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Assessing the scheme fits for the Chargers’ head coach candidates - Part 1: Defense

BFTB take a look at how well each of the head coaching candidates’ defensive schemes will fit in with the Chargers’ 2024 roster.

Good Afternoon, Bolts From the Blue!

As the Chargers search for their next head coach there are some big considerations to keep prominent, one of these is inevitably the state of the current roster and how it will fit into the new head coach’s vision for how to get this team to win a Super Bowl. To understand how each candidate’s system will integrate with the players he will have at his disposal, I decided to take a look at their offensive and defensive schemes to see which of them can provide some hope for a quick turnaround.

Looking at the film for each of the candidates’ teams you start to see key positions that are critical in each system. When I started to assess these crucial components of each system against the Chargers’ 2024 roster the thought I kept having is; how do the Chargers fill that role with the dire cap situation the new General Manager will be faced with? It is going to be an uphill battle to say the least. This realization therefore led me to try and determine which of the candidates’ systems will fit the best with the current roster and therefore require the least amount of roster investment to fix.

There is no straight and simple answer to address all the roster gaps in one offseason especially without the ability to utilize the free agency market. So this of course needs to be considered as a long term plan but this team cannot afford to waste any more of Justin Herbert’s prime years so whilst patience will be afforded, the Bolts’ should not be picking this high again.

Part 1 will focus on the defensive side of the ball because, in my opinion, it has the most parts that need replacing and therefore it is open to the most change. From my assessments of both the front seven and secondary it is clear that there are many starting roles that need to be filled and there are even questions about the future of the players that are still under contract outside of a few key pieces. Despite already moving on from Sebastian Joseph-Day, the defense will need to lose a few of the more expensive veterans just to be able to field a competent unit. This is where the next head coach, and his defensive scheme, will need to surmount these potential limitations so it is right to take a deeper look at which of the candidates’ systems are best placed to do just that.

The table below is my attempt at representing a defensive coaches’ style. The intention of this examination is to look at schematic intent and not results, so the metrics I chose to include are there so that we can compare the strategic approaches of each coach without the reliance on player execution. It took some time to collate these data sets from various sources but let’s get into looking at how the candidates compare in these various fields.

The defensive schemes of the head coach candidates

The front concept and base personnel will determine where that coach will look to invest in their front seven. It is clear that most of the league considers nickel to be the base secondary so how each coach addresses being gap sound without the ability to have seven men in the box is probably the biggest determining factor in how they assemble their roster. Two, or one and half, gapping lineman are hard to come by (Tom Telesco can attest to this) so to rely on finding them to fit a system like Raheem Morris’ or Pete Carroll’s, can be a tough ask. So what are the alternatives to filling those gaps from a light personnel perspective? Bill Belichick and Dan Quinn rely on a big off-ball linebacker rotating down to play a gap and then the extra defensive back in nickel or dime, will step into play inside the box with a run-first mentality. This is a bit simpler to replicate and could be a good direction for the Chargers to head in as Kenneth Murray could play that role should they choose to bring him back.

The coverage tendencies for each of the defensive head coach candidates

In terms of coverage, the Bolts utilized one of the league’s highest rates of Cover 6 as part of Staley’s evolution of the Fangio system he championed. Their roster however was not built for this, in fact it is a mix of profiles that will be a puzzle for any coach to unlock. Asante Samuel Jr. and Derwin James are the only two starters who will be back and they are both zone players who didn’t quite fit into Staley’s pattern match system. Therefore could a shift back to a more simplistic read and react zone scheme like those run by Pete Carroll or Steve Wilks be the smart move?

Additionally the way defenses disguise coverages shows the kind of system they are trying to run. Static defenses are betting on their talent whereas the modern way is to change up the picture on the quarterback which may leave some reads wide open but the pause will give the pass rush enough time to close that passing window in time. Derwin James has excelled in defenses that have moved from middle of the field open (MOFO) to middle of field closed (MOFC) as he has been able to play downhill so a system that uses this like Macdonald, Vrabel or Morris could be something the team want to pursue.

