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The Chargers’ evolving defense

NFL: Washington Redskins at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The Chargers head into wildcard weekend with one of the better defenses in the league. They finished the regular season ranked 8th in points allowed and 9th in yards allowed. It is a unit that played extremely well three weeks ago, holding the league’s best offense to only 28 points, but also a unit that struggled two weeks ago against the Ravens’ running attack. As they head to Baltimore this weekend seeking revenge, let’s take a look at how they got here.

The 2018 season started out promising for the Chargers’ defense. During free agency, they were able to extend Casey Hayward’s contract. This ensured that the Chargers would have the self-proclaimed best corner in the league roaming their backfield without any looming contract negotiations. With Jason Verrett scheduled to return from injury and Trevor Williams expected to follow up on a stellar 2017 campaign, the Chargers looked deadly at cornerback.

The Chargers received their first bit of bad news two weeks later when it was announced that Corey Liuget had tested positive for illegal substance use. The Chargers would have to spend the first 4 weeks of the season without one of their starting interior lineman, a position that was a concern for them as they had struggled to defend against the run in 2017.

The draft brought a windfall of top prospects for the defense. The Chargers used their first 4 selections to bolster the defensive side of the ball. Their first pick was a dream come true as Derwin James fell to number 17. The Chargers wasted no time in making the selection, and Derwin has wasted no time in sending a message to the NFL that it was wrong to overlook him.

Uchenna Nwosu was taken with the second selection and was expected to make the switch from defensive end to OTTO linebacker in Bradley’s 4-3 scheme. The Chargers’ next selection was Justin Jones: a defensive tackle that could help bolster the Chargers’ weak defensive interior line. With the fourth selection came Kyzir White, a safety that was expected to transition to linebacker. With James set to replace Boston and White and Nwosu set to shore up a weak linebacker unit, the Chargers’ defense looked poised to dominate in 2018.

It was not long before the injury bug visited the Chargers, and Verrett was lost for the season. The next victim was Joey Bosa. It was first diagnosed as a minor foot injury, and Bosa was expected to be ready for the first regular season game. However, the injury lingered. After more evaluation, it was evident that Bosa was going to be out much longer.

At the beginning of the season, it became clear that the Chargers’ defensive outlook was not as cheery as it was on draft night. Isaac Rochell, who had been tagged to fill in for Joey Bosa, was struggling at defensive end. Nwosu was struggling in pass protection, and Gus Bradley’s 4-3 set looked to be in trouble.

It was not all bad though. Kyzir White and Derwin James were exceeding expectations, and Desmond King was continuing to make plays like he did in 2017. The play of King posed a problem for Bradley. When he went with a 4-3 set, it took King off the field. By playing a 4-2, he could keep one of his best playmakers on the field. As the season wore on, Bradley made this subtle shift to playing more 4-2 sets. King responded by making the pro bowl.

In the first game, Bradley had James at free safety, but after seeing James talent on display, he decided that he needed to move one of his best playmakers closer to the ball. James moved to the strong safety position and was asked to play many different roles. It didn’t matter where he was asked to line up, slot corner, defensive line, linebacker, safety - he produced results. His excellent play helped fill the void that was being felt by Bosa’s absence. This move, while allowing James to make a bigger impact, has left the Chargers vulnerable on the backside as Addae has struggled to make key stops at the free safety position.

Kyzir White was lost to a knee injury in the 3rd game of the season. That was a big blow for the Chargers, as White was playing lights out at linebacker. It was, however, one of the first dominoes to fall that would lead to a great discovery for the Chargers.

Week Six found Jatavis Brown on the injury list and unable to play on Sunday. With White gone, this left the Chargers extremely thin at linebacker. Then came one of Bradley’s best moves of the season: He moved safety Adrian Phillips into that spot. Phillips stepped up to the challenge and has been amazing in that position, earning himself an invitation to the pro bowl.

As Bosa’s injury dragged on, the Chargers began rotating players along the defensive line trying to find something that worked. No single player stood out, so the Chargers continued to rotate players in and out of the defensive line. This helped keep this unit fresh and developed multiple linemen. Square, Philon, Rochell, and Jones have all played well while rotating through the line.

In Week 10, they tried something new with Nwosu, putting him into Bosa’s defensive end spot on 3rd down. Nwosu responded with 7 quarterback pressures and an 86.7 PFF rating. With Bosa returning the next week, this posed another problem for Bradley: How was he going to keep Nwosu involved? His solution has been to play Melvin Ingraam, Joey Bosa, and Uchenna Nwosu all on the line in obvious third down passing situations.

Another surprise has been Michael Davis. At the beginning of the season, no one was talking about him. During the season, Trevor Williams fell out of favor and was replaced by Davis. It seemed like an odd move at the time, but Davis is evolving into a top cornerback.

In the Week 15 game against the Chiefs, we saw the culmination of what had been evolving over the season. It was not what we had expected at the beginning of the season. It was not Bradley’s 4-3 scheme. The Chargers played a 4-2 defense the entire game with Phillips in the linebacker role. I’m not even sure this has a name. It’s a dime package in a nickel setup. Call it whatever you want, but I call it genius. It’s a coach finding a way to get his best playmakers on the field.

Even though this is not the defense we thought we would see on draft day, Bradley has done a great job in developing talent and getting his playmakers on the field. The beauty of this defense is that it is almost custom-tailored to defend against a pass-happy league including teams like the Chiefs, Patriots, Rams, and Saints. The downside in giving up the extra linebacker and size at the position, is the vulnerability to a power running game, like the Ravens. This week will be a test for this evolving defense, but if they pass this test, they should be set up for a deep playoff run.