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Chargers Roundtable: Dwight Freeney lost for the season

The Bolts from the Blue staff discuss what the Chargers defense has to do to overcome the loss of Dwight Freeney.

Jeff Gross

Howdy, gents. As you're all well aware, the Chargers placed Dwight Freeney on IR earlier this week after the veteran linebacker suffered a torn quadriceps in the win against the Cowboys on Sunday. Give us your thoughts on what this defense has to do in the wake of that injury. Okay? Let's roll.

Superduperboltman :

First of all, Dwight Freeney wasn't a Charger last year and the defense up-front wasn't terrible. Since Melvin Ingram is still out, getting him back and healthy is a priority. Thankfully, Shaun Phillips is no longer wasting pass rush and I'm actually thankful Larry English is still on the team. He's more effective as a pass rusher. PFF had Phillips at a pathetic -16.2 overall grade last year, and although this year he's done better in Denver, it does no good to us now. I guess it's up to Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes to play as well or better than last year, and the inside linebackers to blitz well. The secondary scares me because they look as bad as last year and their poor play did little to help the pass rush work. As much crap as John Pagano gets, I think he could barely do better given the circumstances (e.g., a secondary that can't cover and a pass rush that gets no pressure). The Chargers lost about 4 games last year because the offense couldn't put up points when the defense played well enough to win (Denver and Cleveland are obvious ones, and then pick any two of Tampa bay, Baltimore and Cincy), so the defense just needs to do enough to get a few stops the rest of the year in order for the team to have a shot at the playoffs. In a nutshell, with the loss of Freeney, I think the defense needs just one thing: The front seven to play as well or better than last year when they didn't have Freeney and an effective Shaun Phillips.

That loss to Cleveland still makes me angry. Thanks a lot, Richard Meachum. Moving on...

SDNativeinTX :

I am not all that certain the Bolts need to do anything to bolster the pass rush. My belief is that the team needs to develop the defensive responses to control a modern NFL offense.

The offensive evolution we are seeing in the league is as profound as the Air Coryell and Bill Walsh "West Coast" offenses were in the late 70's and 80's. This evolution, like the last one 30 years ago, has come about because of rule changes and a new breed of QB. The defenses eventually evolved to compensate with the Tampa 2, designed to deal with the Air Coryell system by removing the deep read and the 3-4 defense to deal with the short passing game.

So what is the response? False information being fed to the QB pre-snap. Let a guy follow the motion man (indicating man-to-man) and then drop into a zone. Let a QB do all of his pointing and yelling and then quickly switch up your defensive alignment as the play clock winds down. Perhaps incorporate elements of a 3-3-5 defense. (Has anyone noticed how the Saints are using Kenny Vacarro this year?). At the snap, give a QB a false read with the first step of a DE or ILB.

Against mobile QB's, do not get up field as fast as you can. Instead, do what some teams have done against Wilson and Kaepernick - form a wall with your D-line, cutting off a run and making him look for a receiver to get open. Be judicious with blitzes up the middle with a SS of ILB. Train your D-line to jump for the chance of tipping or knocking down a pass. Use your fast linebackers to jump slant, drag, and dig routes in the 3-7 yard zone. And always, always, always, make the tackle, go for the strip, look for the tipped pass and go for the INT. Dick LeBeau may have proven himself well ahead of his time with the zone blitz.

I always enjoy when Robert drops knowledge about NFL history. Good stuff.

Nick Shepherd :

Personnel wise, they're in trouble. Freeney was the only edge-rusher the Chargers could count on to win 1v1 battles with any sort of consistency. To adjust there will have to be scheme adjustments to create any sort of pass rush; vanilla defense just is not going to cut it. One adjustment I'd like to see is to blitz Donald Butler off the edge more. The personnel mix seems to support this: With Te'o back and Walker proving at least adequate at ILB, Butler can be moved around and present the matchup nightmare that he has the potential to be.

In the past two years, Butler has blitzed off the edge at times and has shown that he can do it effectively. Along with Jarrett Johnson's ILB-ish skill set, this can be used to present offenses with looks where Butler lines up initially at ILB, JJ at OLB and then they switch before or immediately after the snap.

