One minute, Derwin James is a strong safety in zone coverage, and the next he’s a stand-up defensive end, rushing the quarterback with Melvin Ingram-like ferocity.
Oh wait, now he’s a middle linebacker, and … there he is at free safety, dropping back into deep coverage.
“Find me!” the Chargers rookie bellowed after leading a spirited defensive effort in Sunday’s 31-20 victory over the Buffalo Bills in New Era Field. “Try to find me, man!”
Chargers linebacker Denzel Perryman calls James a “hybrid” because of the rookie’s ability to play so many positions. James was more of a hydra on Sunday, a five-headed serpent who wreaked havoc on the Bills and rookie quarterback Josh Allen.
Applying pressure from multiple positions and blitzing — in his estimation at least 10 times — James had a team-high eight tackles, two for loss, one sack, two quarterback hits and one pass breakup.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound James, a first-round pick out of Florida State, could have had three or four more sacks had he not over-run the elusive Allen on a few of his forays into the Bills backfield.
“He was a monster today,” Chargers safety Jahleel Addae said. “He does it all. He made plays in the passing game, he made good tackles in the open field, he had some sacks and quarterback hurries … and he’s the kind of guy who, if you put him on the line, he brings pressure like a real, true pass-rusher.”
James played free safety for most of the season-opening loss to Kansas City, with Addae at strong safety. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley flip-flopped the two on Sunday, moving James inside the box and Addae to the center-field spot in his cover-three scheme.
But James was hardly confined to strong safety. He lined up in several spots and often roamed from side to side before the ball was snapped, Bradley and defensive backs coach Ron Milus giving James the freedom to choose the best spots from which to launch his attacks.
“Coach Gus and Coach Milo, they say to have a personality about yourself,” James said. “If you’re constantly moving, sliding here and there, they never know where you’re gonna be, and I may end up falling back in coverage too. I did the same thing in college. It makes it tough for offenses.”
James made his presence felt on Buffalo’s first possession, applying pressure with a third-down blitz up the middle and allowing rookie defensive end Uchenna Nwosu to notch his first NFL sack, for a loss of three yards.
Early in the third quarter, James burst off the right edge untouched and had a clear shot at Allen, who stepped up to avoid James and scrambled for 14 yards, a key play on a touchdown drive that pulled Buffalo within 28-13 of the Chargers.
“Those are the hardest ones, when no one touches you,” James said. “I’m learning. I’m talking to Melvin [Ingram]. The hardest ones are when you’re free, because you’re running so fast and the quarterback can step up on you, and now you’re off-balance. I have to work on that.”
A blitzing James sacked Allen for a loss of six yards on Buffalo’s next possession, which ended with a punt. Early in the fourth quarter, James flushed Allen out of the pocket with another blitz, forcing the quarterback to overthrow Andre Holmes on a third-and-nine play.
“I told coach all week, if you’re gonna blitz me, I’m gonna get there,” James said. “If I have to flush him out of the pocket, if I have to do anything, I’m gonna fight, I’m gonna scream and try to get there.”
The Chargers sacked Allen five times, with Ingram getting credit for 1½ sacks for a loss of 13½ yards. They had eight quarterback hits, three by Ingram, and eight pass breakups, three by rookie linebacker Kyzir White, who picked off an underthrown Allen pass in the fourth quarter for his first NFL interception.
The Chargers also forced a key mistake late in the third quarter, when the Bills — trailing 28-13 — had a third-and-four play from the Chargers’ 36-yard line.
Ingram’s pressure from the right side of the line forced Allen to roll right. Ingram grabbed Allen by the waist and was about to bring the quarterback down when Allen fired an ill-advised pass that was intercepted by Chargers defensive back Adrian Phillips with 2 minutes 45 seconds left in the quarter.
“We just tried to throw a lot of stuff at [Allen] and to try to confuse him, to get him on his heels,” Ingram said. “That’s what I feel like we did today.”
James was a huge part of that plan, handling an expanded role in his second NFL game with the savvy of a veteran.