If anyone could manage a frustrating win, it would be the Los Angeles Chargers. Their 6-0 victory over the New England Patriots did little to restore confidence in the unit but may have extended the life of head coach Brandon Staley, for better or worse. Draft position concerns aside, that could be the bigger concern for the Chargers fanbase.
Nevertheless, the goal is ostensibly to win games. And technically the Chargers did that. And, technically, they are still in the AFC playoff race.
More than anything else, however, fans might be happy that the Chargers-Patriots matchup finished earlier than any other game in the early slate. A boring duel of punters was finally put to rest, opening up fans to watch some of the more exciting matchups throughout the day.
The Chargers Offense Was Trudgery
It was beyond a messy day for the offense. In a heavy downpour, Los Angeles managed just 4.0 yards per play. They converted 33 percent of their first down tries and finished the game averaging -0.15 expected points per play.
Justin Herbert played an uncharacteristically poor game from the perspective of decision-making and ball placement, echoing some of the issues he had last week. On the occasions he looked like his normal self with high-level accuracy and quick-strike efficacy, he was treated to lost contested catches and drops from his receivers.
When one element of the passing game was working, the other wasn’t. Often, multiple elements would collapse at once, with the normally sure-footed route-runner Keenan Allen looking unable to separate on intermediate concepts against mediocre cornerbacks.
It even seemed like Herbert’s checks into and out of plays were ill-advised, getting into runs on third down against a heavy box and keeping the ball on a read-option where the unblocked defender had a bead on the quarterback, not the running back.
Players with big key plays could not maintain that level of performance throughout the game. No one is discussing Johnston’s 27-yard catch because of a crucial third-down drop later in the same drive. Nothing will be said of Donald Parham’s surprising lead blocking in the game because of multiple drops.
That has nothing to do with the fact that media narratives often unfairly focus on negatives more than positives – that happens and often distorts the value a player brought to a game. But in this case, these are genuine concerns that contributed to the offense scoring a paltry six points.
At the end of the day, the Chargers were lucky that they didn’t have to rely on any heroics from Herbert to finish out the game – once they took the lead, they never gave it back. Or, perhaps more appropriately, the Patriots were unable to take it back.
A few big plays punctuated Herbert’s day – a 27-yard pass to Quentin Johnston to get out of their own goal line and a game-finishing 23-yard pass to Alex Erickson – but it was mostly drudgery and frustration.
It didn’t help that the running game was anemic. That shouldn’t be surprising – the Patriots defense has been disappointing this year in the aggregate but they actually have the top run defense in EPA per play. They don’t allow high value rushes.
The Chargers did nothing to change that. Austin Ekeler looked out of sync with the rest of the offense, both on the ground and in the air. He was late to hit his holes as a runner, couldn’t break tackles and couldn’t hold on to the ball.
Even the offensive line had more missteps than we’re used to seeing. Rashawn Slater couldn’t engage consistently when blocking on the move – a surprising problem for him – and we saw players like Zion Johnson and Jamaryee Salyer make mistakes up front that set the offense back.
The Los Angeles Chargers Defense Stepped Up
But at least there were positives on defense. For every blown play from newly-installed starter Deane Leonard or mistake from slot Essang Bassey there was a play from the front seven that more than made up for it.
It may not mean much to overwhelm an offense that just benched its starting quarterback and didn’t have their starting running back for most of the game in a rainstorm, but the defense still looked good after accounting for all of those factors.
Khalil Mack has been having a good season but he’s been having an absolutely stellar three-game stretch. He was phenomenal once again this week, undressing the Patriots in every phase of the game. Mack showed up against the run on the frontside and backside of plays, showed up in the coverage game as a traditional cover linebacker and when peeling off to take down screens and was a monstrously good pass rusher.
Mack’s two sacks allowed him to match his career high in single-season sack production and puts him on the cusp of 100 career sacks, now logged with 99.5 official NFL sacks.
In addition to his takedowns, he consistently produced pressure in the pocket. Had the rest of the Chargers unit been better about lane discipline, Zappe may have given up more sacks instead of turning some sacks into scrambles.
He was helped by Tuli Tuipulotu, who has continued his strong rookie season. Tuipulotu didn’t have a perfect game by any means – he was sometimes responsible for those lane discipline issues – but he proved his worth once again as a second-round pick, especially after the tackle-for-loss-forced-fumble-fumble-recovery sequence on Rhamondre Stevenson at the end of the first quarter.
There were some high-profile mistakes in taking tackling angles from both Alohi Gilman and Derwin James but again, both were big net positives for the defense despite some of the big plays they were party to.
The Chargers might need to count themselves lucky that they didn’t have to deal with Stevenson for the whole game. After Stevenson’s injury, Ezekiel Elliott took the lion’s share of carries and he wasn’t nearly as effective. But honestly, it was likely that Stevenson would have slowed down – the Chargers were getting better about getting into the backfield and making plays in the run game after the soft run defense of the first quarter.
While this still underscores the need for defensive tackles and linebackers, it at least gives them a foundation to work from.
And though the defense pitched a shutout, the best unit was likely special teams. Cameron Dicker was perfect, for what it’s worth, but it was JK Scott’s punting that really set the stage for their defensive performance. While Scott did have one miscue – a touchback on a punt that was nearly blocked, he was otherwise stellar.
At the same time, Derius Davis made the most of his few opportunities as a punt returner – the Patriots’ punting game was also excellent but in the few instances Davis could return punts, he made big plays – and he’s entirely responsible for half of the Chargers’ offensive output after they stalled in the red zone when Davis put them there in the first place.
That’s an unusual state for the Chargers but the Chargers are an unusual team. Just when it seems like you’ve figured them out, you’re wrong.