Don't believe me Butler can hack it off the edge?

Player A on a shit knee:
40 yard dash time: 4.62 seconds
Height: 6' 1" (1.85 m)
Weight: 242
35 bench reps at 225
32 5/8" Arm Length

Player B:
40 yard dash time: 4.48 seconds
Height: 6' 1" (1.85 m)
Weight: 244
28 reps at 225
33" Arm Length

Player A is Donald Butler on an injured knee and Player B is Dwight Freeney. We know Freeney is much more of a speed rusher, and that his spin move is deadly. Butler is strong as an ox and has the arm length to create separation from tackles.

This isn't a fix-all: The Bolts will have to hold on and grit their teeth until Ingram comes back. I'm hopeful that scheme and personnel can help to make up for the fact that the Chargers simply do not have an edge-rusher of Freeney's caliber.

I'm a big fan of the blind player comparisons. Always such a great way to get a point across.

Kevin Grauel :

Obviously, there is no way of replacing the production of Freeney. He was responsible for 18 of the team's 67 pressures on the quarterback, just over 25%. It will be up to the coaches to maximize the production from the players they have on the roster. Liuget and Reyes are now the team's best pass-rushers even though they have not been playing to their ability so far. Pagano would be wise to line them up in a gap and do what they do best and try to shoot the gaps with their quickness. They should be able to generate some quick pressure up the middle this way.

They will have to be more creative as well. Different blitzes and disguised coverages could help a little. The best thing that could happen at this point is the team healing. With Shareece Wright and now possibly Derek Cox injured, the secondary that was already thin is now depleted. There is no replacing Freeney, but the Chargers have a defense capable of improving if they can get healthier.

So glad to see Kevin make his first appearance here. Kevin is also a contributor to Pro Football Focus, which might be my favorite website during football season, after BFTB, of course. By the way, the PFF premium membership is well worth it, folks. (Kevin, I'll expect to receive my check in the mail in a week or so, okay?)

jkvandal :

I would agree with most of the other gents that Liuget and Reyes are going to have to step up, but also Cam Thomas. If the Bolts have any hope of slowing down Peyton in Denver, it is going to have to be with an inside pass rush. Manning gets the ball out too quickly for the outside pass rush to get there, Pagano needs to figure a way to get the pressure up the middle.

Also, the secondary is going to have to step up. To manufacture a pass rush, the team will have to blitz more often, and the secondary will have to win their battles to give the blitz time to get to the QB.

This is all great in theory, but I just don't think the team has the talent to make this happen...and I don't mean just the players. Pagano has shown flashes of creativity, but he needs to realize he's under evaluation and needs to break open his whole bag of tricks. I think it will take some impressive defensive performances with this weakened roster to save his job...the second half in Dallas was a good start.

Great stuff, jkvandal, as always. As an aside, I have a nice little corner picked out in my house to huddle in when the Chargers play the Broncos this season. I recommend you make similar preparations. Ugh.

Jerome Watson :

Collapse a side.

No pass rush specialist behind a two gap scheme equals a pee wee defense. If John Pagano is right in saying there is no difference between the 34 and 43, then he should have no issues lining 94, 91 and 76 over a tackle, guard and center, respectively, to the wide side of field. This won't necessarily equal sacks but it keeps the pocket muddied and forces offenses to run away from or around the three and eventually into numbers (where 56, 29, an OLB and 32 should be).

Although 91 and 94 hasn't made the most of their opportunities with 93 suited up thus far, it's every bit essential that John Pagano does everything in his power to keep them in as many one on one situations as possible.

With 91 and 94 pinning their ears back on every play, I'd bet more positives than negatives would surface.

Find out an offenses run tendency, collapse that side and go from there.

HEY! Look who it is! The poll at the end of this post is probably just not even going to be fair now. Anyway, good to have you, Jerome. Come back often.

David Marver :

I think the rest of the guys have covered the (really) obvious answers: Liuget and Reyes need to take the step forward we expected, Pagano needs to mix it up more and adapt to the modern passing game the NFL has morphed into, the Chargers need to find a way to create more pressure, etc. I'm going to go a different route here, though I think it can have just as big an impact as the others mentioned.

