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Los Angeles Chargers Squander First-Half Defensive Performance in 20-10 Loss to Baltimore Ravens

The Los Angeles Chargers put together one of the best defensive performances they’ve had all year in the first half of their Sunday Night performance against the Baltimore Ravens, giving us a clue on what could have been this season.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Los Angeles Chargers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In a poorly officiated, poorly coached game, the Los Angeles Chargers lost a 20-10 affair against the Baltimore Ravens that was closer than the final score indicated. For a moment, it felt like it could have been so much more.

In the final moments, a three-point lead expanded to ten points after a Zay Flowers end-around on an option play went to the house in the final moments of the game – a play that probably should have ended short of the end zone plane but materially did little to change the outcome.

That said, a rare Justin Tucker missed field goal could have altered our perceptions of the game's closeness.

In all honesty, it’s surprising that the matchup was that close at all. While the oddsmakers figured before the game that it was about a three-point matchup, the Ravens won out in a number of key categories – they earned more total first downs, converted more often in the red zone, gained more yards per play, finished with more total rushing yards and decisively won the turnover battle.

Even when eliminating the end-of-half Hail Mary that Justin Herbert threw, the Ravens outpaced the Chargers 3-0 in the turnover game. But even so, it felt like this could have been proof of concept for what Brandon Staley was promising to the Chargers fan base all along.

The Chargers Had Reasons For Optimism in the First Half

Exiting the second half, both coaches expressed happiness about their teams. The Chargers were behind by seven points, but felt that they had done more than enough to contain Baltimore’s vicious rushing attack. As Staley told Melissa Stark, “Our guys settled in, I thought our defense played a quality half. I thought we made it tough on them. I think we did a good job in the run game, I thought we were really good on third down.”

All of that bears out – the Ravens’ success on late downs was just 25 percent and they lost 0.23 expected points per play rushing the ball and generated just 3.6 yards per carry.

Up to that point, the 2023 Ravens hadn’t recorded a rushing efficiency mark that low – the closest were Week 1 matchups against the Houston Texans (minus-0.17 expected points per play) and a Week 4 matchup against the top defense in the NFL, the Cleveland Browns (minus-0.19 expected points per play).

Staley pointed out that they needed to win a turnover or two to even things up and score on offense, but the happiness with the defense was well-founded.

On the other sideline John Harbaugh was happy with how they contained the otherwise potent Chargers passing attack. The Chargers were even worse throwing the ball than the Ravens were running it, managing a negative 0.60 expected points per dropback and 6.58 yards per passing attempt when excluding the Hail Mary. How did Baltimore do it?

“Well, we’re doubling [Keenan Allen] a lot.”

Offensive Gameplanning Fell Short

Those double-teams didn’t just deter targets from Allen, sometimes seemingly the lone receiver in the offense, but brought bodies to him when he did manage to secure the catch. That effort produced one of the Ravens’ three forced fumbles.

Aside from that fumble, Allen’s ability to turn tight coverage into catches was impressive. But it shouldn’t have been entirely on Allen to outproduce his situation as much as he did. The Chargers can’t do anything at this point about the injuries that they’ve sustained to Mike Williams and Joshua Palmer, nor can they do much about the fact that Quentin Johnston – injured during the game – isn’t living up to expectations.

But they can be more aggressive about putting players like Allen into motion in order to free him up from the double teams or using play-action to move defenders around. The Chargers used play action at just a 19.6 percent rate and rarely used backfield motion or bunches to give Allen as many advantages as possible.

After all, doubling Allen is hardly a surprising defensive twist given the Chargers’ receiving options.

The game featured bad decision-making from both coaches – but the difference is that Harbaugh has spent years earning equity for bad decisions and has built a staff that maximizes his players.

In short, he can earn a few missed challenges on bad spots. Staley has not earned such consideration, so small wrinkles like a rugby-style pitch for a third-and-long conversion can’t make up for the structural problems Kellen Moore created for Herbert.

Pressure Played a Role

This doesn’t mean Herbert played lights out. Though it has been a common theme for Herbert to play incredible football while the rest of the team crumbles around him – an accurate perception – Herbert did have issues inviting pressure and throwing into traffic unnecessarily, sometimes declining open receivers in the progression.

Good defenses can do that to great players and the Ravens defense has been better than good this season.

