Can New Blood revitalize Brandon Staley’s defense in Los Angeles?

The moment that ended the Chargers’ 2021 playoff hopes changed the course of the offseason. Remember Brandon Staley’s timeout? The one before a third-and-4 in overtime from a draw with the Raiders in Week 18? The Chargers wanted to make sure their best running defensemen were on the field for what would almost certainly be a Raiders running game. But that didn’t matter. Vegas running back Josh Jacobs took off for 10 yards; the Raiders were off to the playoffs, while the Chargers were sent into an absolute frenzy to fix one of the worst defenses in the NFL.

That the Chargers couldn’t stop the run at the most critical moment of their season was no surprise. Los Angeles tied for 28th in yards per rush allowed (4.0) and allowed more than 100 rushing yards in 12 of 17 regular season games, including the Raiders’ 174-yard riot in Week 18. Only two teams allowed more rushing yards per game (138.9).

The severity of the team’s struggles against the run cost the defense across the board. While the pass defense was closer to the middle of the pack (12th in dropback allowed EPA), the Chargers defense ranked 31st in cleared success rate on early runs, according to RBSDM.com, which puts regularly the defense in a disadvantageous third. situations, and opposing offenses were able to convert 50 percent of the time. Only Houston, Washington and Atlanta have allowed first tries at a higher rate in 2021.

Star power wasn’t the problem. Defensive end Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James, two of the best players in the NFL at their respective positions, each made the Pro Bowl, but the Chargers struggled to stop just about everyone, finishing 24th in the EPA per play allowed at the end of the season. The problem was a lack of proven NFL talent surrounding Bosa and James, so Staley, in his second offseason, and longtime general manager Tom Telesco prioritized adding not just better players, but players who would also be better suited to Staley’s defense, which relies heavily on two high safeties and complex pass coverage patterns. It does mean, however, that there is often one less defender in the box devoted to stopping the run. Staley isn’t going to give up his basic defensive principles to load the box, so the answer has to be more talented inside players.

“All of these guys that we acquired through trade or free agency, these guys are proven NFL players,” Staley said last Friday. “As far as what I expect from them, I expect us to play in team defence. Last year it was a weakness in our football team. And I don’t mind. don’t expect it to be [this year]. That’s why all these guys are here.

It all started with the biggest addition: Khalil Mack. The Chargers traded a 2022 second-round pick (No. 48 overall) and a 2023 sixth-round pick to acquire the three-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowl defensive end from the Chicago Bears shortly before the start of free agency in March. , believing Mack was in shape not just because of his ability to rush the passer, but also what Staley thinks he can provide as a run defender. He ranked in the top five NFL point defensemen with more than 200 snaps played in the Pro Football Focus defense category in each of his first seven seasons in the league. He will replace Uchenna Nwosu, who ranked 41st in the PFF race defense category (56.1) last year.

“We’re looking for playmakers, and we’re also looking for a style of play,” Staley told reporters at the time. “And [Mack] bring those two things. He brings the playmaking ability. He also brings the style of play that we really believe in. And I didn’t think we had enough [in 2021]. Not even close.

The Chargers are banking on a rebounding season from Mack, 31, as he returns from a season-ending foot injury last year in Chicago. He couldn’t choose his destination when Chicago decided to trade him, but landing with the Chargers can give the team and the player what they want – an on-field upgrade for the Chargers and for Mack, a realistic chance to make a Super Bowl for the first time in his career.

“At the end of the day, we want to get to a Super Bowl and we want to win it,” Mack said Wednesday. “And that’s the only thing that worries me at this point in my career.”

Mack gets the hype as the biggest name, but Sebastian Joseph-Day could be just as important to Staley’s plan to solve his team’s biggest problem. He signed a three-year, $24 million deal with the Chargers in March to reunite with Staley, who he played for with the Rams in 2020. Joseph-Day led all players to his position in PFF running stops (35) and race stops. percentage (14.2%) in his only year defending Staley. And according to Warren Sharp, the Rams’ run defense ranked first in yards per rush allowed (3.0) with Joseph-Day in the field and 27th (4.7) when sidelined. Before tearing his pectoral muscle last October, Joseph-Day led all NFL defensive tackles in PFF run stops (18) and run stop percentage (15.8%).

Staley’s 2021 Chargers had no one like Joseph-Day to anchor the 3-4 front. Veteran Linval Joseph had the size, at 6-foot-4 and 329 pounds, but he just couldn’t disrupt the line of scrimmage enough to have a positive impact on defense, and he finished the season ranked 59th in the league. PFF’s run defense rating (49.8).

Now reunited with Staley, Joseph-Day will be paired with fellow free agent Austin Johnson, a 314-pound defensive tackle who just completed a career year with the Giants in which he played a career-high 664 snaps defensive and finished in the top 10. in total number of race stops (37) and percentage of race stops (10.4%) per PFF. And, perhaps even more importantly, Johnson has played in every regular season game in each of the past five years.

“For those two guys, when I saw we signed them, I was like, ‘Man, they’re awesome,'” said Chargers center Corey Linsley, who was lining up against new Chargers tackles. , to the media after the team game. camp’s first padded practice on Monday. “Sebastian is a phenomenal nose tackle. He’s definitely one of the best I’ve ever faced. For us, him and Austin are two huge pickup trucks.

Joseph-Day and Johnson ran with the first-team defense through the first week of training camp and are expected to start inside Mack and Bosa along the defensive line. Joseph-Day will replace Joseph on the nose, and Johnson will take snaps of Jerry Tillery and Christian Covington at defensive tackle. Tillery and Covington, like Joseph, were among PFF’s lowest-ranked defensive tackles in the NFL last season.

The three new starters along the defensive line are the biggest changes, but not the only new additions for Los Angeles. The team also entered 2022 with questions at off-ball linebacker, and part of the answer should be another off-season addition with the exact experience, versatility and physicality that Staley pursued at Mack, Joseph-Day and Johnson.

Enter Kyle Van Noy, who signed a one-year contract with the Chargers in May. He’s already taking on first-team reps at center linebacker, replacing Kenneth Murray, the former first-round pick who is recovering from ankle surgery. The ground for Van Noy’s role offers valuable depth at multiple defensive positions and the experience of a veteran who won two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots, but don’t rule out keeping the starting job at center linebacker as he continues through camp and into the season.

“We are only at the beginning with Kyle [Van Noy]“Staley said Friday. “And I think he’s capable of so many things. We will use this training camp to find the best role for him. Luckily for us, he can play in so many places. I really enjoyed teaming up with this guy. This guy is really, really special.

Van Noy, Murray and 2019 fourth-round pick Drue Tranquill will all compete for the two starting off-ball linebacker positions in the Staley defense. Murray struggled mightily even when healthy in the first two years of his NFL career, and he won’t even get a chance to prove otherwise until he trains at again, which might not be for another three to five weeks. Van Noy and Tranquill are expected to be favorites to start Week 1.

The defense investing spree is an all-inclusive token push to ensure no running backs run away with their 2022 playoff bid. Bosa is the only returning starter in the top-seven of the Chargers who played over 50% of the team’s defensive snaps. in 2021 – a complete overhaul that’s already drawing attention to the Chargers offense at camp.

Running back Austin Ekeler said on Friday he noticed the bigger bodies in the box and how the additions made it a little harder to run the game. And Keenan Allen sees a completely different unit.

“The defense already feels like a 360 team,” Allen said Thursday. “They kicked our asses today, which is a good thing. I hope we can continue to build on this.

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