The Chargers’ major issue on offense lately is as easy to find as their running game has been impossible to locate. They have rushed for 106 yards over the last three games. That’s fewer yards than seven rushers gained on their own Sunday.
Defensively, the issues are a little more subtle but when one in particular does appear, it couldn’t be more glaring. Missed tackles have led to several big plays, significant third-down conversions and highlight touchdowns for the opposition.
“There’s hits and misses,” end Joey Bosa said when asked to assess the defense to date. “I think the pieces are there. We just have to tackle a little better and I think it’s a totally different ballgame.”
Statistically, the Chargers have defended well enough. They rank fifth against the pass, 10th in points allowed per game and 11th in total yards surrendered. They are 22nd in stopping the run.
But when there have been breakdowns, they’ve been hard to miss. Free safety Rayshawn Jenkins and linebackers Jatavis Brown and Drue Tranquill each have had open-field missed tackles that have resulted in scores.
Coach Anthony Lynn and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley have said one solution is getting more players converging on the ball, the notion of gang tackling long a staple of solid defensive play.
As the group’s center fielder, Jenkins is charged with cleaning up anything his teammates might miss. Lynn called him the defense’s “eraser tackler.” He’s also the equivalent of last call in the secondary.
“He’s missed a couple and I think the ones that he’s missed have been big, so it seems like he’s missed a decent amount of tackles,” Lynn said. “But he really hasn’t … If he misses, a lot of times it’s going to be a big play. That’s why you’ve got to have a guy back there that can tackle and that’s aggressive, like Rayshawn.
“Overall, Rayshawn is one of my better tacklers in the secondary. We have had some tackling issues, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think Rayshawn is one of them.”
Because of injuries, especially Sunday at Tennessee, the Chargers have been forced to rely more on some of their younger defensive players.
Five rookies — Tranquill, Roderic Teamer, Jerry Tillery, Cortez Broughton and Emeke Egbule — played a total of 161 snaps against the Titans.
In the fourth quarter of their 23-20 loss, the Chargers were victimized by a blown coverage that allowed the Titans to score a crucial touchdown basically uncontested.
Ryan Tannehill hit wide receiver Tajae Sharpe along the back of the end zone with no defender near him.
“When you play with young players, you’re going to have some of that,” Lynn said about Sunday. “At one point, we had three rookies on the field and they made mistakes. But that’s part of the process. They’re going to make mistakes, but they are going to be really good players in this league.”
Said Bosa: “It’s just small things here and there that we need to get cleaned up. It’s not like we need another roster or anything.”
Another apparent youthful mistake permitted the Titans to convert an early fourth down with a successful fake punt.
On fourth-and-eight from the Chargers’ 43-yard line, Brett Kern took the snap, hesitated and then passed to Kevin Byard for an 11-yard gain. The first-quarter play set up a 45-yard field goal by Cody Parkey for the game’s first points.
Even worse, the Chargers, anticipating a possible fake, were playing a scheme designed to limit such trickery.
“We had our punt-safe on the field and we had one guy that did not guard his guy,” Lynn said. “That was very frustrating because we talk all the time [about] do your job. I think sometimes guys get a little bit relaxed because you have punt-safe on the field and they think nothing’s coming and it caught us off guard.”
During Lynn’s three seasons as the Chargers’ head coach, Philip Rivers has executed just one quarterback sneak. That lack of experience is one reason the Chargers didn’t try to sneak into the end zone at the end of the game Sunday.
“It’s something that he hasn’t done a lot in the past,” Lynn said. “It’s not just a little bonehead play. It’s a skill to run a QB sneak, and I’m not saying that Phil can’t do it, but he just hasn’t done it a lot.”
The Chargers had three plays at the Titans’ one-yard line and couldn’t score. The first was blown dead because of a false start on guard Dan Feeney.
Melvin Gordon was stopped on the next two, fumbling into the end zone on the latter try.
“I have a back that has scored more touchdowns than anybody on this team — a big back. We should be able to get a yard,” Lynn said. “… I felt like that was our best bet.”