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Chargers at Cardinals: What I Watched For And Saw

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NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Chargers first preseason game is in the books and, the score not withstanding, there were several encouraging developments on the field. This is particularly true with some of the younger and lesser-known players who took the field Saturday night. With that in mind, I thought it might be a good idea to recap my “What To Watch For” post with updates on everything I was watching.

Backup Quarterback

The Players: Cardale Jones and Geno Smith

First and foremost, let us all rejoice in the splendor of no longer having to talk about Kellen Clemens as the Chargers backup quarterback. I’ve waited for this moment for what feels like a decade and, I won’t lie…it’s everything I thought it could be and more.

I’ll keep this simple – I just want one of these two signal callers to prove he can make good decisions and protect the football. That’s it. I don’t care whether or not either of these guys is capable of taking the mantle from Rivers in a year or two (hint: they aren’t); I just want to find the guy best suited to winning a game or two in the unlikely event of a Philip Rivers injury. Until I see a dramatic improvement in nearly every aspect of Cardale’s game, my money is firmly on Geno Smith to win this job.

Analysis: Geno Smith is the best quarterback on this roster not named Philip Rivers. He was in command of the offense, made good decisions, threw the ball accurately, and finished 14/23 for 218 yards with a 42-yard touchdown pass to Geremy Davis, an interception off of a Geremy Davis bobble, and a fumble. He moved the ball well in spite of a handful of drops on well-thrown balls. I’d like to see him get rid of the ball more quickly and show a better feel for the pass rush, but he played well.

6th Wide Receiver

The Player: Artavis Scott

If Artavis Scott is going to graduate from training camp MVP to earning a spot on the 53-man roster, now is the time. The Chargers figure to carry six wide receivers, he’s having a second consecutive strong training camp, and rookie wide receiver Dylan Cantrell is nursing a bone bruise in his right knee. In other words, Cantrell’s injury opened a door for Artavis to separate himself in the hunt for a roster spot and that door may not remain open for very long.

But, before Scott can earn a roster spot, he has to force his way onto the field, which is something he wasn’t able to do last preseason. If and when he does, I think it will be important for him to show he’s a two-way player capable of adding value as a receiver and as a return specialist. With that in mind, I’d like to get an extended look at Scott returning kicks…and they might want to try targeting the training camp darling with more than two passes this preseason.

Analysis: Scott took advantage of his extended snaps by finishing with five catches for 44 yards and two kick returns for 69 yards (a long of 39). He also returned three punts for 11 yards. Two things stood out to me in this performance: the quarterbacks clearly trust Scott, who was a consistent target on third down and he looked very good returning kick offs. It’s a small sample size, but he looked like he belonged last night and I’d like to see him get some run with the first team offense next week.

Where In The World is Derwin James?

The Chargers plans for Derwin James might be the most compelling storyline to come out of this training camp. The assumption early on was that he’d replace Tre Boston at free safety and, while I’m sure he’ll see some time in centerfield, it doesn’t appear as though that will be his primary position. The question, then, becomes: where will Derwin James play?

Given his skill set, I fully expect James to play as close to the line of scrimmage as possible, as often as possible. We know he won’t start this game at either safety position, and my guess is he’ll see a lot of time at dime linebacker and strong safety. Knowing the team plans to evaluate Desmond King at free safety, it would not surprise me in the least to see Derwin log some snaps at slot corner in certain situations. James is, after all, a chess piece, and I expect the coaching staff to use him accordingly.

Analysis: James exclusively played strong safety on Saturday, which is encouraging because it means the coaching staff understands his strengths and weaknesses and are putting him in the best place to succeed. He rebounded well after allowing a tight end to slip behind him on his first defensive snap, sacrificing himself to blow up a screen pass, making a key third down tackle to end his first series, and forcing a throw-away on another third down play.

I’ll touch on this in more detail later on in this piece, but the Chargers hardly played any dime defense with the first and second team defense on the field. It was almost a 50/50 split of base and nickel, which means they have yet to unveil their primary dime linebacker. I still think we’ll see James play a lot of dime linebacker when they do roll out their dime package, but time will tell.

Jatavis Brown vs Kyzir White

The competition between Jatavis Brown and Kyzir White for the starting job at weak side linebacker job is my pick for the most intriguing position battle in camp. On the one hand, you have Brown’s twitchy and explosive athleticism, and on the other you have White’s high football IQ and enforcer’s mentality – you really can’t lose for going in either direction.

When Jatavis is on the field, I’ll be watching to see how quickly he’s processing information, whether or not he second-guesses his reads, and how he’s finishing when he has a chance to make plays. When Kyzir is on the field, I’ll be curious to see whether or not the speed with which he’s played in practice translates to game action, how he matches up with backs and tight ends in coverage, and how his teammates respond to the big hits he’s sure to make.

Analysis: As the incumbent, Jatavis started the game at weak side linebacker and played pretty well. He seemed to be reading and reacting quickly, made a handful of stops in the run game, and exhibited the range we’ve come to expect from him. He also got a handful of snaps at MIKE, which surprised me a little. I thought he struggled a little with identifying and shedding second level blockers during the Cardinals two long runs to open the game, but overall it was a positive performance. Those are things that can hopefully be fixed with film study and, at least for now, it’s probably fair to say he didn’t do anything to lose his starting job.