None of that is to say the offensive failures were Herbert’s fault – far from it – but to emphasize the fact that the Chargers don’t put themselves into a position to succeed when Herbert isn’t having a superhuman day.

On top of the occasional penchant to deepen a drop more than the play calls for or the willingness to hold on to the ball in hopes a deep downfield option opens up, the Chargers offensive line failed Herbert in enormous ways.

Trey Pipkins III was a big liability throughout the night, but the sack-fumble near the beginning of the fourth quarter punctuated a disastrous game for the right tackle. He wasn’t the only one. Next Gen Stats recorded seven pressures for Justin Madubuike before his injury, six for Clowney and 15 other pressures besides.

24 of the 28 pressures came from players lined up on the line of scrimmage, meaning blitzes – like the well-timed Arthur Maulet blitz or the devastating Kyle Hamilton blitzes – weren’t the majority of the problem. Both Jamaree Salyer and Zion Johnson were at fault for interior pressure and in particular had issues on stunts and twists.

And Will Clapp had issue with nose tackles like Travis Jones, Broderick Washington and Michael Pierce all night – even in pass protection.

The Chargers Defense Had An Outstanding Day — With Caveats

On defense, Herbert found more support than he ever had. The inclusion of players like Jaylinn Hawkins, Essang Bassey and Deane Leonard seemingly paid off, but that’s not exactly what happened. Leonard was more than capable as physical support against runs and screens, but the Ravens seemingly engineered their passing gameplan around him.

Leonard was the nearest defender on 10 Ravens passes, twice that of the second-most targeted defender, Alohi Gilman. The difference is that Gilman didn’t allow a single reception while Leonard allowed eight of them for 60 yards, including a touchdown on the back line of the end zone to Zay Flowers.

Bassey had his ups and downs as a versatile slot/star defender and Hawkins – who only played 15 snaps – seemed like a smart addition to the multiple defensive-back look the Chargers wanted to employ.

Instead, what really got the defense going was the impressive play up front. Khalil Mack had one of his best games in a Chargers uniform, with seven quarterback pressures, two sacks and three stops at the line of scrimmage and another run stop on top of it – he shut down traditional runs to his side of the line, runs on the opposite side of the line and even end-arounds.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Los Angeles Chargers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Morgan Fox and Tuli Tuipulotu played their roles as well, though Tuipulotu lost some contain in the second half.

That second-half run defense may have been the story of the game. After a strong first half containing Jackson and the stable of backs and receivers that turn that offense into a rushing juggernaut, the bottom fell out.

In the second half, the Ravens managed plus-0.52 EPA per play. Even when excluding the final true rushing play, Jones’ end-around for a touchdown, they managed plus-0.27 EPA per play on the ground.

For context, plus-0.27 EPA per play is higher than any full-game rushing performance the Ravens have put together all year. In fact, no team has produced a full-game rushing performance that successful this year.

With that in mind, the 5.06 rushing yards per carry (when excluding Flowers’ final run or the kneeldowns) undersells the level of rushing success the Chargers allowed in the final two frames of the competition.

In other words, the Chargers went from keeping the Ravens at their worst rushing performance all year in the first half to their season-best rushing performance in the second half. Players like Kenneth Murray played a role in this collapse.

Whereas Murray was effective on fourth down in the first half and nearly effective in the same situation in the second half, the majority of what Los Angeles needed him for didn’t come in the Oklahoma-drill type situations that he’s built for. He often found himself out of his run fit in the second half and gave up big yardage as a result – sometimes even giving so much room that the blocker assigned to wall him off had nothing to do.

Generally, it seemed like the Chargers defense didn’t have an answer when Leonard was picked on in the passing game in the first half or when Murray was picked on in the running game in the second half. Todd Monken seemingly did a better job adjusting throughout the game than Brandon Staley.

As for how this happened, Staley repeated some of what Chargers fans have become familiar with over the past few weeks. “I think that we have the players who have the makeup and the mindset,” he said. “It just hasn’t come together as a football team yet. It, obviously, starts with me. I’m fully responsible.”

The season has all but slipped away for the franchise, now 4-7 on the season. “The AFC is wide open,” Staley said. “It will be to the end, like it has been. The only way we’re going to have a shot is if we beat New England, and that’s where our focus needs to go right now.”

The Patriots aren’t a talented team, but for a coaching staff that finds itself regularly outcoached, the idea that their season hangs in the balance in a duel against Bill Belichick is hardly comforting.