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How the San Diego Chargers lost in 2015 (Part 3)

In this conclusion of the autopsy of the 2015 season, we'll look at the last three losses. Then, we'll take a look and see if their is a reasonable basis for optimism or pessimism going into 2016.

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The blowouts were over and the team had us really concerned about winning a few close games at the end of the season.  The team returned to the form of losing close games, though, preserving their 2016 draft position.  If you have not read Part 2, you can find at the other end of this hyperlink.

Week 14: Chiefs 10-Bolts 3

In a game that matched the Week 13 loss against Denver for being unwatchable, this one was perhaps worse.  Kansas City got its 10 points in the last 2 minutes of the 2nd quarter.  The Bolts got their lone FG with 5:00 minutes left to go in the 3rd.

Something that was noted with irritation in the game thread was the use of a time out on offense with 10 minutes left to go in the 4th quarter.  That came back to bite the team in the butt big time.  Making a nearly heroic drive (including converting 3 fourth downs, 2 of them 4th & 10 situations) at the end of the 4th, the Chargers found themselves on the 1-yard line, first and goal, with no time outs and 16 seconds left in the game.  That was short lived, as a delay of game penalty on PR and then a false start, sandwiched around an incomplete pass to Green, left the Bolts with a 2nd and goal from the 11 and 2 seconds for one last play.  It was an incomplete pass to Woodhead.  Another loss.

Root cause of the loss:  A tremendous defensive effort by KC.  An inability to run the ball and an inability to convert 3rd downs.  The team at this point was so depleted that Vincent Brown was the receiver that nearly scored the tying TD with 16 seconds left to go.

Week 16: Oakland 23-Bolts 20 (OT)

This Christmas Eve Thursday Night game turned out to be pretty entertaining for the first 42 minutes, with a 17-10 lead for the Bolts and the rivals looking a lot tamer than the first game in San Diego.  The Chargers actually looked like a competent football team for most of the first 3 quarters, even with the back-ups and back-ups to back-ups that started the game.

Then the trouble started with a sack for a safety at the end of the 3rd quarter (this was the only sack surrendered during the game).  The Chargers managed to hang onto a 17-12 lead for another 7 minutes until a David Johnson fumble and 40-yard return set up Oakland for a 3-yard TD pass, followed by a conversion.  The Bolts managed to tie the game with a minute left, sending the game to overtime.

A 15 play, 7-minute drive for 67 yards set up Oakland for the go-ahead FG with 8 minutes left to go in OT and the Chargers with one last chance.  The Chargers gained 7 yards on 4 plays to lose their 11th game of the season.

Root cause of the loss:  The fumble by David Johnson changed the game.  It is also worth noting that neither team did well on 3rd downs.  The Bolt running was (as usual last season) awful; Oakland's not much better.  It really looked as though the defense simply did not have enough left in the tank to get an early enough stop in OT.

Week 17: Broncos 27-Bolts 20

This team really played in some ugly games last season and this one was a fitting end to the worst Charger season since 2003.  The snap counts indicate that only five true defensive linemen played in the game, Reyes, Square, Philon, Carrethers, and Matthews.  The total snap counts add up to 232% for this position group, which means that the Chargers were playing with the 2-4-5 alignment (which I have come to despise with a burning passion) for most of the game.

This explains the 212 rushing yards on 30 carries surrendered by the defense.  This game would have been a Denver blowout, except for the 2 INT's and 3 fumbles by the Broncos.  As it turned out, Peyton Manning emerged from his injury-induced hibernation in the middle of the 3rd quarter and the Bolts were outscored 20-7 for the last 23 minutes of the game, squandering a lead, but preserving their 3rd overall draft choice position.  The only scoring done by the Chargers in their last 5 possessions was a fluke 80-yard catch and run on a 1st down pass from Rivers to Tyrell Williams.  1 play, 1 TD.

Root cause for the loss:  An inability to convert the turnovers into points.  The Chargers got 5 turnovers and were able to convert those into 10 points.  Denver got 1 INT and that became a TD.  The rush defense was the worst it had been in a season of bad, so that was a huge part of it, too.

Did We Learn Anything We Did Not Know Already?

Yes, we did.  Referring back to Part 1, the consensus around here was that the 12 losses resulted from not being able to run, not being able to stop the run, consistently losing the field position battle and poor game management.  While those factors are certainly true, there are other patterns that emerged from the losses of 2015 that should concern any Charger fan about the prospects for 2016.

With apologies to ivegotagilbyrdjerseyolderthanyou, what I saw was:

1)     A team remarkably bad at "situational football".  This is a term used by Bill Belichick which describes those times in a game (usually at the end of a half or the game or when an unusual circumstance occurs) when a team needs to execute to win or preserve a win.  The 2015 Bolts did not do situational football.