Kyzir also played well. He entered the game as the second team weak side linebacker and played all but three series, also getting snaps as the third team MIKE linebacker. I thought he looked fast, covered more ground than anticipated, and finished when he had chances to make plays – the box score credited him with four tackles, but I counted at least six or seven, including several run stops around the line of scrimmage. Like Jatavis, he had a teaching moment in the first quarter when he prematurely celebrated (assumed) an run stop on the goal line instead of finishing a play that unfolded right in front of him. I’m sure that will get fixed in a hurry.

It’s worth noting here that, unlike last season, when the team played dime defense on 46% of their defensive snaps, the weak side linebacker rarely, if ever, came off the field regardless of who was in the game. The team played a lot more base defense than I expected and, when they trotted out their defensive sub packages, they were almost exclusively in nickel. They’re either much more comfortable with the coverage abilities of their weak side backers, or they’re keeping the dime package under wraps for the regular season. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds during the preseason.

The Safeties

The Players: Derwin James, Jahleel Addae, Rayshawn Jenkins, Desmond King, Adrian Phillips, Jaylen Watkins

The Chargers have been rotating several players at both safety positions in practice and, not surprisingly, all of those moving parts have led to some breakdowns in the back end of the defense. With Derwin James, Jahleel Addae, Rayshawn Jenkins, Desmond King, Adrian Phillips and Jaylen Watkins all likely to see time at one or both safety spots throughout the game, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect more breakdowns in Arizona.

First and foremost, I’d really like to discover that the talk of Jahleel Addae at free safety is just that – talk – and the team will allow him to focus on building on the year he had at strong safety in 2017. Second, I’m curious to see how the secondary communicates with so many guys rotating through the safety positions. An finally, I’d like to see Rayshawn Jenkins grab the free safety job by the throat so Desmond King can focus on his role as the slot corner.

Analysis: The first team defense featured Jahleel Addae at free safety (almost exclusively) and Rayshawn Jenkins at strong safety. When it was time for the second team to take the field, it was Jenkins at free safety and Derwin James at strong safety. As the game progressed, James remained at strong safety while the team rotated Adrian Phillips, then Jaylen Watkins at free safety.

The safeties played pretty well as a group. Based on how and where the safeties were used as a group, it seems to me the team is preparing to move Addae to free safety in the interest of playing Derwin James at his natural strong safety position. While I applaud the commitment to putting their first round pick in the best possible position to succeed, I’m not a fan of Addae at free safety. Most importantly, Desmond King played every snap at nickel/slot corner and narrowly missed a pick-six early in the game. This is excellent news.

Special Teams/The UDFA’s

The Players: Ben Johnson, D’Juan Hines, Tony Brown

In my estimation, Ben Johnson, D’Juan Hines and Tony Brown are three of the four most likely members of this year’s undrafted free agent class to make the final 53-man roster (Steven Richardson being the fourth) and, if they’re going to make good on that assessment, it will have as much to do with their special teams contributions as the value they provide on offense or defense. It’s no coincidence that Johnson and Brown, in particular, were core contributors on special teams in college and have the potential to make an immediate impact in the third phase of the game.

I’ll keep this simple – based on their college pedigrees and early feedback from their coaches, I fully expect all three of these players to show up repeatedly covering kicks and punts in Arizona. Should they live up to those expectations, all three of them should begin to climb the depth charts at their respective positions. While Brown probably faces the most difficult road to a roster spot of the three considering the talent the Chargers have in the secondary, he might also be the most skilled and the most valuable special teams player of the group – a fact I don’t think will be lost on Anthony Lynn, who happened to earn his living on special teams.

Analysis: Tony Brown was really the only one of these three players to show up on special teams in a meaningful way. He made a critical block on one of Artavis Scott’s two long kick returns and also made a couple nice blocks on the punt return team. What surprised me with Brown was his play as the second team slot corner. He looked really good in the Chargers underneath zone, broke quickly on a couple short throws and had an impressive pass break up that wound up being intercepted by Brandon Facyson. He also narrowly missed a solid pass break up on a deep ball late in the fourth quarter, unfortunately the wide receive made a heck of a contested catch after Tony tipped it.

I’m pretty sure D’Juan Hines made one special teams tackle, but it was after a long punt return. He played middle and weak side linebacker on defense and looked pretty comfortable, logging a couple tackles, but he has some work to do. It looks like he’s currently buried as the fourth team MIKE (Perryman, Hayes Pullard, Kyle Emanuel) and really only played in garbage time.

Unfortunately, my notes on Ben Johnsorevolved around the two or three passes he dropped. I don’t recall him playing on special teams at all, let alone making an impact. He’s clearly entrenched at the fourth tight end right now and has a long way to go if he wants to make this roster.

There you have it – those are my follow up notes from my What To Watch For post prior to the game. With the exception of the lack of special teams production from the undrafted free agents and the fact that the team didn’t unveil its dime package at all, pretty much everything unfolded as I expected it to in Arizona. Geno is the second best quarterback on this team, the battle between Jatavis and Kyzir at weak side linebacker lived up to the hype, James looked good at strong safety, and the safety rotation seems to be working its self out fairly quickly.