Personally the best overall fit coverage wise is Jim Harbaugh who is an outlier in how he deploys his secondary as he keeps defenses guessing with his team able to execute almost any coverage. This well rounded approach can help a new roster overcome the talent and experience gap this team is likely to face, and Harbaugh can also rely on his high rate of MOFO to MOFC disguise to get Derwin moving in the right direction for an impact to both the run and short pass game.

The coverage disguise tendencies for each of the defensive head coach candidates

The Chargers’ 2024 defensive roster has a very obvious area of strength on the edge of the defensive line; Tuli Tuipulotu is going to be the future of this franchise and, for the moment, veterans Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa round out an incredibly strong group. They can all play both outside linebacker and defensive end so I would expect any defensive minded head coach to focus on getting the best out of them. Brandon Staley elected to use an above average level of stunts to free up these elite weapons and it worked as the Bolts finished eighth in sacks despite their abysmal losing record. The pressure they were able to create as a group meant that the deficiencies of the off-ball linebackers and interior defensive line could be negated.

If this reliance on stunts was to be continued in the new system then Dan Quinn could be a good fit as he leaned on his four man games to create pressure in a similar manner. However a more advanced approach would be for the likes of Mike Macdonald or Raheem Morris as they still used stunts but they paired it with a much higher rate of sim blitzers to affect the pass protection. The Chargers struggled to get their stunts to work against better offensive lines and a more innovative approach that requires very little additional skill could help create more pressure without having to recruit better interior pass rushers or off-ball blitzers.

The blitz, stunt and sim blitz tendencies for each of the defensive head coach candidates

When assessing the systems it became obvious that there are two clear groups forming amongst the candidates; those who rely on player execution and those who rely on scheme. These static systems, like those run by Quinn, Vrabel, Wilks and Carroll, essentially rely on player talent to execute simple plays at an elite level to suppress offenses through sheer physical brilliance. The more fluid systems, like the ones designed by Harbaugh, Belichick, Macdonald and Morris, focus on having a flexible system that can respond to different game plans in an attempt to answer the problems presented to them by modern offenses. They use cerebral players to be tactically aware enough to change the system to match the offensive concepts in the same way a chess player can recognise his opponents opening move and therefore ascertain the likely subsequent moves.

Out of the last six Super Bowl winners, four have been won by teams who relied on young, cheap talent that their head coach was able to elevate to fit those key cerebral positions in a flexible system that matched whoever they faced. The other two championships were won by teams that gathered elite talent that allowed their head coach to build a simple system that let them win their 1-on-1 battles.

Kansas City Chiefs v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images

The good news for the Chargers is that they have experienced both styles in successive coaching appointments and are therefore in a good position to determine which is more preferable. Anthony Lynn and Gus Bradley led a defense very much in the static camp and the issue with it is that it relies on flawless recruitment, both through the draft and free agency, to add elite physical talents at all three levels.

The alternative is a more fluid system, like the one run by Brandon Staley, puts the pressure on the minds of the players to be able to read what the offense is trying to do. This type of system has its flaws in that it heavily relies on a top coach to create a game plan that works week in, week out, and it requires cerebal players in key positions.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han via Imagn Content Services, LLC

So the question the Chargers’ leadership will need to answer is which direction do they want to pursue this time? Is the answer simply Jim Harbaugh? In my opinion his name and record aren’t the only things that should push him over the line, his defensive system is the best overall fit to where this roster is and where it can be pushed towards. His system looks to change up coverages consistently without overcomplicating reads for his secondary and his mix of blitz usage and sim blitzes create pressure in multiple ways.

If the Bolts are beaten to the punch and miss out on their man, there are many good alternatives but my favorite is Mike Macdonald. The former Michigan man has created a fantastic system in just one season in Baltimore, his own players have stated how he pushes them to understand more and take ownership. So whilst his system is a great fit for the Bolts’ roster talents, it has been his ability to create such positive change in a short time that piques my interest.