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Los Angeles Chargers: Futility Made Tangible

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Andy provides us with a first quarter data roundup.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Los Angeles Chargers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

We’re 4 games into the 2017 regular season, and while that’s not a great sample size I thought it’s a good time to take a look at some hard data and see if it reflects the frustrating start to the Chargers’ season. Spoiler alert: It’s not pretty, but I doubt you had a hard time guessing that. You know me though, I like to have my football-feelings backed up by some tangible evidence - or more accurately, base them on the evidence. So, let’s jump in.

Special Teams

Football Outsiders has the Chargers with the worst ST DVOA in the league. When you’ve lost at the foot of your kicker, this isn’t a surprise. The Chargers are no strangers to terrible special teams, but let’s stick to one bad season at a time. FO ranks the Chargers in the various areas of special teams as follows:

· Field Goal / Extra Points: 30th (T)

· Kickoffs: 31st

· Kick Returns: 30th

· Punts: 30th

· Punt Returns: 27th

Hopefully, recent roster developments will raise part of the special teams to at least a mediocre level.

Defense

When it comes to DVOA, the Chargers rank as the 16th best defense; 20th in pass defense and 18th in rush defense (being the 8th most consistent game to game, and the 8th toughest schedule). When it comes to non-adjusted metrics, they didn’t fare as well – only 29th in both points and yards per drive. On a brighter side, they were 15th in their opponent’s average starting line of scrimmage (27.74 yards). While the rushing DVOA takes opponent strength into account, it can be skewed by long runs, just like yards per carry (and with only 4 games, it’s even more vulnerable to this). If we look at rushing success rate (how often the D allows those chunk gains that allow the offense to convert for a 1st down more easily), the Chargers only rank 24th (48%). Last year, the defense ranked 5th in rushing success-rate (42% - lower because opponents are less successful). The team’s Adjusted Line Yards allowed (per FO) are also 29th worst in the league. (Passing success rate has been consistent, raising 2% from 2016, and ranking 17th both years so far).

For those that read my Tackle+ article in September, most of the returning front-7 members are making near-LOS tackles at the same rate or better than they did last season. Only Mebane’s rate has notable dropped (from once every 20 snaps, to once every 31.8 snaps). Players are making plays in a vacuum, but it just isn’t coming together in a way that stifles opponent’s overall run-game. To end the defensive segment on a positive note, FO ranks the Chargers as having the 6th best adjusted sack rate (adjusted for pass drop-backs, and down/distance expectations).

Offense (Team)

Going by DVOA, the Chargers’ offense ranks 11th in the league after 4 games – 6th in passing offense, but only 27th in rushing offense (with the 18th most consistent performance and the 15th toughest schedule, 0.5% tougher than average). They rank 20th in points per drive, but 5th in yards per drive. It’s not hard to connect this to the many yards being left on the field due to turnovers or missed field goals. They also rank just 27th in average starting line of scrimmage (no doubt connected to the poorly rated return game we already covered).

Offensive Line

This is a section I’m sure many could have foreseen, and that you dreaded to read. I’ll start with the good…or at least okay news, the team was 21st in pass-blocking efficiency according to PFF. The real nightmare starts when we talk about the running game. The rushing success rate in 2017 has been just 32%, 31st in the league (32nd being NYG). Last season it was 15th, at 46%. The 32nd ranked success rate in 2016 was 40%, so unless things rebound to average (or better) over the next 12 games, the Chargers will be setting new lows for rushing the ball.

According to Football Outsiders, the Chargers’ ALY ranks as the worst in the league. They rank only 28th in “power” (3rd/4th & 1-2) situations at only 50% conversion (the NFL average being 68%) and dead last in stuff-rate (1 in 3 carries, while the average team allows one only once every 5 carries). When split between all run-directions, the area with the worst ALY for the team is middle & guard runs, worst ALY in the NFL, with the right-tackle run ALY ranking 31st. Don’t think there isn’t potential on this line though, as their left-end ALY & left-tackle ALY rank 5th & 16th respectively. Unfortunately, currently they run to the left end 7% less frequently than league average, and behind middle/guard 6% more frequently.

There’s only 1 “next gen” stat for RBs I find that interesting, so I’ll briefly mention it in this section: Gordon ranks 18th in the league (min 10 rush/game) in % of snaps** with 8 or more defenders in the box, at 29.63%. In 2016 he faced 8+ 36.22% of the time; this would be ranked 12th so far this year, but was 5th last season. There isn’t anything definitive you can say about this in either direction; you could say you need to be efficient in your deep passing to take advantage of these situations, and also that you need to use that passing to draw the 8th defender out of the box, easing up the running conditions.

**It’s not clear in the glossary whether these are just on eventual running plays, or any snap the player is on the field.

