Anyone who has watched the Chargers 2023 season so far would tell you that in seems like their defense gets into good situations and then they somehow, against all probability, manage to let the offense off the hook. The raw third-down success metric, 33.3 percent, will surprisingly tell you that Brandon Staley’s defense is one of the best in the league (fourth) when it comes to these critical situations. However, once you factor in penalties, negated plays, and add in 4th down success rate, they are allowing a much higher figure of 45.9 percent.
The biggest issue is that the Chargers are somehow allowing a true conversion rate of 66.7 percent on critical downs with 11 yards or longer to gain. No other team is over 43 percent. For me this statistic backs up what our long suffering fans see every Sunday; that the secondary is not able to stop teams even in the most obvious passing situations.
For this week's filmroom, I therefore wanted to see what is causing the back end of Staley’s defense to misfire so often. I'll be looking at the Dallas Cowboys game where this became clearly evident on a night where the front did their part but it was anything but a complete defensive performance because of the failures of the other end.
Spacing and alignment matter. Any defensive coach will be able to, and would love to, lecture you on just how much the exact positioning of every one of your 11 players both before and after the snap is critical to the success of your game plan. In the secondary, leverage and depth should be prioritized because they both dictate leverage. Even a single step out of place and the whole scheme can be thrown out of balance.
Against McCarthy’s Cowboys, Staley used a lot of 3-4 fronts to provide some power up front against their revered offensive line. On this play in the first quarter, Staley pairs this front with a nickel personnel to match the Cowboys empty five-wide look. The issue is that this leaves a single inside linebacker to protect the middle of the field. This is a pretty normal matchup however the spacing is all over the place because of the conflicting way Staley sets up his defense and this creates one of the easiest throws Dak Prescott will ever make.
There are 18 yards between the top of the linebacker's drop and the top of the free safety's drop. This immediately makes every in-breaking route easier to hit because the quarterback doesn't have to use touch to sink this ball between the second and third level defenders. Then you add in the fact that Kenneth Murray has walked out of the box to match up with the trips to the field side. All of this means the passing window, indicated by the green hash, has been made much larger than any coverage should allow. On top of this, Ja’Sir Taylor who is lined up over the slot is in a slight outside shade puts him at a disadvantage for in-breaking routes. This would normally work to funnel the route to his safety help but with him so far off, this just doesn't work as designed anymore. The red lines indicate the adjustments needed to make this throw much harder and could give the pass rush enough time to get home.
In Staley’s split-field quarters coverage, which they are running here, crossers cause issues because the outside leverage that Ja’Sir is playing with here can't help him once Lamb crosses midfield and there are no defenders covering on the other side of the field. So when you combine all of these three alignment issues you end up with: a linebacker unable to affect the passing window from underneath, a safety too high to do anything about this even if he had elite speed and processing, the designated coverage player in the wrong alignment to slow down this route and nobody on the other side of the field to even try and put off a wide throw.
The above play is very similar to the first. The Cowboys come out in empty and the Chargers decide to match this with a single-high man coverage but additionally drop two of the linebackers from off the line to help protect the underneath area. The first thing to note is that Eric Kendricks plays this in the wrong way and turns to the boundary side instead of opening up to the slot on the field side. This means three defenders are covering one tight end and it opens the passing window even more. However, even if this mistake didn't happen, there would be a glaring hole. Kendricks is dropping from the line and wouldn't be able to get enough depth to squeeze CeeDee Lamb's route up towards the very deep safety leaving a big zone for Prescott to drop this ball into. Again Ja’Sir is in an outside alignment prioritizing protecting the deep third but it means he isn't able to match the quick cut and has to scramble to even get an angle to make a tackle 15 yards downfield. The red arrows on the below image show how slight changes to alignment, indicated in red, could have limited the passing window.
This time the throw is to the outside but the same spacing issues are occurring. The split field coverage uses a Cover 2 look on the strong side but the Cowboys know how to attack this with a smash concept on the strong side and a mesh on the weak side. The tight end flat-out route holds Asante Samuel Jr. low down in the flats and the far side crossing route keeps Ja’Sir eyes inside then Lamb's corner route is free to attack the space outside.
Therefore Dean Marlowe, the single-high safety, isn't able to affect the play as he is too deep and not wide enough as his priority is the middle of the field. I understand that Staley wants to present a single high look but in my eyes he should be further towards the sideline after the snap because he has help in Derwin James who is looking for anything crossing to the weak side deep zone. This again leaves a huge zone as shown below where Lamb has 10 yards either side of him at the time the ball was released and neither defender is going to be able to close that huge gap.
These are just a few examples but I counted eight instances where spacing issues alone gave the Cowboys the chance to make explosive plays downfield. This also included Staley choosing to play his corners as far as 12 yards off the line for parts of the game. This was a baffling decision which highlights the spacing issue again. These coverage principles simply allow too much space between the second and third levels.
I will say that Staley would be within his rights to run this system if he had the right players to do so, but he does not and after three offseasons that is no longer an acceptable response. He more than proved that his system can work during his time as the Los Angeles Rams’ defensive coordinator. He had safeties that could play downhill from their 20 yard perch, he had outside linebackers who could cover the flats and he had defensive lineman that could two gap.
Whilst the emergence of Tuli Tuipulotu and the impressive development of the defensive line has given some answers, one area that has not been addressed to anywhere near a satisfactory level are the deep safeties. Alohi Gillman’s skillset is better suited to the second level, Derwin James can fill this role but his talents are wasted that far off the ball and JT Woods, their player best suited to this role, is out indefinitely. However, even if all three were available along with the backups, there aren’t two that can truly play from deep and close these windows in time for Staley to trust.
This leaves Staley in a bind; he wants to push his safeties backwards to give them a chance at stopping very deep passes but a paradox occurs when you position a player this far off. They feel the need to be pulled forward as they know their trigger needs to lightening speed quick to stop anything thrown in the big spaces underneath them. So what actually happens is that a safety not suited to being in these positions gets caught between both areas and isn't able to properly play either of them.
We have all appreciated how successful the defensive line and outside linebackers have been in attacking with aggressive fronts. The results are speaking for themselves but as Staley has repeatedly talked about playing as a complete defense is critical to getting off the field on third down and this is not happening nearly as often as it should be because the secondary isn’t able to use spacing to keep the ball in the quarterback’s hands long enough.
The issue with the coverage system right now is that some of these ideas are sound in their own right, but when they are weaved together they don’t add up to a sound scheme as these concepts pull apart the spacing as well as creating conflict in the minds of Staley’s defenders.