A Lack of Talent Is Not Why The San Diego Chargers Struggled on Defense

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

Kyle Posey uses the Seattle Seahawks to highlight what they did right on defense in their Super Bowl, and how it shines a spotlight on what the San Diego Chargers did wrong on Defense in 2013.

Watching the Super Bowl really reaffirmed all my thoughts on what it takes to win. You need 11 athletes flying around, but playing in unison. I've beat the table to get more athletic on both sides of the ball, but when you watch Seattle, that's not what stands out the most. Before I get into what does, let's make it clear what my point is:

The Issue With the Chargers Defense is Not a Lack of Talent

The following chart is the top 15 guys on defense for both teams (based on what percentage of snaps they played.) Based on where they were drafted, the Chargers have the higher average of draft picks.

Table: Top 15 defensive players and their respective draft position
SEA Roster Draft Position Draft Position SD Roster
Cliff Avril 92 18 Corey Liuget
Michael Bennett UDFA 49 Kendall Reyes
Red Bryant 121 146 Cam Thomas
Chris Clemons UDFA 18 Melvin Ingram
Bobby Wagner 47 79 Donald Butler
K.J. Wright 99 38 Manti Te'o
Richard Sherman 154 UDFA Reggie Walker
Byron Maxwell 173 109 Jarret Johnson
Kam Chancellor 133 89 Shareece Wright
Earl Thomas 14 58 Richard Marshall
Walter Thurmond 111 50 Marcus Gilchrist
Malcolm Smith 242 37 Eric Weddle
Bruce Irvin 15 UDFA Jahleel Addae
Clinton McDonald 249 110 Darrell Stuckey
Brandon Mebane 85 UDFA Thomas Keiser

The average player that the Chargers drafted comes out to the 66th pick. Which is one of the top picks in the 3rd round. When you do the same for Seattle, the average comes out to the 118th pick. Which is the 20th pick in the 4th round. Are going to hit a home run on each pick? Of course not. This was just to give an idea that there is more than enough talent available on the defense.

Now, back to what's most impressive about Seattle. They're perfectionists. They don't make mistakes and they do every detail right. The defensive ends crash hard from the edge, the defensive tackles get heel depth and don't take themselves out of plays, linebackers always attack with the correct shoulder and tackle inside out, corners play with proper footwork and route recognition, and look back for the ball. Safeties have defined roles that put them in situations to maximize their skill sets.

They're all moving so fast, but at the same time they're in control. The Seahawks had just 1 missed tackle in the Super Bowl on 71 plays. During the season, Seattle as a team missed 78 tackles, or about once every 16 plays. My point here is it doesn't take talent to tackle. This is an effort/technique issue. Conversely, San Diego missed 103 tackles on the season, and on the first 3 drives in their last game versus Denver, San Diego missed 7 tackles.

Is this because there's a talent issue? Certainly not. 3 of those were by the best player on the defense. This leads me to my next point

Playing to the Strengths of Players

Seattle's safety Earl Thomas and San Diego's safety Eric Weddle are more similar than people think. Thomas is clearly faster, whereas Weddle is more instinctive. Both are the best in the game because of their versatility. Both are at their best when they're asked to play that deep center-field role, then come up from that spot and stop the run. How many times did you see Thomas within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage against Denver? Exactly. This year, Weddle might as well have worn 52 instead of 32, he was in the box that much.

It doesn't stop there. Let's take Seattle's two best pass rushers: Michael Bennett & Cliff Avril. Bennet plays a lot on the interior, Avril comes from off the edge. They're asked to come in and do what they do best: rush the passer. Over the last 4 games, each was asked to rush the passer 229 times, while playing the run just 90 times. This is what you do, you play your players to their strengths. Where am I going with this? Look no further than Kendall Reyes.

Out of college, Reyes played in an attacking 4-3 defense. His position was predominantly a "3 technique defensive tackle", where he was asked to do what he does best: be disruptive. He could pin his ears back, and cause havoc in the backfield. It was clear as day what Reyes' best trait was, quickness.

In his first full year as a starter, to put it mildly, Reyes struggled. Instead of using Reyes to his strength in a gap and allowing him to beat the lineman off the line and penetrate the line, Reyes was asked to line head–on with offensive lineman and control the gap to the left and right of him, allowing the linebackers behind him to make plays.

This would make sense if (a) you had linebackers athletic enough behind you to make these plays or (b) Reyes was exceptionally strong at the point of attack for this to work. As we've seen, neither (a) nor (b) was the case this season for San Diego. Yet, Reyes was still asked to do this through the year. In the playoff loss against the Broncos, Reyes played 27 snaps against the run, and 28 against the pass.

Instead of building the scheme to fit the players, John Pagano was trying to get the players to fit in his scheme; he had it exactly backwards.

Player Development is the Root of the Problem

Let's just stick with Reyes, who was in the running for one of the worst players on the defense this year, his play was truly that bad. Players usually take their biggest jump from year one to year two. But because Reyes isn't in a situation that best suits his skill set, his growth is hindered.

You also like to see growth in a player as the year goes on. Did we see that from anyone on the defense? We saw it from Jahleel Addae and Shareece Wright. Though, their improvement was more a product of them getting reps for the first time. Outside of those 2, no one else really grew as a player. This is because there aren't clearly defined roles. We know Reyes will get washed out against the run, that's fine, take him out so there's no opportunity for it to happen. Put in Lawrence Guy if you're not going to adjust.

My biggest point that I'd want you to take away from this isn't that "San Diego should be as good as Seattle because they have higher drafted players," it's not "John Pagano should be as good a play caller as Pete Carroll," those aren't my points at all. The point is there's more than enough talent on the field to where if that talent was maximized, San Diego could field a good defense. (And I am aware of the injuries, every team has those.)

Good coaching gets players to places they can't get themselves.

That's not happening in San Diego. It starts with Mike McCoy being more hands on the defensive side of the ball, it starts with Pagano having a plan and role for each individual, and preaching that plan to the assistants. We knew back in April this wouldn't be a rebuilding year, but if the lack of talent development and misuse of players on the defensive side continues, don't expect the playoffs anytime soon.

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