Last week I wanted to see how defensive coordinator John Pagano adjusted coming out of the bye week now that he had more weapons at his disposal. He made some great adjustments that ultimately led to the Chargers putting on their 3rd best performance(per DVOA) of the season. Let's look at some of the adjustments.
Getting off to a good start
The Chargers are the 30th ranked defense on 1st downs in the NFL. That leads to 3rd and short, which leads to conversions. Sunday, that wasn't the issue. If you take out the 2 big plays of 33 and 23 yards the defense averaged 2.2 yards per play on 1st down. That's incredible. It started up the middle and ended up the middle. Rookie NT Ryan Carrethers got the start and made his presence felt early. In the 1st quarter on 3 separate occasions he stood up the offensive lineman, shed the blocker, and made the tackle for a minimal gain. His run defense, in limited snaps, really helped pave the way for the linebackers behind him to make plays, and they did just that.
The aggression that Kavell Conner played with on the inside was a stark difference compared to what we're used to seeing at the position. Playing downhill, taking on fullbacks, even defeating blocks to finish plays.
Conner played out of his mind. Conner finished with 4.5 tackles with an average depth of tackle at 1.5 yards. He was also active in coverage, just a hair late on a few passes. He finished with 3 wins and 3 stops. An all around great game by him. When you have tone setters in the middle of your run defense, it shows. The Chargers had that against the Raiders on Sunday.
Getting your athletes on the field
With the direction the NFL has trended, spread offenses are the norm nowadays. The defense is at an extreme disadvantage because the rules favor the offense in almost every way. The only way that defenses can offset this advantage? Put your 11 best athletes on the field. You don't have to have "set positions" on the field. It's something Arizona has done and been very successful at. It's something San Diego did Sunday that led to plenty of success.
Because the team was mostly successful on 1st down, they were able to play a lot of their sub-package defense. At every level, the Chargers were better than their "base 3-4" defense. Jarret Johnson is a lights-out run defender that leaves it out on the field like very few Chargers do. As a pass rusher, he just doesn't have much to offer. Subbing him out for a hyper athlete like Jerry Attaochu was like night and day. Throw in another special athlete like Melvin Ingram on the other side(occasionally from the inside) and you have 2 edge rushers that are either going to be faster or quicker than the guy they're lined up across from. Both of their athleticism was on full display. Here are 2 plays from each. Whether it was Attaochu crossing the face of the tackle with pure speed to make a stop.
Or again winning with pure speed to make a run stop for the gain of 1.
Or Ingram lined up head up on the guard(!) winning with a spin move and causing an errant throw.
Or even Ingram winning with pure quickness.
The two combined for 7 wins, 1QB hit, and a sack. The disruption was there. Something that's been missing for most of the season. This takes the pressure off of Corey Liuget and Dwight Freeney as pass rushers. Pagano used these 4 as his main pass rushers in his sub-packages and it paid big dividends.
Another big insertion was the usage of Darell Stuckey. Pagano not only put Stuckey in, but used him as a box player to match up against tight ends and slot receivers at times. In the 3 previous games Oakland's tight end Mychal Rivera had a combined 20 catches. This game Stuckey did a good job of taking him away. The domino effect here is that the move allows Eric Weddle to do what he does, play centerfield and roam. Would you rather Weddle take away 1 player or an entire area of the field? Pagano chose the latter and it really helped the overall effectiveness of the defense.
Getting the right usage
The last big takeaway was the usage of players that had been underperforming. We all know Kendall Reyes and Donald Butler haven't played well. Now that there were options to replace both, the question was just how much would they play? Butler played exactly 50% of the snaps, which is his lowest total since the end of the 2011 season. In the run game, Butler still seemed to be second-guessing his reads. A play that stands out is a run play up the middle early in the 1st quarter. It's a run to Conner's side, Conner blows up the fullback and makes the tackle for a gain of 1. You look over and Butler is still bouncing side to side in the same spot as the snap. Butler did make a couple nice plays in the passing game, but it was good to see his usage lowered.
As far as Reyes' usage, looking at the numbers, it doesn't seem that different from the previous games. Playing 60% of the time, the difference is Reyes was never out there gasping for air because he was out of breath. Reyes would play a few plays, come out. He would sub in for Liuget in some of the sub-package formations, then come out. Reyes stayed fresh all game and that's probably why we saw the 2nd most productive game from him on the season. I get how maddening his missed sack was but the fact Reyes beat his man more times this game than he has combined in the last month should tell you this was the perfect usage for Reyes. Keep him fresh for the 2nd half, let Ricard Mathews play those run snaps, why not, he's good at it.
I'm a big believer in it's not "who you play it's how you play." The Chargers got some players back, made some adjustments, and played about as well as we've seen them the entire year on the defensive side. They played fast, the front 7 wasn't missing a bunch of tackles and they got off the field. If this is the rotation we see over the 2nd half of the season, the Chargers will have a chance to be in every game. That's all you can ask for.