Corey Liuget is the highest-paid player on the Chargers defense, the second highest-paid player on the roster behind Philip Rivers, and the fifth-highest paid player at his position. As someone who will earn at least $9.5M over the next three years, one would think he'd consistently show up on tape as a playmaker and a penetrator, but that hasn't really been the case. The truth is, he has been mostly underwhelming and hasn't consistently shown an ability to take advantage of favorable 1-on-1 matchups in the interior of the Chargers defense.
So how would I grade Liuget through the first half of the 2016 season? I think the best way to answer that is to first grade/evaluate each game on an individual basis, then use those grades to determine a season grade. With that in mind, let's get started:
Week 1: Kansas City
Statistics: 3 tackles, three solo tackles, 1 TFL
Analysis: The first thing that stood out to me about this game was that Corey primarily drew one-on-one match-ups in the first three quarters against the Chiefs, and he responded quite well. Through the first three quarters of the game, big #94 recorded a tackle for loss versus the run, had a sack/fumble nullified by penalty, and chased down two screen passes for no gain. He probably had 3-4 pressures, as well. He looked explosive, disruptive, and was finishing plays. Corey struggled late due mostly to a combination of the amount of time the defense spent on the field and the number of double teams he saw in the fourth quarter. After one week he seemed to be benefitting from the weight he lost in the off-season, as well as playing alongside Brandon Mebane. A solid start to the season, and one that left me wondering where he's been the last seven weeks.
Week 2: Jacksonville
Statistics: 1 assist, 0 solo tackles, four pressures, one fumble recovery
Analysis: Corey assisted on a run stop on the first defensive series of the game but made little to no impact versus the run the rest of the game. In addition to recovering a fumble he played no role in forcing, #94 had four pressures, three of which came in garbage time, and he probably should have had a sack but wasn't able to finish. In all candor, I'm probably being generous with the number of pressures I credited him with, but he did speed up Blake Bortles' clock and forced him to flee the pocket on a couple plays, so I'll stick with that number. Corey saw some one-on-one match-ups throughout the game and didn't do nearly enough with them, frequently getting stood up at the line and sticking to blockers. Frankly, he looked like a player who doesn't know how to recover when he doesn't win with his initial move. Not the way I would have expected him to build on a solid opening performance.
Week 3: Indianapolis
Statistics: 4 tackles, three solo, one assist, three pressures, 1 QB hit
Analysis: This one was hard to watch. Corey essentially had four separate games within this one game. He was all but invisible for the 22:00, routinely being driven 2-3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and having no impact on the game, had a solid 15:00, disappeared for 15:00 and reappeared for the final 700. He recorded pretty much all of his tackles in the 15:00 stretch from the middle of the second quarter to the middle of the third and recorded his lone QB during the Colts game-winning drive. He got stood up too much, took himself out of several plays by vacating his gap, and was pushed around quite a bit. All you need to know here is I stopped looking for Corey to make plays mid way through the second quarter and started looking for "wins," or snaps where he had the advantage, and I could only find seven wins...in 53 snaps...against a horrible offensive line. No bueno.
Week 4: New Orleans
Statistics: 3 tackles, three solo (all run stops), 2 passes defensed, 4-5 pressures
Analysis: This was by far Corey's most complete game through the first quarter of the season. He was active and disruptive versus the run, provided consistent pressure on Brees, tipped two passes and was extremely impactful for the majority of the game. Liuget brutalized Max Unger when lining up in the middle of the defensive line and showed an ability to split double teams we hadn't seen to this point. To me, the biggest difference in this game was in a scheme change that had Liuget attacking the A-gaps as opposed to the B-Gaps he would normally occupy when playing his customary defensive end position. He also seemed to hustle more, chasing down screens and refusing to quit when he didn't win with his first move. He played hard and was productive from the opening kick to the final whistle, which I wasn't able to say through the first three games of the year.
Week 5: Oakland
Statistics: 2 tackles, two solo (both run stops), 1TFL
Analysis: This was even harder to watch than the Indy game. Corey made his second and final tackle, a TFL/run stop, with 3:30 remaining in the second quarter. Other than that, it was basically for quarters of Liuget getting driven 3+ yards into the defensive backfield and otherwise getting stood up at the line. John Pagano once again tried to help #94 by getting him favorable match-ups in the middle of the line, but the returns were nowhere near as positive as they were the week before. I looked desperately for snaps I could say Corey "won" and couldn't find more than five or six, and was probably generous in calling two or three of those snaps "wins."
Week 6: Denver
Statistics: 1 tackle (assist), one pressure
Analysis: This game began with Corey winning on two of the first three defensive snaps of the game, as he drove Russell Okung 3-5 yards into the offensive backfield and redirected a pair of running plays. The problem? While he was in position to make TFL on both plays, Liuget never located the ball carrier and opted instead to keep pushing Okung upfield. Both plays resulted in fairly big gains for CJ Anderson. Other than that, he had one borderline QB pressure late in the game sandwiched between about 45 snaps that saw him get driven off the ball with regularity. It's worth noting that he was on the sidelines for Caraun Reid and Tenny Palepoi in obvious passing situations from the middle of the third quarter on.
Week 7: Atlanta
Statistics: 0 tackles, two pressures
Analysis: Back to counting (and exaggerating) "wins" again. Corey had a QB pressure with about 7:00 to go in the second quarter, did a nice job of forcing a run inside with 3:30 left in the half, and recorded another pressure with 1:00 left in the half. Not much else to report here as the $50M man was basically invisible for all but three of the 50 snaps he played.
Week 8: Denver
Statistics: 1 tackle, one solo
Analysis: Do I have to?
Season Grade: D (would have been an F if not for the Kansas City and New Orleans games)
Summary: The bottom line here is, Corey's four worst games came after Joey Bosa debuted and he started losing playing time to Tenny Palepoi, Damian Square and Caraun Reid in obvious passing situations late in the first Denver game. Based on what I saw on tape, I would argue Corey Liuget has been the second-least active/productive member of the defensive line rotation (Darius Philon), which is troublesome considering he generally plays 60-80% of the defensive snaps.
At his best, Corey is, for lack of a better term, a space-eater. He occupies blockers, fills gaps, and frees up other players to make plays around him, but the Chargers are paying him to be a pass-rushing end, and he isn't responding at all. I believe he lacks the length, athleticism and counter moves to be successful in this role and the tape bares that out. The only time he looks particularly explosive is when he's lined up over the center (0-technique), or shades either A-gap (3-technique), but even those moments are few and far between because he looks worn out from tangling with tackles.
Studying Liuget this closely has me more convinced than ever that this team needs to run more 4-3 looks in its base defense. This would allow Corey to play the 1 and 3-techniques, victimize centers and guards with his quickness, and press the pocket from the inside. The coaches have shown signs of moving in this direction at times, and have even slotted Corey in as the 0-technique, but haven't done enough of it. While the Chargers are unlikely to get a return on their investment regardless of where he plays, his best shot as a revival is as an interior lineman in a 4-3, which also opens up more ways to maximize players like Jerry Attaochu, Joey Bosa, Caraun Reid and Tenny Palepoi when healthy.
Those are my thoughts on Corey Liuget thus far in 2016. Let me know what you think...