Jahleel Addae stands 5 feet 10 and weighs 195 pounds, adequate for the free safety position he has played all season for the Chargers and about three inches short and 40 pounds shy of a typical NFL middle linebacker.
But when Sunday’s AFC wild-card playoff game began in M&T Bank Stadium, there was Addae a few yards behind the line, in the middle of the field, the centerpiece of a bantamweight defense that featured seven defensive backs and was tasked with slowing one of the NFL’s best and most bruising running attacks.
“Just call me Dick Butkus,” Addae said, referring to Hall of Fame linebacker. “When I heard earlier in the week that I’d be moving into the box, I was comfortable with that. That’s my thing. I’m the hit man.”
Size didn’t matter to Addae and his fellow defensive backs in the Chargers’ 23-17 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, which advanced them to next Sunday’s divisional round against the New England Patriots.
Speed, pursuit, instincts, execution and effort — combined with the physicality and relentless rush of an inspired four-man front — allowed the Chargers to shut down speedy and elusive dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Ravens for three quarters before bending in a two-touchdown fourth.
“We needed speed against that offense, because sideline to sideline, Lamar is electric,” Chargers safety Derwin James said. “We feel like we were physical enough on the edges to contain him, and our D-line and inside guys did a good job. Our coaches deserve a whole bunch of credit, because they really broke it down for us and came up with a scheme that allowed us to play fast.”
The Chargers have nickel-and-dimed teams all season, compensating for injuries at linebacker and a surplus in the secondary by using five (nickel) and six (dime) defensive-back packages far more than their traditional base defense.
The Chargers did a solid job of containing Jackson in a 22-10 loss to the Ravens in Carson on Dec. 22, holding him to 39 yards rushing on 13 carries, but Jackson threw for a career-high 204 yards and a touchdown.
With top linebacker and second-leading tackler Jatavis Brown suffering a season-ending injury in the regular-season finale, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley went to a dime-plus-one in Sunday’s rematch, utilizing a scheme so rare it doesn’t even have a name.
The Chargers, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, used seven defensive backs on 58 of 59 defensive snaps. They used seven defensive backs 50 times in the regular season, which accounted for 5% of their snaps. No team had used seven defensive backs on more than 18 snaps in a game this season.
“The game plan was superior,” lineman Damion Square said. “It’s damn near a Wing-T offense that they run, so you have to put your hand in the dirt, expect the run and react to the pass.”
The Chargers moved Addae from his usual center-field position to a middle linebacker spot and started Rayshawn Jenkins at free safety. The 5-11, 210-pound Adrian Phillips played inside linebacker. James roamed around the box at times but usually dropped back in coverage.
Linemen focused on containment, often bull-rushing on pass plays, sealing the edges and funneling much of their pressure inside so Jackson couldn’t escape. They filled many of the interior gaps Jackson likes to run through. James and Jenkins often spied Jackson in an effort to minimize his long scrambles.
Though Jackson did escape at times, he endured a first half in which he combined for more fumbles and interceptions (three) than completions (two). Baltimore had three first downs, 76 yards rushing and seven yards passing through three quarters, as the Chargers took a 23-3 lead with nine minutes left.
The Ravens had averaged 229.6 yards rushing with Jackson starting the final seven games. Jackson averaged 79.4 yards in those games.
“It’s very difficult chasing Lamar around,” Phillips said. “He’s 6-2, 212, runs a 4.3-second 40-yard dash and can make you miss in a phone booth. But our D-line had it in their minds that they were gonna wreck the whole game, and that’s what they did. They made our job easy, and we fed off that.”
The Chargers sacked Jackson seven times, all with four or fewer pass-rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and harassed and hurried him for three quarters.
Edge rusher Melvin Ingram and Addae had a team-leading seven tackles, and Phillips had five tackles, an interception, three pass breakups and a fumble recovery. Ingram added two sacks for a loss of 17 yards, two tackles for loss, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
“My goodness,” Addae said of Ingram. “He was Superman.”
Ingram had plenty of help. Isaac Rochell, Joey Bosa, Justin Jones, Desmond King and Uchenna Nwosu all had sacks, Nwosu ripping the ball out of Jackson’s hand and Ingram recovering the fumble with 19 seconds left to seal the win. Phillips’ fumble recovery and interception led to Michael Badgley first-half field goals.
Jackson drove the Ravens 75 yards in eight plays and 80 yards in 12 plays in the final nine minutes, throwing touchdown passes of 31 and seven yards to Michael Crabtree to make the game close, but the Chargers held on.