The Chargers have allowed the most explosive plays (29) by any team in the league through three weeks. Brandon Staley's defensive system, inspired by his mentor Vic Fangio, has come under some justified criticism after multiple years of being consistently below expectations despite having the most expensive defensive roster against the cap. The pass defense is the more concerning aspect of a system that has been designed to prioritize the air attack. With that in mind, I wanted to get to the tape and check whether the problems stopping big passing plays have been the scheme itself, the play-calling, or the player execution.
I chose to look at the Week Three matchup with the current passing yards leader, the Minnesota Vikings, since the further you get into a season the more truth there is to the tape. The defense allowed 12 explosive plays in Week Three, seven of which were passing plays (counted at 15 yards or more), so let's look at them one by one to understand what is going wrong.
Play #1 (9:37 - Second Quarter) - 2nd & 2
Brandon Staley has set his defense in a split-field Cover 3 Site look against the Vikings’ 11 personnel with a MIKE (middle linebacker) blitz. Kenneth Murray (the SAM/strongside linebacker) doesn't drop deep enough here, he's got to know that since the MIKE is blitzing , he needs to see both sides of the field. Plus, he has developed the bad habit of staring down the quarterback and not being peripherally aware. But I'm putting this on the scheme as Michael Davis is being tasked to follow Justin Jefferson from a tight split while being asked to play 10 yards off and in a wide outside shade. That's an impossible ask although Davis has made it harder by not communicating with his safety to stay out of each other's way.
Play #2 (9:11 - Second Quarter) - 1st & 10
The defense is off-man here and Alohi Gillman is guilty of letting a deep route cross his face and this a no-no in an in-phase bracket with the nickel cornerback shading outside. He has to be more athletic in space to react to speed cuts, his square backpedal is not fast enough to weave his hips so he therefore has to bail to one side and then flip back the other way which slows his turn speed down and this is why Jefferson is so wide open. This is a player execution issue and whilst Alohi has proven himself a worthy starter, this is where he is weakest. He needs to work on his downfield footwork or Staley needs to find safeties comfortable with playing in space.
Play #3 (4:26 - Second Quarter) - 1st & 20
This time the secondary is sitting in Cover 4. Justin Jefferson reads this then opens his stride lengths to get up to full speed to threaten the outside deep quarter in order to set up the defense to where he wants them to be. In reaction, Asante Samuel Jr. uses a bail technique turning away from the sideline which, in my view, is an error when facing someone as gifted at route running as Jefferson is. Asante just isn't able to turn in time to keep up with the receiver's electric deceleration. He seems to think he can beat the ball to the target and may even be attempting to bait the throw but he's too far inside and isn’t able to get there in time. This one isn't scheme, this was a good call but poor technique choice and poor situational awareness which cost the defense.
Play #4 (5:52 - Third Quarter) - 1st & 10
Sitting in Cover 5/2-Man Under, Kenneth Murray is assigned to cover T.J. Hockenson but misses his downfield jam to disrupt the route timing. This causes him to overextend and commit his hips meaning he cannot open back up in time to stop this easy throw. In this coverage Murray needs to wall off the inside at all costs so an in-phase jam was unwise and committing his balance to it was a mistake that cost a chunk play.
Play #5 (3:01 - Third Quarter) - 4th & 6
On a critical fourth down in the third quarter, Cover 1 Robber is chosen to bracket Justin Jefferson in the slot but Alohi Gillman over commits to this route from his Free safety spot so three defenders are on one guy. This, combined with an ineffective four man pass rush, means Michael Davis has to cover numbers to numbers from outside shade with no over the top help. But overall the corner just doesn't execute; choosing an inside jam from an outside shade on fourth down is just not smart football. He knows he has Murray inside to bubble over so this is poor awareness, plus you know K.J. Osborn is likely going to stack you inside before pressing back outside so get ahead of it by undercutting the route. Davis does this too late and ends up tripping trying to keep up with the turns he doesn't see coming.
Play #6 (11:20 - Fourth Quarter) - 2nd & 14
Running Staley’s variation on Cover 3 Site vs a 2x2 look and blitzing the MIKE against a condensed formation is risky as it leaves one box coverage player to stop in-breaking routes from both sides. Murray drifts with the quarterback’s eyes which are clearly looking him off, leaving a wide open zone for Justin Jefferson to run into from the slot. JT Woods takes a really poor angle despite seeing this happening before the ball is released and it’s over the moment he hits the turf. Ja’sir Taylor should have squeezed this route inside from my understanding of the coverage rules but whilst the execution wasn’t perfect I think this coverage concept has too many weaknesses to avoid the blame.
Play #7 (7:30 - Fourth Quarter) - 3rd & 9
Going with a different tactic Staley employs the currently resurgent Tampa 2 coverage, however Kenneth Murray should have bailed out of his mugged up look earlier and as a result he isn’t settled enough to deal with the crosser and therefore gets stuck transferring weight forward again. Raheem Layne makes a great read from his Dime back position but he chooses to hit on the side the defender turns his head towards, and you can’t do that now, so the zebras tacked on another 15 yards in a critical moment. I like the coverage call but to ask Murray to perform a Fred Warner shaped miracle and go from pressing A gap to guarding the logo is just too tough.
In conclusion, whilst Brandon Staley’s scheme is getting a lot of flack, and I support calls for adjustments, the majority of these explosive plays have come from poor player execution. Mistakes in pre-snap and in-phase alignments, poor in-space movement technique choices. and a lack of situational awareness are evident on these seven plays and there is a great deal of fault that lies with the players for this. However, I believe the coaching staff has to do a better job of spotting and correcting this within a week’s training.
Additionally, it seems like even into the third season in Staley’s defensive system, there are square pegs being put in round holes even within starting roles: Alohi Gillman being used as a deep free safety, Joey Bosa being tasked with covering the flats, and Kenneth Murray being asked to cover hash-to-hash on his own are all examples. There has been enough opportunity for the front office to remedy this but a cautious approach to squad building has meant these explosive plays will continue to happen until either the starting players step up and own their roles or the coaching staff is able to find a group they can mold into the shape Staley wants his unit to be.