Analysis: Talented Chargers defense has key issues to tackle

The Chargers’ Melvin Ingram sacks Denver Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian on Oct. 22.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

After three rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, Chargers coach Anthony Lynn joked that defense coordinator Gus Bradley might need to seek counseling.

Three times the Chargers were in prime position to select a player to fit Bradley’s cover-3 defense, and three times the Chargers picked offensive players.

It was just how things played out, the decision makers said. It wasn’t part of a grand scheme or necessarily a sign of things to come. No one then, and even as recently as August, could’ve definitively said Bradley wouldn’t need much help.


Through the first half of the season, the team’s 3-5 record is either the fault of the offense or a testament to the defense, depending on how you want to look at it. The group has played well enough to win in all but one of its losses.

Here’s how the defense has done it ...

What’s working?

The biggest successes on the Chargers defense are at the line of scrimmage, where the team has a decided advantage.

Melvin Ingram, who this summer signed the kind of contract that could make a player fat and lazy, came into the season as motivated as ever. He got off to a dominant start, playing faster than most of the tackles unlucky enough to be asked to stop him. And, as he showed against Denver, if Ingram can’t get around a lineman, he’s strong enough to push him into the quarterback.

Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa has 8.5 sacks his season.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press )

On the opposite side, Joey Bosa has followed a sensational rookie season with a better sophomore campaign. Like Ingram, he has 8.5 sacks thanks to expert technique, a perpetually running motor and football experience beyond his age. He’s begun using his hands even more to try to force turnovers in pass rush, something he did against Oakland.

“He’s pretty special,” Bradley said. “… Our message to our players is just do your job. Do your techniques, don’t try and be Superman, but we do expect your best every play. And if you do that, those things will just take care of themselves. So it’s more of that approach with our guys, and just trust it.”

The Chargers also have struck it rich with a pair of talented, underrated linemen in Chris McCain and Darius Philon. McCain has shown that he’s as devastating a pass rusher as the Chargers’ headliners. And Philon, another rotation player, has proven to be tough against the run and pass.

To complement the great pass rush, the Chargers have a pair of top-notch cornerbacks in Casey Hayward and Trevor Williams, the latter who has replaced the injured Jason Verrett (knee) without a beat being skipped.

“There are always stories that take place during the season, and I think he’s one of them,” Bradley said of Williams.

Safety Jahleel Addae also has done a good job, showing improvement in the passing game and still playing physically against the run. Punter Drew Kaser, who almost lost his job this summer, has been terrific in a bounce-back season.

What’s broken?

The biggest issues the Chargers have faced are related to their strengths.

Because the Chargers are so talented at rushing the quarterback, that focus occasionally leads to a breakdown against the run.

The team has struggled with missed tackles all season. Although that has improved some, it also could be attributed to the opponents.

The Chargers also have been woefully thin at linebacker, where they’ve had to rely on Hayes Pullard, who was waived by Jacksonville before the season. Jatavis Brown, a second-year linebacker who was one of the league’s top tacklers earlier in the season, has been relegated to passing downs.

The team has had to use safety Adrian Phillips as a linebacker, and it has helped some but doesn’t seem appear to be a sustainable solution, especially as the team gets ready to face some tough running backs in the second half of the season.

The Chargers also haven’t gotten much from fourth-round pick Rayshawn Jenkins, whose name only seems to come up for special teams penalties. The Chargers’ coverage teams have struggled more often than not.

What’s fixable?

The linebacker issue will be greatly upgraded when Denzel Perryman returns from injured reserved. He’s expected back for the game in Jacksonville a week from Sunday, giving the team needed depth, toughness and leadership.

“Denzel was becoming a leader on our defensive side of the ball,” Lynn said. “I’m convinced that had he not gotten hurt, he’d probably be a team captain. So getting him back for the second half of the season, that’s going to be big.”

The team also can feel fairly good about the growth of rookie Desmond King, a fifth-round draft pick. Chargers coaches love his instincts and have seen him develop as the team’s nickel corner.

“I think the trust with our players is building on him. I think where he needs to be and how he needs to do it, you’re seeing it come more,” Bradley said. “… I think where he’s come along, too, is he’s a pretty good open-field tackler, and that constantly shows up, too — where he’s around the ball and he has his opportunity, and he does a pretty good job.

“We’ve just got to keep pushing him.”

Twitter: @DanWoikeSports