I've been very critical of defensive coordinator John Pagano for the last year and a half. I think it's been warranted. The defense was a joke a year ago. This year, once it's been hot and cold. The reason it's so frustrating to watch is because we've seen stretches of games where the unit looks like a top 5 defense. Then there's entire games where they make Ryan Tannehill, Derek Carr, and Joe Flacco look like all-pro quarterbacks.
The last two weeks, though. Mannnnn. It's not like the Colts game from a year ago where we saw random successful blitzing. We are seeing consistent disguises in coverage and the blitzes finally have a point to them. Pagano isn't just blitzing both inside linebackers up the middle to blitz. We're seeing inside linebackers rush from the edge. We're seeing Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram line up inside. The rotation of 20 players on the defensive side has kept the players fresh. Pagano's recent creativity and game plans have led to the two best defensive performances under his tenure by far, in my opinion.
Putting players in a position to succeed
Let's start with Manti Te'o. I know most of you can't wait to play the "I told you so game" on Te'o. To be clear, last year he was bad. He was slow, he wasn't aggressive, wasn't physical and wasn't a good tackler. The Chargers used him in the "Takeo Spikes" role where he would have to take on guards and fullbacks. He's been in the playmaker role all his life and never really adjusted to the position. Te'o would try and dance around blocks, often hanging the linebacker next to him out to dry. The whole situation was bad. The last couple games Te'o has played on every passing down and last game he played all but 10 snaps. Why has Te'o been so much better?
His role has changed. He's now playing the weak inside linebacker position and Kavell Conner or Andrew Gachkar are now in the "thumper" role. Because the defensive line has played so well Te'o is able to run freely and make plays. He looks so much more comfortable in this role. His quickness has never been an issue (fastest short shuttle at his position in the draft), and he's now playing downhill instead of catching blocks (like Donald Butler is). A play that stuck out was a screen to the other side of the field. Te'o made a guard miss and tracked down the back for a gain of 3. He did miss 3 tackles last week, but he made 5 tackles (2.5 stops) at an average depth of 2.5 yards, nearly 2 yards closer than what Butler has produced at the same position this year. It's good to see Te'o excelling in his new role. Before he was hurt, Butler was in at LB, and the team allowed 6 yards per carry. When Te'o was in, the yards per carry dropped to 2.3 Why did it take Butler to struggle as much as he did to move Te'o?
With some players, less is more. This is the case for Kendall Reyes. He's only playing half of the time now and it's really showing up in his play. He's now winning in late in games and he isn't getting washed on every play. Have you noticed Reyes much lately? You haven't, and that's a good thing. It's because he's doing his job. Reyes has been a predominant run defender and it's amazing how much better the defense has been when he's upgraded his play to just serviceable. Good on Reyes for adjusting to his new role and good on Pagano to finally limit his snaps.
In addition, he's put aggressive players like Ricardo Mathews and Conner in on run downs. They've brought a different mentality to the defense and have been a big reason why the last 2 weeks, especially last week the run defense has been incredible.
The Lightbulb is coming on
It's fun to see young players with all the talent in the world start to get it. We're seeing that with Melvin Ingram. He still has to put a full season together, but he's put together 3 really good performances the last few weeks. My biggest frustration with Ingram was that he just refused to disengage with the offensive lineman. He would explode off the line, create a vicious collision, and that was it. There was no counter moves, no real plan of attack. Just run into the OT and hope something good happens. I've said Ingram can be a superstar if he ever learns how to disengage.
"Mr. Almost There" is running through and around offensive lineman. Better yet, he's finishing plays. 2 sacks(1 taken away from him last game), 1 QB hit, 8 "wins", and 7 stops in the last 2 games against QB's that are known for getting rid of the ball as quick as anyone. It's not just the passing game where he's making an impact. He's blowing up plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. He has 6 tackles in the last 2 games at an average depth of -.5 yards. It's good to see Ingram make the transition from athlete to football player. Hopefully, he continues this and finishes the season strong.
Veterans still the defenses backbone
There's so much young talent on the defense. There's a lot of talent, period. The veterans are who holds this unit together. I know Freeney has to be so frustrated with himself. Freeney has 6 wins in the last 2 weeks, 2 QB hits, but has missed 4 tackles in those games. All of them have come at or behind the line of scrimmage. So he's winning, but he's not finishing. A name that we take for granted is Jaret Johnson. Why teams continue to try and run outside of him is beyond me. It just doesn't work. He's such a smart player and that hustles up and down the line of scrimmage to make plays. Both edge players compliment each other very well, but it's 2 other players who are the true stars.
Corey Liuget is a star. I'm going to say that in every post where I talk about the defense. It's at the point where if he doesn't have a tackle for a loss or QB hit I'm considering it a bad game. In these last 2 weeks, he's made 6 tackles at an average depth of 2.9 yards. He has 8 wins, 4 stops, and 2 QB hits. The consistency and energy level he plays with for a 300 pound man is absurd.
Lastly, Eric Weddle. I don't have much to say about him. I do know that he makes plays that no other safety in the league can make. Weddle has 4.5 stops in the run game in the last 2 weeks. He's guarded 2 of the best TE's in the league while only allowing 1 1st down and 1 blown coverage. He's the best.
Weddle is the best safety in football. If you wanna debate, argue with the Santa in the middle of the mall— Kyle Posey (@The_KP_Show) December 8, 2014
If it feels like I've brought up every defender, it's because the there really is that much talent. We are just seeing it maximized because of proper utilization. Hat tip to Pagano for making the adjustments. I never thought I'd say at the beginning of the season if the Chargers make the playoffs it'll be because of the defense, but that's where we are now.