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Ball Security Paramount to 2017 Chargers’ Success

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How often did turnovers kill Charger drives in 2016?

San Diego Chargers v Carolina Panthers
An example of what NOT to do.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

In 2016 the Chargers fielded a young, much improved defense. However, you needn’t look further than Philip Rivers’ league-leading 21 interceptions (or 9 fumbles) to know the team had issues with ball security. Unless the defense rockets to even greater, near-legendary, heights, poor ball security on offense will result in (at best) another season mired in mediocrity.

Let’s take a look at how Charger drives stacked up when compared to the rest of the league.

NFL Drive Data 2016
NFL Drive Data 2016, playoff teams highlighted

Here I have listed each team’s number of “effective drives” on offense, which includes drives ending in:

· Touchdowns

· Any attempted FG (made, blocked, and missed)

· Turnovers (interceptions & fumbles lost)

· Any attempted punt (successful or blocked)

Note: Failed FGs are included in the scoring column, as I am attempting to identify drives in which the offense put the ST unit in position to score. Also, fumble recovery rate is pretty random, but obviously fumbling more will inevitably result in more turnovers. While I eliminated drives that ended in ways such as end-of-half or safeties, there are obviously still variables in how the drives started – such as receiving a punt, a kickoff, or your defense committing a turnover. For simplicities sake (as well as sample size) I didn’t filter it out by these variables – but I encourage you to play with the data yourself.

As you can see, the Chargers ranked an embarrassing 30th in turnover rate. In the company of teams like the Bears and Jets (how enviable!) - far from the pack of highlighted teams (where 7 of the top 10 in TO rate made the playoffs, as well as 10 of the top 15). Only 2 of the 12 playoff teams were below league average in TO rate. They ranked a more respectable 13th in score (attempt) rate, and only 3 playoff teams ranked below average here. Of the 12 teams with a higher scoring rate than the Chargers, the 4 teams with the next lowest TO rates also did not make the playoffs. (The Bills were an odd team that scored relatively well, and rarely turned the ball over, but didn’t make the playoffs).

The Chargers TO rate was so low, that had they just turned the ball over at a league-average rate, they would have had around 5 more scoring (attempt) drives (assuming those 11 now TO-free drives were split between score/punt at league average. It should be noted the Chargers’ slightly more favorable split would have resulted in 6.6 more scoring drives). While that may seem like a small number on the surface, there were more than one occasion where close games were blown by untimely turnovers.

Next, let’s look specifically at scoring drives. On TD drives, the Chargers ranked 29th in average starting position (their own 27 yard line), or rather, 4th in average TD drive length. I believe this is a positive thing, because despite facing long odds on average, they were able to sustain long drives all the way to the end-zone. However, on FG (attempt) drives, they started 4th furthest down the field (their own 41). In my opinion this demonstrates a hot-&-cold nature of the offense. If they aren't having a long, sustained TD drive, they’re quick to have to settle for a FG (if not punting or turning the ball over). This is possibly supported by the fact that the Chargers had the 3rd most extreme ratio of non-TD drive length to TD drive length (26% as long. The least extreme, PHI, was 41% as long). Eight of the playoff teams ranked at or below average (32%) here, and 3 more were only 1% below average.

Lastly, here are a few more facts to chew on. On punting drives the Chargers ranked 21st in yards before punt (9.7). On drives where they turned the ball over, they were 31st in yards before TO (31.8), and 32nd in average field position at TO (own 40.8). A whopping 72.7% of team offensive turnovers came in the Chargers’ own territory. Of their 33 TOs, 57.6% of them came during 2nd half and 42.4% during the 4th quarter. Eleven of the fourteen 4th quarter TOs came when the score was within 7. In any quarter, 78.8% of their TOs came when the score was within 7, and 84.8% within 10.

All of these turnover related numbers are absolute poison for a team looking for success. It is yet another case where the Chargers can rank at league-average and be improved by leaps & bounds. Hopefully a new coaching staff & an increased focused on the running game (in addition to purging along the offensive line) will result in an offense that can at least manage to keep the ball in its own hands.

If you too would like to play around with NFL drive data, I highly recommend using Pro Football Reference’s Drive-Finder.