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Seahawks at Chargers: What I saw on Defense

What I saw from the Defense in week 2

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Chargers first preseason game is in the books and, needless to say, it provided the team and its fans with plenty of fodder conversation. While the game was sloppy and ended in a loss, it certainly took baby steps toward providing answers, some expected and some unexpected, to a variety of training camp questions.

I, for one, was very impressed with the play of Uchenna Nwosu, Geremy Davis, Artavis Scott, Russell Hansbrough and Detrez Newsome; all of whom outplayed my expectations in some way and added some intrigue to their position battles. On the flipside, the run defense didn’t look terribly improved and, to what I’m sure was the dismay of the coaching staff, Cardale Jones did little to help himself in the backup quarterback battle.

With that game and some key developments under our belt, there should be no shortage of things to watch for during this weekend’s game against the Seattle Seahawks. With that in mind, here is what I saw Saturday night against the Seahawks.

Front Seven vs The Run

The Cardinals long runs to open the game were near carbon copies of one another at the first two levels of the defense. One defensive tackle over penetrates, the other gets washed out, a second level blocker mauls Jatavis Brown, and Denzel Perryman gets lost in traffic (either getting bowled over by the full back or leaving his gap exposed to chase down a back-side cutback that wasn’t there to begin with). In other words, nothing went according to plan up front.

I’ll settle for baby steps in one or two of these areas after a week of practice. For starters, I’d like to see more disciplined, more purposeful penetration from Brandon Mebane and Darius Philon as opposed to just getting up field with no sense of where the ball is. As for the linebackers, I’d really like to see sharper, more decisive reads and, hopefully, a better feel for those big uglies at the second level.

Outside of a couple rough plays to start the game, the Chargers defensive line did a much better job of playing the run this week. I thought the interior players, in particular, were more patient and purposeful in their penetration, worked their way up and down the line of scrimmage to plug gaps, and held their ground when they needed to. This was true of the first and second team units.

The linebacker play was up and down against the Seahawks. As a group they missed too many tackles, took some questionable angles to ball carriers, hesitated at times, and over pursued at times. On the bright side, this group looks much more physical and athletic with Uchenna Nwosu at SAM linebacker. He’s a much better edge setter than I gave him credit for coming out of college and looks like a potential playmaker against the run.

Jatavis Brown vs Second Level Blockers

I mentioned this briefly in the previous entry, but Jatavis was so bad in this aspect of his game last week that it warranted its own entry. On each of the first two long runs by David Johnson, Brown got caught thinking/peeking and never saw a pair of second level blockers (Mike Iupati and Mason Cole) before they picked him off and ran him out of the play. He was manhandled and didn’t free himself until Cole and Iupati decided to let him go.

While I grant you that Jatavis isn’t the biggest or strongest linebacker on the field, you’d think a third year player would have a feel for blockers in his area and, hopefully, be playing too quickly for them to pick him off. If that isn’t the case, and it certainly wasn’t in Arizona, he’s going to have to work on shedding those blockers before they run him out of the play. Let’s see how he handles those situations against a suspect Seattle offensive line this weekend.

In my opinion, there really wasn’t any noticeable improvement in how Jatavis handles second level blockers. I thought he was still a tick slow with some of his reads, stopped his feet, and made himself an easy target on a few plays. This showed up on the Seahawks first run of the game in particular, which saw the not-so-athletic DJ Fluker lock up Jatavis enroute to an eight yard gain.

Brown also gave ground in pursuit on a couple plays in what appeared to be an effort to avoid climbing blockers. In what we’ll call a baby step, I made note of one play that saw Jatavis attempt to use his hands to shed the fullback. He was unsuccessful, but it’s progress considering he didn’t use his hands at all against the Cardinals.

How Uchenna Nwosu handles misdirection and other window dressing

As impressive as Nwosu was as both a pass rusher and a run defender in his preseason debut, the second round pick displayed some vulnerability against what I like to call “window dressing”. Uchenna was too aggressive in attacking the mesh point of an RPO on one play and bit hard on Bryce Williams as he dragged underneath a bootleg on another. Both mistakes ended in receptions, with Williams reeling in a fourth quarter touchdown pass.

I’m sure the Seahawks will come to town looking to counter the speed of the Chargers defense with a number of RPO and misdirection plays, so it will be important for Uchenna to show improved patience and discipline when he sees them. I’m sure this was a point of emphasis during practice this week, hopefully we’ll see some improvement.

While the Seahawks definitely flashed some window dressing in this one, most notably on their first play from scrimmage, I didn’t notice them specifically targeting Nwosu. This allowed him to read and react without thinking too much and the result was not unlike last week in Arizona - he did a little of everything. Uchenna set a physical and effective edge, made a couple thunderous run stops, showed a great motor and once again looked downright explosive rushing the passer. The stat line may not show it (2 tackles, no sacks), but he had another impressive outing.

