Good Morning, Bolts From the Blue!
The Chargers' star man in the secondary, Derwin James, is the highest paid safety in the league for a reason. Over his five seasons in powder blue Derwin's blend of cerebral play and athleticism has allowed him to ruin offensive game plans before they've even had a chance to get going. This season however, we saw a sharp decline in his effectiveness in all areas of his game, slipping from an average PFF grade of 81.4 over his first four seasons to a subpar 49.1 this season. Brandon Staley even benched him towards the end of his tenure and he was limited to just nickel packages in his first game under interim head coach Giff Smith and defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley. However, for whatever reason, the staff decided to hand him a chance to start for Week 17's game against the Denver Broncos and boy did it pay off.
Derwin was absolutely everywhere, managing to consistently be around the ball by playing fast and with confidence. He racked up one pressure, one sack, eight tackles (five solo and three assists with only one miss), three run stops, one catch allowed on two targets for five yards and two PBUs. This kind of production is something we haven't seen from Derwin all season and it seemed to come to fruition because of both how he was being used and how he attacked in a way he hasn't done in a long time.
The mark of any defensive back is always going to be how they do in coverage. Against the Broncos Derwin James was primarily playing boundary side safety in a role not so dissimilar to the one he played under Gus Bradley, under whom he won All-Pro honors in his rookie season. Under Derrick Ansley the Chargers have utilized more Cover 6 than any other team in the league, on the below play the Bolts are in Cover 6 Skate as a check against a 3x1 look from Sean Payton's men. Derwin is playing the free safety role on the weak side waiting for the first crosser and here is faced with two of them so he had to make a read. The difference I see in this version of James is that he made a decision early and he committed to it at speed, to power through and meet the receiver at the catch point and limit any YAC opportunity.
Another example of his renewed confidence came when the Bolts were in Cover 3 Cloud and James was playing the boundary side hook/curl zone. Jerry Jeudy is actually running the perfect route to take advantage of this look for a first down, he wraps his in breaking route around Eric Kendricks and finds himself in a pocket of space with a clear line of sight to his quarterback. This is money to Derwin though who flies downhill and tattoos his shoulder onto Jeudy's back to force an incompletion on a throw Jarrett Stidham would have surely thought was a completion when he let the ball go.
Earlier this season Derwin was flagged for unnecessary roughness multiple times and you could tell that this affected how he played afterwards. It is therefore great to see him play with the kind of assured style that made him so revered earlier in his career. On the blow play in redzone Derwin hits the trigger as soon as he sees the quarterback wind up and eats up the 6 yard cushion to lay out Adam Trautman for yet another PBU.
It wasn't just the stuff in front of him that James looked more confident at attacking, on the below play he was the deep safety versus this two man concept from a heavy personnel formation. This is exactly the type of play design that would have undone the Chargers’ defense earlier in the season where they attacked how the deep safety played in such a wide space. But both James and Alohi Gilman played this well, Derwin stayed high to play the narrow route stem in either direction but when the ball was released he cut his angle flat, pursued under the route and robbed this ball away from Dorsett with a beautiful high point catch attempt that was a fraction away from being a spectacular interception.
The Broncos attacked the Chargers’ front seven early on with motion blocks sent across the formation to create additional gaps. This outside zone concept on the first drive was perfectly executed by the Broncos creating two creases for the back, Jaleel McLaughlin, to read from outside to in. He saw that Michael Davis was looking to shoot inside the C gap so he cut back to his second read where his guards had both climbed to the second level to seal the Bolts’ linebackers but Derwin read all of this and reacted accordingly. He creeped forward whilst processing this all but hammered down into the gap leftover and rocked the running back onto his backside for only five yards when he could have given up a lot more if it wasn’t for this aggressive stop.
This next one is even better, again the Broncos motion across an extra blocker after the snap but this time the back, Javonte Williams, is reading his creases inside to out. Tuli Tuipulotu plays this very well, squeezing down the primary gap once and this forced Williams to bounce outside to where the extra gap is created as Lil’jordan Humphries kicked out Michael Davis on the edge. Derwin is reading this all whilst coming downhill, he flows inside to the first gap but then moves laterally with the bounce out and flies off the edge to collide with the back and stop this run for only two yards.
The next play might have seemed like a simple tackle in space but in fact this would have been a touchdown if Derwin hesitated at all. Being the deep safety in a run fit means you are the last line of defense and whilst any tackle in this situation is a good play for him, it is his aggressiveness that keeps this, quite frankly, excellent run from McLaughlin from going to the house. If James decides to bounce his feet even for a second he would give the back the space to cut around him with a lateral move in either direction. But Derwin's disruptive mentality meant he cut off any angle at all by meeting him as early as possible. If you get the chance to watch this play please do because Derwin delivered a solid blow to stop all the momentum the running back had built up over 20 yards. It is a thing of beauty.
Watching this game back in more detail was a refreshing reminder of the type of player Derwin is when he is playing with confidence and inspiration. I see this kind of performance as confirmation that not only did playing the star role in Brandon Staley’s defense fail to get the best out of him, it actively eroded his confidence due to the layering of reads involved that gave him room for pause. Gus Bradley, for all his faults, at least allowed his players to read and deliver with no second guessing and it clearly worked to allow Derwin to be at his elite best. This huge jump in performance was also backed up by PFF’s grading, from Weeks 1-16 he earned a paltry 49.1 grade but for this game he leaped all the way up to a 88.4, the fifth highest of his career.
It wasn’t just the plays I have highlighted either, he was sticky in man coverage and an effective blitzer even getting a sack for his efforts. It wasn’t a perfect performance but it was by far his best over the last two seasons and it should give the fans hope he can show that he is worth his contract under a new regime next season. A player shouldn't dictate a whole system, however if the new coaching staff watch this game they will certainly be thinking about how to continue getting the best out of the most talented secondary player they have at their disposal.