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San Diego Chargers: First Quarter Data Review

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How do the Chargers and their players stack up 4 games into the season?

NFL: New Orleans Saints at San Diego Chargers
At a time like this, it’s hard to hold heads high.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

At 1-3, the Chargers are beginning to have a season where you don’t need to look at the numbers to know things aren’t going well. That said, I think a look at the data can show us possible strengths (in spite of the 1-3 record) and weaknesses (possibly causing the 1-3 record). It also allows us to see if any strengths/weaknesses from last season have carried over into 2016. Without further ado, let’s jump into a table!

The follow numbers present the team’s DVOA (via Football Outsiders) and rank among the league (as well as division) – for the offense, defense, and special teams.

Chargers Team DVOA
Chargers Team DVOA

As you can see the offense has been performing decently well in both facets of the game, while the defense has been okay (better in the passing game, which is no surprise given that CB is the strength of the unit). Special teams would be fairly average if it weren’t for the struggles of rookie punter Drew Kaser.

3rd Down

The Charger’s offense has performed rather well on 3rd downs this season. They have converted 3rd downs at the 8th highest rate in the league while facing the 13th longest yards-to-go. The defense has also performed admirably, stopping offenses at the 13th highest rate. However, they have faced the 26th worst (ie: lower) yards-to-go, meaning they have not fared as well on 1st & 2nd down. Luckily they have allowed the least number of yards per 3rd down play in the entire league. (Once again, methinks having very good CBs comes into play in this situation).

(Note: This piece was largely composed before I read the unfortunate news re. Verrett’s ACL, so, I expect these numbers to change sooner than later (ie: far from predictive). Expect a mid-season review to show a notable difference).

Red Zone

If you were feeling good about the Chargers having the 8th best offense (by DVOA) in the league, I’ve got some bad news for you – they were only 21st in percent of drives (that at least entered the red zone) that resulted in a score of any kind (22nd in TD%). On such drives, the Chargers averaged a lead of 5.4 points – the 5th highest point differential in the league. This lets us infer that the Chargers were not even entering the red zone as often when they were in more need of actually getting a score. To add insult to injury, their average red zone drive started at their 44-yard line – the 3rd closest in the league. These numbers confirm what the low-ranking variance score told us – this offense hasn’t been very consistent.

The defense also ranks 21st in red zone-score%, however, they rank even lower in TD% (28th). They’ve allowed a score at the highest rate of any team whose score is below 100% (16 of 17 RZ drives). These drives have been allowed at an average point differential of +10.6 points – tied for highest in the league. Combined with the TD% ranking, it’s no surprise the team has been surrendering leads on a consistent basis.

Offensive & Defensive Lines

Both of these units were considered weaknesses (particularly in the run game) last season, but free agent acquisitions gave us hope both would be improved – do the numbers show this to be the case?

Chargers OL Data
Chargers OL Data

For subjective reference – 3.89 was Carolina’s 2015 ALY (ranked 12th), and most would agree they were a fairly good run-blocking unit. ALY (& overall RB production) is where the unit has shown the biggest jump in production, and it has been noticeable on the field. However, in each specific situation category (I will leave you to read up on them at Football Outsiders) there has not been a ton of improvement - power (aka short yardage) success is 15% higher, but it was already very good to begin with. The weakness of not the line, but rather the run game as a whole, continues to be the difficulty in converting short runs into longer ones (where the yard categories represent yards gained further down the field). Additionally, the quality of pass-blocking (at least as measured by FO, unfortunately, hits & pressure aren’t available publicly) has deteriorated somewhat. While the pressure up the middle has been greatly reduced by the play of new C Matt Slauson, it’s understandable the entire unit’s production has been worse – due to King Dunlap missing time, and while not reflective of the OL themselves, it certainly isn’t helped by the fact that Rivers has been missing his top 2 go-to pass catchers (Allen & Woodhead). Overall, I think the OL has made a tangible jump in production and their impact has been felt.

Chargers DL Data
Chargers DL Data

The production of the defensive line (/the team’s run defense) is not as straight forward. The unit’s ALY has improved by a notable margin – so all & all the unit is performing better. However, in power/short-yardage situation the team has not performed as well as in 2015. Where there has been significant improvement, is the prevention of medium & long runs (signified by the improved ranks in the yds categories). The play of the DBs and LBs in the run game has significantly improved and these numbers reflect that (I suspect improved play of the LBs is a large reason why the ALY has improved while the power–stats have decreased). Brandon Mebane’s play has jumped off the TV screen, but unfortunately, the entire unit has not taken the step forward (in terms of run defense) that I think many of us envisioned.

One interesting stat to note: the Chargers’ ALY improved for every run-direction (as labeled by NFL play-by-play data) except for those to the offense’s “Right End”. That ALY mark became much worse (ranked 32 in the league, presently). Now, one may say this is part of the “Bosa Effect” (or lack thereof), but actually, the Right Tackle ALY (same general area, not sure how those runs are differentiated) is actually the 6th best in the league.

Passing Game Players

Let’s inject some positivity into this review! Philip Rivers aka El Capitan aka Filipe Rios ranks 4th in passing DYAR, 8th in DVOA, and 8th in QBR. In the AFCW he ranks 2nd to OAK’s David Carr in all of these categories (while only being 0.3 behind in QBR). Using only traditional stats, Rivers ranks 5th in ANY/A (adjusted net yards/att, again, 2nd to Carr). If we create a value by taking his ANY/A minus league-average and multiply by his total attempts+sacks, he jumps to 3rd most passing value in the league (behind Matt Ryan & Carr, Garoppolo & Wentz drop lower due to their limited attempts).

Now let’s fall back to earth. In his 1 half of a game Keenan Allen accrued 30 DYAR with a DVOA of 31.9. That DVOA would rank 9th among WR (min 16 targets) today, and if we multiply his DYAR by 4 (a half a game, fair compromise) that 120 DYAR would rank 6th in the league. Unfortunately since Allen went down the WR with the most production has been Travis Benjamin, who leads Charger WRs with 53 DYAR – ranked 24th, and 10.9 DVOA – also ranked 24th.

The TEs have been a mixed bag. Henry is having quite the rookie season – he’s ranked 7th in DYAR and 6th in DVOA among TEs (min 8 targets), and he’s been a good run-blocker on top of this (far better than what the team is used to from TEs). However, even when he’s hit the field, Antonio Gates has not been the player we’re used to – ranked 28th in DYAR (-5) and 32nd in DVOA ( -15.6).

Melvin Gordon

Melvin Gordon through week 4, 2016
Melvin Gordon through week 4, 2016

Melvin Gordon is one player whose improvement has really stood out this season. While the values themselves aren’t anything to write home about, it’s the progress that is important here. In addition to the values in that table Gordon ranked 8th in carries-per-1st-down, among RBs with at least 32 carries. Both at & away from the goal line Gordon has improved his “short game”. Even if he is not getting that many medium/long runs, he is more consistently gaining those tough yards (and having an improved OL doesn’t hurt). The reason his “adjusted” numbers don’t match up as well with his traditional statistics, is that the Chargers first 4 opponents have averaged 24.8th in run-defense DVOA (this is reflected in the fact that Gordon ranks 7 spots higher in VOA, than DVOA). All this said, in the long run, Gordon’s progress is very encouraging.

On the whole, Football Outsiders places the Chargers’ playoff odds at 16.4%, down 10.6% from last week. Their mean number of wins (out of 50,000 simulations) being 7.2

…Here’s to good health & the fall of 2017!