This is your last chance. There is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed continuing to believe Kenneth Murray and Jerry Tillery were the biggest disappointment of our defense last season. You take the red pill, and you stay in Wonderland, and I'll show you how deep this stats-driven rabbit hole goes.
All right, that might not be the exact quote Morpheus gave to Neo in The Matrix, but it's how I feel after the hours I've poured into film study of the Chargers Raiders Week 18 match-up.
I don't mean for the title of this article to seem like click-bait... I'm not suggesting Murray had a good or even average game. What I have noticed is his play didn't jump out on film as noticeably worse than Tranquil or White's. What jumps out on the film, and statistics support, is our personnel was grossly unsuited for Staley's base style of defense.
In this FanPost, we are going to measure the effectiveness of the Chargers in their base-nickel formation against their "Tite Front" formation, and look into what I believe was the Achilles heal of Staley's defense last year.
The Tite Front, and Why Staley Took "That" Time-Out
Let's begin by breaking down what the Chargers excelled at. This may surprise you, but when the Chargers brought in a third interior defender to establish their "Tite Front," the defense looked like a different unit both against the pass and the run. Note: The majority of 3 interior lineman sets included them lining up in what appeared to be a Tite Front. As it's extremely hard to see the actual techniques for each play, I'm calling each set with 3 interior lineman a variation of Staley's Tite Front.
The numbers leap off the page when you see the difference in our defense when we ran the Tite versus rolling with two interior lineman. This appears to present a much stronger correlation to the success/failure rates of each play, rather than who was actually on the field.
- Yards Against the Tite: 1.95 yards/play
- Avg Run Yards Against Tite Before Final Run: 1.47 yards/play
- Avg Run Yards Against Tite Before Final Run, w/o Mariota: -.2 yards/play
- Average Yards Against 2 DI Front: 6.79 yards/play
- Average Run Yards Against 2 DI Front: 8.47 yards/play
The Raiders were actually averaging negative yards allowed on running plays that ran through their backs (including one to Hunter Renfrow) before Jacob's final run of the night. Mariota was able to get a couple of chunk plays against the Tite, but even with those plays in consideration, the Chargers still averaged less than 1.5 yards per rush... before the Raiders lined up for the final play of the game.
The Chargers had just given up seven yards on a off-tackle run by Jacobs against our base-nickel personnel package. Some indecision must have occurred on the Charger sideline, as the Raiders didn't hurry up to the line in a manner that would have prevented Staley from making a quick substitution. For whatever his reasons were, Staley didn't decide to make a change until the Raiders lined up on the ball, necessitating the time-out call.
Here is what Staley said regarding the time-out that many pundits and fans thought was an atrocious decision.
"We needed to get in the right grouping," Staley said during a postgame news conference. "We felt like they were going to run the ball, so we wanted to get our best 11 personnel run defense in, make that substitution so we could get a play where we would deepen the field goal."
I agree with Staley's decision to sacrifice the stoppage of time (as I'll never believe the Raiders weren't going to run a play) to get out a defense that was averaging 7 yards less per rush attempt than the personnel he currently had on the field. Once Mariota didn't trot to the huddle, the odds of the Chargers actually forcing a loss was statistically backed! So... what went wrong on the play?
The Tite Front almost worked to perfection. Jacobs had every intention to take it inside, but with the Tite effectively crashing down around him, he was forced to bounce outside. To his luck, Zay Jones had motioned across the line just before the snap, and effectively pulled Derwin away from his gap towards the sideline. Samuel came over with Zay, but instead of filling at Derwin's gap he floated to DJ's coverage assignment and didn't look for the run until it was too late. It's pretty brutal to watch, and especially brutal to understand that Jacobs doubled his previous best rush against the Tite on that play.
Here is a breakdown of the final three plays of the game, where you'll see the difference in effectiveness between the Tite and our base nickel formation, and the final backbreaking play.
As you can see, even when Kenneth Murray was on the field, the Tite Front was effective. I honestly believe the difference in performance between Murray, Tranquil, and White had more to do with the situations they were put in than their actual playing ability. Below, you'll see a quick chart showing the average amount of defensive backs on the field for each linebacker. Murray's average is considerably higher, because he was more frequently left on the field in dime packages with little help from his supporting cast against the run.
Note: I'll break down Murray's play another day... and as I mentioned, I don't mean to allude to him having an even average game. I just personally think there are two other players that gave up more assignments than Murray did, and it's by a considerable margin.
What Exactly Went Wrong With Our Base-Nickel Formation
I can't tell you why Staley stuck with his nickel formations as much as he did, despite the numbers showing it was the far inferior grouping. What I can say is the reason behind its failure is easy to see when you look for it, and is a problem that still hasn't been corrected at this point in the offseason.
As many of us have seen in videos breaking down Staley's scheme, his genius has been built around giving the appearance of a light box, and having a defensive back filling in post-snap to even out a perceived mismatch. In doing so, Staley sacrifices a linebacker or lineman for an extra defensive back when matching up against a given offensive formation.
This creates a dependency on a fifth defensive back that is an exceptional run defender. Such a back is typically referred to as the "Star" defender, and should be a hybrid-type player like Derwin is and Nas has become. If there are only two receivers on the field and you're carrying five defensive backs, that "Star" better have a nose for shedding blocks and making tackles!
Where the Chargers routinely failed this season, dating back to Week 1, was deploying Chris Harris in the "Star" role.
If you watch the Raider game again, you'll see that they routinely exploited this mismatch. That's Hunter Renfrow in the above video barely putting hands on Harris, and Harris lets himself get walked back almost ten yards.
Here is an example of the Chargers rolling their nickel package against 12 personnel. Again the Raiders run towards Harris, but he makes no attempt to read the run unless he's already boxed out by Waller.
Chris Harris also excels at giving up yards when we are in dime formations.
I have about another 6 videos of this same issue happening again and again in this game alone. Harris simply refused to look for action in the running game
What's the Solution? What Should We Prioritize?
Given the effectiveness of the Tite Front as it was implemented last season, I feel much better about the defensive lineman as they stand today. I would still love one more for depth - and would jump at the chance to draft Devonte Wyatt and assemble a game wrecking front - but today I am much more concerned about the "Star" position. Although Staley has talked about Asante playing in the slot, I haven't seen anything from his tape suggesting he would hold up well against blocks and I worry about his concussions. Davis hasn't shown a knack for shedding either, and JC is going to have his hands full on the outside, shutting top the top receivers in the league.
I believe the solution to Staley's problem is relying on more 3 safety sets. If he's going to bring out five defensive backs against twelve personnel, let that Star player be a safety hybrid that can make a play in a gap instead of a wiry corner that is bound to get pushed around. Signing a veteran stud like Tyrann Mathieu, though a stretch, would be an game-changing acquisition for this defense. Regardless oh who they choose, I hope the Chargers prioritize this as the starting-position hole in our roster that it is, and hopefully our base nickel formation can start to mirror the effectiveness of Staley's Tite Front.