly.

With that said, Liuget, Reyes, Butler, and Weddle gives the team playmakers and difference makers that will keep them competitive in a lot of ball games. The loss of Freeney, Weddle, one of the starting CB's, or Liuget for any significant time would be a disaster, putting this defense at #20-25. Overall, I see this as being a middle of the pack defense, 14th overall, plus or minus two spots. I agree with the need to throw some differnet looks at offenses on 3rd down. With a lack of quality back-ups, it will be imperative for this defense to get off the field on 3rd downs and not allow sustained drives.

Jeff (sliderockmpc)

Depth is the biggest issue I can see for this unit. The starters in the front 7 should all be at least league average (save for English on passing downs), and in the cases of Liuget, Reyes, Freeney, and Butler...above average. Te'o being out hurts the defense, because with his smarts and instincts, he has a chance to be what Stephen Cooper was for so long-ask Peyton Manning how much he loved facing the Chargers when Cooper was QBing the defense.

The secondary, save for Weddle, makes me nervous, although I like what I've seen from Wright, and Cox's play against Larry Fitzgerald was encouraging. The secondary needs the front seven to be the Top 10 unit it's capable of being when everyone's healthy and productive.

This should be about a top 10-15 defense overall when healthy, otherwise, if injuries hit any of the starters for an extended period of time, they'll be in the bottom 3rd of the league. I think they'll be top-12 against the run, and probably in the 18-22 range against the pass.

Andrew Tschiltsch

While most are not forecasting 2013 season may not be the most successful Chargers season, I am very excited to watch this defense as I think there are games where they will flash top 10 potential. Besides the obvious studs like Weddle and Butler, the defensive line has an opportunity to impress with youngsters Reyes and Liuget anchoring the line. I have no idea what to expect out of the cornerbacks this year but having two new starters probably means it'll be better than last year, so that's a postive sign, right?

However, like the rest of the Chargers, the depth behind the first string defense is scary. I've read some good things about Kwame Geathers, and will be watching him closely given the importance of the nose tackle to the 3-4 defense. Cam Thomas improved greatly last year, so if he and Geathers can form a formidable rotation in the middle of the defense, the 2013 Chargers will be fun to watch on at least on side of the ball.

John Gennaro

Everyone seems to be on the same page here. The starters are good, the depth is an issue.

If I were Mike McCoy or John Pagano, I'd roll the dice. This defense is very talented and very young. Let's have the starters try to take every defensive snap. Only sub out the starters when they're actually injured. Then, try to balance it with an offense that can score a lot of points while also keeping the defense off the field.

All you would need for it to work out is a normal amount of luck. Dwight Freeney goes down halfway through the season? That's just when Melvin Ingram is slated to return! Kendall Reyes gets injured? Well, Sean Lissemore can't be any worse than Vaughn Martin was, and the front seven wasn't awful for the first half of 2012. Manti Te'o can't get on the field? Good thing Takeo Spikes is still in shape.

The only way this team is going to do anything is if the defense plays its starters a lot, almost exclusively. If they do that, I think the defense will either be a huge improvement or a total catastrophe.

We've told you what we think, now tell us what you think. How much are you worried about depth? How good can this defense be? Do we overestimate or underestimate anyone?

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