Seven games into the season, the Chargers are still searching for an identity on defense. They are neither a great run-stuffing or pass-stopping unit. They don’t create a ton of turnovers. They’re not the best of tacklers. They’re not especially fast or overly physical.
It might help if the crew hadn’t become so short-handed that wearing name tags to work would be appropriate.
A unit that already lost All-Pro safeties Derwin James and Adrian Phillips to the injured reserve list played Sunday without three of its four starting linemen — end Melvin Ingram (hamstring), and tackles Brandon Mebane (knee) and Justin Jones (shoulder).
Rookie Jerry Tillery (first-round pick) started with Damion Square at tackle in the Chargers’ 23-20 loss to Tennessee, and rookie Cortez Broughton (seventh round) and recently signed free agent T.Y. McGill rotated through the tackle spots.
With linebacker Uchenna Nwosu starting in place of Ingram at end, rookies Drue Tranquill (fourth round) and Emeke Egbule (sixth round) were given considerable playing at linebacker. Roderic Teamer, an undrafted free agent who was a third-stringer to open the season, started at strong safety again.
“It’s really a next-man-up mentality, but I’m not gonna lie, it sucks,” edge rusher Joey Bosa said of the mounting injuries. “You get to the point where you’re like, ‘OK, you might need to fly someone into the game to get some reps.’ ”
Bosa was clearly the best Chargers defender Sunday, getting two sacks for a loss of 17 yards and six combined tackles. He also forced a fumble and tackled quarterback Ryan Tannehill for no gain on a fourth-and-one play with 2 minutes 35 seconds to go that gave the Chargers possession and a chance to win.
“This was by far Joey’s best game all year,” Nwosu said. “Joey has great games every game, but he really came to play today. We really needed that, especially with how depleted we are on the D-line. …
“I’m feeding off his energy. I’m feeding off his play. I’m trying to compete with him. You know, like, Joey has two sacks, I’m going to try to get a sack. It just makes all of us better.”
The rest of the defense was inconsistent, mixing flashes of brilliance with lapses in execution, wrapping up running backs and receivers more firmly than they did in last week’s loss to Pittsburgh but still missing a few key tackles.
Tannehill, who replaced the struggling Marcus Mariota during the last week, completed 23 of 29 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns, leading quick-strike scoring drives in the second (eight plays, 86 yards, 3:15) and fourth (seven plays, 75 yards, 4:16) quarters. And he had some long strikes, connecting on passes of 16, 15, 18 and 28 yards.
But Bosa sacked Tannehill twice on Tennessee’s first possession of the third quarter, and Teamer snagged his first career interception later in the period on a pass that was deflected by Nwosu.
Tennessee running back Derrick Henry had 90 yards, but it took 22 carries to do it, and his longest run was 12 yards. The Chargers ranked 30th in the NFL in rushing defense entering the game.
“My two young tackles, Tillery and Broughton, I thought they did a hell of a job stepping up in the absence of Mebane and Jones,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “They strained. The linebacker came downhill. The corners even came in and helped on the edges. Henry is a big back, but they did a good job against him.”
The defense came up with a huge play in the fourth quarter after a questionable decision by Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who last year gambled and lost when the Titans’ two-point conversion failed with 35 seconds left in a 20-19 loss to the Chargers in London.
On fourth and one from the Chargers 49 with 2:39 left and Tennessee leading 23-20, Vrabel elected to go for a first down instead of punting and pinning the Chargers, who were out of timeouts, deep in their territory. A first down would enable the Titans to run out the clock, but Bosa stuffed Tannehill for no gain.
“I thought we could pick up two inches,” Vrabel said, “but somehow, some way, we ended up losing yardage on that.”
The Chargers drove to the one-yard line but couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone on two tries. Players on defense can take pride in knowing they gave the offense a chance to pull out a win, but there is still plenty to clean up on their side.
“It comes down to execution,” Bosa said. “When we execute, you see what happens, and when we don’t, you see what happens. We have a lot of second-string guys, rookies, coming in. It’s tough on them, but you have to step up when your name is called.”