I'm putting what needs to happen squarely at the feet of Manti Te'o. Telesco traded up and used a 2nd round selection to select a middle linebacker when everyone else on planet earth thought the Bolts needed more offensive line and secondary help. We've all seen the Chargers o-line depth and secondary cost them games already in 2013, so pardon me for questioning the wisdom of the Te'o pick thus far. After all, he has barely seen the field, having rotated with Reggie Walker in just one game.

If Te'o can even give some semblance of quality ILB play, it will give Pagano more reason to use Donald Butler in pass rushing roles since it won't be creating another weak link on defense while trying to make up for another. I don't buy that Te'o needs to be weened into the starting position; on the contrary, middle linebackers tend to have an impact in the NFL quicker than most other positions.

If Te'o becomes a liability, the Chargers will basically be weak in pass rush, weak up the middle, and weak in the secondary. It won't matter how much Liuget and Reyes progress: You can't be weak in that many defensive areas and succeed in the NFL.

It may sound unfair to put this much pressure on him in his second game, but Telesco spent a good amount on him when we had more glaring weaknesses that have already proven costly. He needs to perform well now if the Chargers want to avoid having one of the worst defensive units in 2013.

Yeah, Manti Te'o sure was invisible in his first game. (Sorry. I'll let myself out...)

John Gennaro :

Damn, Marver really knows how to push a narrative, doesn't he? "Te'o has barely seen the field" because he's been injured, and he "rotated with Reggie Walker" because he's a rookie that hasn't played a game speed in two months. It makes sense for them to work him in slowly.

As for the "Move Donald Butler to OLB" talk. I see the logic, I do, but there's not a chance of it happening. Pagano isn't going to want to move his best player to a new position in the middle of the season, and Butler could probably argue that the team is doing it as a way to drive down his value (seeing as how he's a free agent this offseason). Leave the superstar where the superstar is.

Now, as for how to replace Dwight don't. You can't. (thank you, everyone, for not mentioning Shawne Merriman) The way I look at it, there's two things you could do.

  1. Sign/Trade to try and increase talent on the defense to offset the loss. This doesn't necessarily meaning Telesco would have to go out and get a pass rusher, but maybe a cornerback or a Safety that could buy the pass rushers an extra second to get to the QB (or maybe someone like Richard Seymour that could improve the overall talent of the defensive line).
  2. Sit and spin. Basically, "Deal with it." This is the route I suspect the Chargers will take, with this season being a write-off for the new coach and GM anyway. Remember when we all agreed that the most important aspect of the 2013 Chargers was simple evaluation? Well, plug in Larry English where Dwight Freeney was, sign Thomas Keiser, and continue evaluating. Hope for wins, but understand that 2013 is not the goal. The goal is, and always has been, to be a playoff contender in 2014.

In the second scenario, John Pagano gets the shaft. His defense, already lacking in talent or depth, loses quite a bit of both. While wins may not mean much to the likes of McCoy, Telesco, Whisenhunt or Reich, Pagano's being evaluated along with the players and needs his defense to pull out a few impressive performances. Not sure if he's still around in 2014, and I'm not sure if anyone cares.

I also think the team has come up with a formula for winning without a stout defense: Ball control. In both victories, they've held the ball for long periods of time in the second half. I expect them to try to do that each week, relying on their offense to bail out the defense.

First of all, you wouldn't be reading this post if someone would have seriously mentioned Shawne Merriman as an option, because I would have thrown my computer out the nearest window upon reading it. Anyway, they do say that the best defense is a good offense. Good point, bossman.

Andrew Tschiltsch :

With or without Freeney, this defense has been getting torched. Luckily, the revitalization of the offense means that the defense hasn't had to be amazing for the Chargers to win games.

That said, I'd like to see the defense focus on creating turnovers. Even if they're being scored on a decent amount of the time, the defense can win some games for the Chargers by making plays late in the game (CREZDON BUTLER!), and handing the ball back to the offense.

Apparently Andrew always likes to be last but not least. Strategic move? Maybe. Anyway, that's all we have for this week. As always, remember to vote below and tell us what you think in the comments.