Need a stop in the last 3 minutes of a game to preserve a win?  Nope.

Need to capably execute a 2-minute drill to get a TD at the end of a game to win or force OT?  Nah...

Have to get out of your own end zone to start a drive or give your defense some field position to work with?  Forget about it.

Need to run the ball for the last 5 minutes of a game and kill the clock for a win?  Yeah, right...

1st and goal on the 3 and have the heavy package punch it in?  Oh...that's right -€” there was none.

Convert a key 3rd down?  Rarely.

2)     A team that had problems with FUNDAMENTAL game management:

Burning time outs on both sides of the ball in non-critical situations.

Not having the personnel match up with the plays called.

Not having a ready audible if the defense shows something different.

Sacks allowed on plays run coming out of a time out.

Defensive substitutions not being made quickly.

Forget about the use or non-use of timeouts, going for it on 4th and short, challenging calls, or when to go for 2; we all have our beefs with that.  When a team can't even get a play called and ran without being forced to squander a time out or take a delay of game penalty, that points to some real problems on the sideline.

Then there were the ROUTINE game management issues.  On both sides of the ball, the coaches often went away from schemes, plays, and match-ups that were working.

Going away from Gordon in the Bengals game.

Going away from Gates in the Steelers game.

Dropping pass rushers into coverage too often.

Playing man against fast receivers.

Playing zone against physical receivers.

The coaching staff would only seem to get creative when it was finding ways to not continue doing things that were working in favor of doing things that played into the opponent's strength or to set-up poor match-ups.

3)     A team that did stupid, undisciplined things to squander scoring chances or ruin defensive stops.  Unnecessary roughness penalties.  False starts.  Celebration penalties.  Delay of game penalties.  Receivers running the wrong routes.  Backs blocking the wrong rusher.  Not picking up stunts or delayed rushes.  Lack of concentration or situational awareness which led to muffed punts or turnovers.  The frequency of the mental mistakes, on a team that was too often making physical mistakes, was inexcusable.

4)     How often the team was outscored badly in the 2nd half.  I don't know whether this was because of not making any adjustments (or the opponents adjustments being better) or a physical conditioning problem or a combination of the two.  Far too many games were lost with the Chargers having a lead or being within one score at halftime (or later) and then getting steamrolled throughout the second half or in the fourth quarter.

5)     A team that could get physically abused on both sides of the ball by tough opponents.  The Bengals, Vikings, Chiefs, and Broncos simply overwhelmed the Chargers' lines during games, sending linemen to the sideline with injuries or just winning on what seemed like every play.  I hesitate to type these next words, but I think it needs to be said.  On the line of scrimmage, the Bolts played SOFT in 2015.

Will Things Be Better In 2016?

I'm not convinced that they will be.  I still have serious questions about the front line, while praying that Dunlap will stay healthy and that Franklin will get it figured out along with Fluker.  The effectiveness of the starters will be answered quickly on the road against KC.  If the line can't hold up against the Justin Houston-less front 7 of KC, 2016 may be another long season.  Somehow, the offensive line looked both soft and brittle last year (I know that is a physical impossibility) and except for Center, will be returning pretty much as it was.

The punting game should (as much as I hate saying it) improve with Kaser, but what of the coverage aspect of the special teams?  The return game SHOULD get better (it certainly could not get worse), so the field position portion of the game MIGHT improve.  We'll see.

Defensively, I'm excited to see Mebane and Bosa, plus a full season of Perryman and the other added talent.  I'm already looking forward to seeing Verrett taking on Amari Cooper, Jeremy Maclin, and Demaryius Thomas again.  I'm also dreading the first appearance of the 2-4-5 defense, which practically begs a team to shove a run game right down the Chargers throat.  With the same DC as last year, I'm wondering if the performance total will be more or less than the sum of the talent parts.

Finally, I look at my list in the previous section and I seriously wonder if the crafty FA signings, a draft that COULD be one of the best the Chargers have had in a long time, and the bringing back of Coach Whisenhunt will make any difference at all.  Last year's team under performed by 2 wins, according to the "Expected W-L" stat. I would not have believed that a team with a QB as effective as PR could lose more than 10 games in a season until I saw it happen,€” every single, pathetic minute of it, with my own two eyes.

The lack of discipline, savvy, mental toughness, and inability to execute in key situations can be traced right back to the Head Coach.  For a professional team, the frequency in which it could not run a play in time; looked disorganized, confused, unfocused, undisciplined, or could not put forth that little something more needed when the game was on the line points to a real deficiency in coaching.

Telesco has had a great offseason, which addressed much of what cost the team wins last year.  Unfortunately, based upon what I observed in my autopsy, there was one glaring cause of the 2015 season's death that was left in place.  The 2016 season may have been ruined in January with the most important change that needed to happen not happening at all.