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3 storylines to watch for Chargers-Broncos

Which pending free agents for the Chargers will standout against the divisional rival Broncos?

Buffalo Bills v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images

The Chargers will hit the field in Denver as 3.5-point underdogs against the Broncos. It’s a battle between backup quarterbacks after Russell Wilson was benched in favor of Jarrett Stidham. Sean Payton is hoping for some kind of spark for the offense but it’ll be up to Giff Smith and Derrick Ansley to make sure that spark never gets going. Speaking of those coaches, will we see even further changes to that side of the ball?

When Sunday afternoon arrives, here are the three biggest storylines we’ll be following.

1.) Will Derwin James's role on defense change once again?

In Giff Smith's first game as interim head coach of the Chargers, the most significant change we saw made for Week 16 was the usage of safety Derwin James. After essentially playing all but the defensive tackle spot, James’ role was minimized to essentially that of a slot defender against the Bills. He also saw just 41 total snaps, his lowest in a game where he was fully healthy.

The coaching staff made this decision in hopes of sparking James’ play over the final few games of the season. Unfortunately, the move did not pay off as much as they would have liked.

James finished Saturday’s game with a dreary 43.4 overall game grade via Pro Football Focus. When a 60.0 is considered average — or rather a net neutral mark where you essentially did as many useful positive things as you did harmful ones to your team — this looks even worse. James was his worst in coverage where he posted a 37.8 grade in that area, second worst only to linebacker Kenneth Murray. He had strong marks in both tackling and run defense, but his work in coverage ultimately sank his overall grade.

Will his last performance force the Chargers to make even further changes to his role?

2.) After an impressive showing against Josh Allen in Week 16, can the defense shutdown an offense led by a backup?

The Bills’ Allen has been one of the league’s frontrunners for MVP for most of the 2023 season. Against the Chargers defense — the one that just gave up 63 points to the Raiders and a rookie undrafted quarterback — Allen only mustered one touchdown and 237 yards through the air to go with an interception.

If the Chargers could find a way to continue the obvious cohesion they created this past week, there’s no reason not to believe they could make things tough on Broncos backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham.

If this ends up being the case, the Chargers will have once again gotten strong performances from their lesser-known names. Safety Jaylinn Hawkins was physical and showed force as a run supporter. He wasn’t strong in coverage, but physicality coming down from the third level is something this unit has been missing for most of the season.

Stidham isn’t as mobile as Wilson which means there’s also a chance for the pass rush to get home a few more times. The two sacks against the Broncos in their last matchup came via linebackers Kenneth Murray and Eric Kendricks. Khalil Mack hasn’t had a sack in three games. I like his chances to get home this week.

3.) Which pending free agent will have the most impressive performance?

Against the Bills, Austin Ekeler had one of his better games of the season as he totaled 86 yards from scrimmage, the fifth-most on the year and by far his best with Easton Stick quarterbacking the team. Alohi Gilman also authored a strong game by picking off Allen with a leaping effort on what looked like a sure touchdown to wideout Stefon Diggs.

After two pending free agents balled out last week, I’m curious to see if any others will find a way to standout this week.

Tight end Gerald Everett is still good for a splash play here and there and with both Keenan Allen and Joshua Palmer looking to be out this week, Everett has an excellent chance to show out as one of Stick’s top pass-catchers.

Starting defensive tackles Austin Johnson and Nick Williams, the latter of which also played a strong game against the Bills, are both aging veterans who would probably be okay with landing another starting or rotational gig for next season. If they can help put clamps on the Broncos run game this Sunday, that’d be a great first step towards their presumed goals.