Receiving

I’m not going to spend most of the time covering the passing game with the receivers, but I wanted to point out a few things I found interesting when examining the Next Gen Stats

Chargers receivers Next Gen Stats through week 4

First, let’s address the invisible problem – Hunter Henry hasn’t been involved enough to even appear on the NFL’s listing for receiving NGS. It looks like that trend is being corrected, hopefully, he continues to see targets. Additionally, what sticks out as concerning is how low Keenan Allen’s average targeted depth (TAY) is; not only is it low for slot receivers, it is below average for TEs (8.2avg). If he wasn’t being as targeted as frequently, there’d be no way he’d be sitting at 4th in total receiving yards. As you can see in the last color-coded column, his catch percent is 7% below what you would expect given his TAY. Regardless of whether it’s mostly his fault, or mostly Rivers’ fault, it needs to improve NOW. (The same goes for Gates’s catch%, he’s older but that shouldn’t affect him bringing in short targets). If you’re catching mostly short targets, you need to be completing most of them.

Additionally, Allen’s TAY% (percent of team’s total air yards, complete & incomplete) is a little concerning, at least if we are going to view him as the team’s #1 WR (“true #1”, etc). When you sort the next-gen stats by TAY% you are left with some of the league’s best WRs at the top. This makes sense because you will continue to go to your best pass-catcher over & over, regardless of how deep they go (though, even a short-pass guy like Julian Edelman was averaging 9.7 TAY last year to hit his 32.5 team %). Travis Benjamin leads the team in TAY% (not uncommon with very-deep threats, this could even out as the season progresses), but his mark of 29.35 only ranks 20th among all teams’ highest mark. (League median, 31.75%). Allen’s 24.92 would only rank 28th (assuming you eliminate Benjamin’s entry) – not a value you would expect out of someone intended to be the team’s clear top target.

Philip Rivers

Here is where Rivers ranks (among 32 QBs) in the following measures:

· Intended Air Yard avg: 20th

· Air-adjusted Comp%: 20th

· PY/A: 16th

· ANY/A: 10th

Air adjusted completion-% awards 0.1 completion to every (positive) air yard a completed pass travels down the field (or rather, 1 completion per 10 completed air yards), creating a balance between comp% and passing depth-tendencies. Positive Yards per Attempt use the same bonus-value as Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, but only use TDs and 1st downs (and only credit ½ of yards after catch), due to the idea that one can avoid sacks and INTs by playing safe, but it’s “making (positive) plays” that leads to scoring points & winning games. In fact, it has a slightly higher correlation to winning than ANY/A does. (Not to mention, it’s been shown that falling behind leads to INTs, rather than the other way around). Essentially it weeds out “game managers” who only ranked high in ANY/A by playing it safe. In the past, even when he threw INTs or took sacks they could count on him to make plays that would keep the team in the game (often ranking high in this metric), but if his current PY/A holds, it’ll be only the 9th best of his 12 years (his lowest that was not league-average or worse. 2015, 12 & 07 being his 3 worst seasons by PY/A).

Per PFF Rivers ranks:

· Overall Grade: 28th

· Accuracy%: 15th (about 1% below expected, based on his IAY)

· Rating vs Pressure: 13th

· Rating vs Blitz: 32nd

· Short-Grade: 6th

· Intermediate Grade: 22nd

· Deep Grade: 14th

· “Big Time” Throw%: 30th

· TO worth Throw%: 25th

· Time to Throw: 9th (includes sacks and scrambles to the line)

None of these rankings are that encouraging for the rest of the season, especially the 30th ranked BTT% (which, I can only imagine has similar implications to PY/A – making plays is what wins you games). I don’t know how often Rivers’ has been blitzed relative to league average, but his dead-last ranking is not encouraging given the struggles with the run game and the relative struggle to make plays past the “short area”.

Lastly, I’d like to bring attention to Rivers’ ranking in FO’s ALEX metric (Air-yards Less than Expected), which measures how far before or past the 1st down line a QB passes in the air on 3rd or 4th down. Here, Rivers ranks average (17th) in both ALEX (+1.2) and % of passes thrown short of the line (42.1%). The equal ranking says his ALEX rating likely isn’t being pulled in either direction by outliers. (ex: Carson Palmer ranked 20th in ALEX, but 5th in %-short). He also ranks around average (18th) in average to-go (7.5 yards). There is some correlation between to-go average & how often a QB throws short of the first down, but better-than-expected passers have good raw %s and vice versa). Where Rivers (or rather the passing game) falls short, is conversion rate on these downs. They only converted 36.8% of the time, ranked 24th in the league (and with only the 28th best DVOA).

All in all, all these numbers don’t paint a very pretty picture. That said, I think there are some positive building blocks in place. The issue is that the team is missing other necessary building blocks. It’ll be interesting to see how things evolve over the next 4 weeks, and then how we look back on the season as a whole.