Challenge Jahleel Addae and Rayshawn Jenkins at free safety

It’s only one game, but it certainly seems as though the coaches are preparing Derwin James to play the bulk of his snaps at his natural strong safety position. If we are, in fact, headed in that direction, it means the free safety position will more than likely come down to a choice between Jahleel Addae and Rayshawn Jenkins; neither of whom was challenged last week in Arizona.

I’d like to see both players challenged deep early and often this week. I have concerns about the ability of both players to cover the ground they’ll be expected to cover in centerfield, as well as the expediency with which they diagnose and react to plays that far away from the ball. I’m also interested in getting a glimpse of their ball skills.

So, yeah…I’ll take the blame for this one. As a Chargers fan of more than 30 years, I should know better than to ask an opposing offense to challenge the Chargers safeties deep. In this case it was Jahleel Addae and Jaylen Watkins who started at safety, not Addae and Rayshawn Jenkins, and it was…ugly.

Between them they drew two penalties, got beat deep twice, failed to provide timely help over the top twice, missed a few tackles, and dropped an interception – and that was just the first two series. Watkins, in particular, got caught flat-footed against the play-action pass on the opening play of the game and failed to provide Jahleel Addae help over the top against Jaron Brown. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, Watkins night – and season – came to an abrupt end when Melvin Ingram rolled up the back of his knee, blowing out his ACL.

Defensive Tackle Rotation

The Chargers defensive tackle rotation was fairly predictable in the preseason opener, with Brandon Mebane and Darius Philon comprising the first team, Damian Square and Corey Liuget making up the second team, and undrafted rookies Steven Richardson and Bijon Jackson making up the third team. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if that rotation gets shuffled a bit.

For starters, I’d really like to see Steven Richardson get some snaps next to Damian Square on the second team defensive line. Square and Richardson were probably the two most effective defensive tackles on the roster in terms of statistical production (38 combined snaps, four pressures, four tackles), and there is no doubt they need to get Richardson ready to contribute during Corey Liuget’s season-opening suspension.

It might also be a good idea to give Damian Square some run with the first team defense. While I’m not suggesting he should start on this defense, I do think it would be wise to get him ready for a larger role considering the fact that the 33-year old Brandon Mebane probably won’t be here next year and figures to need more frequent rests if the team expects him to make it through a full season.

There were no changes to the defensive tackle rotation against Seattle.

Unfortunately, Richardson only played two short series, so there wasn’t much to evaluate. He did a good job of sniffing out a zone read on his first defensive snap and pushed the pocket once or twice, but that’s about it. Interesting, he did see three or four double teams as the three technique, so the Seahawks must have seen enough last week to feel they needed pay him a little extra attention.

I find the defensive tackle rotation interesting through the first two games somewhat curious. Mebane, Philon, Square and Liuget are getting the bulk of the meaningful snaps, which means they seem ready to enter the regular season with only three tackles prepared to play during Liuget’s season-opening four game suspension. Hopefully it changes quickly because they figure to need a deeper rotation while Corey is out.

Brandon Facyson Working With The Second Team

Brandon Facyson had a very encouraging preseason debut while playing with the third team defense. He played 21 defensive snaps, was targeted twice without allowing a completion, excelled in bump and run coverage, and made an acrobatic interception of a tipped pass. Brandon also exhibited near perfect technique on a back-shoulder fade as he squeezed Greg Little to the sideline, leaving him no room to get both feet in before going out of bounds. He admittedly looked better than I expected.

While Brandon played well, much of it came against wide receivers fighting for roster spots at the bottom of the depth chart. By bumping Facyson up to the second team defense, the team would have the opportunity to evaluate him against big-bodied receivers like Brandon Marshall and Jaron Brown, both of whom figure to contribute to the ‘Hawks’ offense this year. It would be a nice step up in competition for a kid the team reportedly likes and give a better indication for where he should slot in on the depth chart.

Nothing really changed with the cornerback depth chart, either. Based on the rotations through the first two preseason games, it seems pretty clear fourth-year corner Craig Mager is going to make this team as the fifth corner (behind Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams, Desmond King, and Michael Davis). He started alongside Michael Davis last week and got every second team snap against the Seahawks.

Perhaps the biggest surprise at corner outside of Mager’s apparent job security is the fact that Jeff Richards, not Brandon Facyson or Tony Brown, has earned the bulk of the second team snaps while Michael Davis fills in for the injured Trevor Williams. While things could certainly change with two weeks remaining in the preseason, it seems Facyson and Brown are about likely to the 53-man roster as Cardale Jones. That should, however, put one or both atop the list of potential practice squad players.

And that’s what I saw on defense against Seattle.

What did you see?