Sifting through the wreckage of Saturday night’s disappointing 22-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens at StubHub Center, the Chargers found one item to salvage, one element of their performance they can build on: defense.
While the Ravens’ top-ranked, blitz-happy defense smothered the Chargers’ offense, the Chargers’ defense actually played well against the Ravens’ unorthodox, run-oriented offense.
That should give the Chargers a modicum of confidence and comfort should the teams meet again in Baltimore in the first round of the playoffs in early January, a scenario that appears likely as the Chargers prepare for Sunday’s regular-season finale at Denver.
The Chargers allowed only one Ravens offensive touchdown and held Baltimore to 159 yards rushing in 35 attempts, the first time in six games with speedy and elusive rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson that the Ravens were held to less than 190 yards on the ground.
Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner from Louisville, averaged 85 yards rushing in his first five games as the Ravens starter; the Chargers held him to 39 yards in 13 carries, with 27 of those yards coming on a first-quarter run.
Of Jackson’s 204 yards passing, 68 came on an early third-quarter touchdown strike to tight end Mark Andrews. Of running back Gus Edwards’ 92 yards on the ground, 43 came on his first carry.
The Chargers mounted a goal-line stand early in the second quarter, limiting Edwards and Kenneth Dixon to three yards on a pair of carries from the five-yard line and pressuring Jackson to overthrow Michael Crabtree in the end zone on a fourth-and-goal play from the two.
True to their bend-but-not-break form, the Chargers gave up 223 yards but only two field goals during a first half in which Baltimore started one drive at its own 48-yard line and one at the Chargers’ 48.
The Chargers allowed only 138 second-half yards, including Andrews’ long scoring catch. Of Baltimore’s 159 rushing yards, 89 came on three carries; their other 32 attempts netted 70 yards.
“But when you’re playing a team that plays this style of football, field goals are like touchdowns. Every point matters because they like to keep it close and make it physical and control the clock and win at the end, and that’s what they did.”
The read-option offense is difficult to defend because it is so rare in the NFL. Virtually no other NFL team uses its quarterback as a primary running weapon. The Chargers’ familiarity with the scheme should benefit them in a rematch with Baltimore.
“Obviously, seeing somebody for a second time, like a division game, makes it like a common opponent,” Chargers safety Jahleel Addae said. “We’ve seen them already, so that should help, but right now, we’re now focused on Denver.”
The defense kept the Chargers in the game on Saturday despite the Ravens possessing the ball for 19 minutes, 54 seconds of the first half, compared to the Chargers’ 10:06.
Cornerback Michael Davis broke up a fade pass intended for Crabtree in the back corner of the end zone on a third-and-goal play from the six, forcing Baltimore to settle for a field goal with 12:43 left in the first quarter.
Defensive lineman Darius Philon forced a Dixon fumble that Chargers teammate Melvin Ingram recovered deep in Ravens territory, setting up a touchdown that gave the Chargers a brief 10-6 lead early in the third quarter.
Two plays later, Andrews broke free on a diagonal route, and Jackson, after a play-action fake, lofted a long pass into the arms of Andrews in stride for a 68-yard score and a 13-10 Baltimore lead.
Andrews beat defensive back Adrian Phillips on the route and slipped by Addae just before making the catch. According to ESPN, it was only the third reception of 25 yards or more the Chargers have allowed to a tight end this season.
“There was no breakdown — that was just a good play on their part,” Addae said. “Good ball, good catch, good finish. [Jackson] is a Heisman winner. It’s not like we were playing Joe Blow. He has five wins in this league after starting six games, so he’s very capable of doing what he’s done.”
The Chargers bottled up Jackson and the Ravens from that point on. A third-down pass breakup by cornerback Casey Hayward forced Baltimore to settle for Justin Tucker’s 56-yard field goal with 5:36 left in the third.
A third-down pass breakup by safety Derwin James late in the third period and slot cornerback Desmond King’s ability to chase down Jackson from behind on a third-down blitz early in the fourth forced punts.
The Ravens went three-and-out from inside their 10-yard line late in the fourth quarter, with Philon and Ingram smothering Jackson on a roll-out play for a one-yard loss on third down.
King’s 24-yard punt return gave the Chargers the ball on the Baltimore 39 with three minutes left, positioning the Chargers, who trailed 16-10, for another late-game comeback. But tight end Antonio Gates fumbled after an 11-yard gain, and Tavon Young’s 62-yard fumble-return touchdown sealed the win for the Ravens.
“We didn’t play that bad, but there are still small things that we have to go back to the drawing board and correct,” Addae said. “Playing an offense like that, which is so versatile … we made some plays, but we have to make more. We have to make the ones that count.
“Every play counts. The long pass, the quarterback scramble, those plays can be changing factors in the game, you know? We pride ourselves on determining the outcome of a game. That’s when you know you’ve arrived as a defense, and we didn’t do that.”
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna