Chargers defense is ready to carry the team during transition year for offense
The NFL intended to increase the intensity when they allowed helmeted practices after a period of walk-throughs.
And that’s what new Chargers cornerback Chris Harris Jr. did.
The savvy veteran recognized a route combination with receivers breaking to the outside, positioned himself in between them and disrupted the play.
“Y’all know I’m breaking them ... up,” Harris told his teammates through microphones attached from NFL Films “Hard Knocks” crew. “Them ... are no goes.”
It’s an illustration of the mind-set the Chargers defense hopes to adapt. The unit added sturdy reinforcements, returned reliable players and locked up the cornerstone of the franchise. With the offense reinventing itself after longtime quarterback Philip Rivers left in free agency, the group said it’s ready to accept more responsibility to carry the team.
“As a defense, we always want the game on our shoulders,” said Joey Bosa, the two-time Pro Bowl defensive end who signed a $135-million contract extension at the start of training camp. “I think we’re up to the challenge. We’ve got a great group of guys and we have even more pieces now. I think it’s all coming together.”
The new-look unit needs to improve in two crucial areas to rebound from a disappointing 5-11 campaign — taking the ball away and getting to the quarterback.
The Chargers, who employ a 4-3 scheme, ranked last in the NFL in turnovers last season, garnering 11 interceptions and three fumble recoveries. They weren’t much better in sacks, registering 30, which ranked 28th in the league.
Both categories are pivotal to stalling drives and setting up the offense with better field position.
General manager Tom Telesco attempted to address the pitfalls by first signing Harris, a Super Bowl champion and four-time Pro Bowl cornerback who played nine seasons with the Denver Broncos, and Linval Joseph, another Super Bowl champion and two-time Pro Bowl player who left the Minnesota Vikings.
Along with his championship experience, Harris brings knowledge from playing in the AFC West and confident leadership. Harris said he welcomed the chance to play for the Chargers coaches.
He’s a solid addition to a young secondary that already showed promise. Harris joins cornerbacks Casey Hayward, Desmond King II and Michael Davis, and safeties Rayshawn Jenkins and Nasir Adderley. Much to the chagrin of the defense, Derwin James — who missed much of last season because of a foot injury — will miss this season because of a right knee injury that requires surgery.
Now the defense must figure how to turn it around — and over — without their star safety. Hayward, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, acknowledged creating turnovers is always a difference-maker.
“As a defense, we need to be more aggressive and adjust our style of play,” said Hayward, who snagged two interceptions last season. “I think we’ll do that this year.”
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said he loves the versatility of the group and expects all to see action, regardless of who starts.
“We’re just trying to find out who we are back there and what’s the best group,” Bradley said. “They’re all going to be playing. It’s just who’s going to be the first one in.”
Bradley said more pressure up front will complement tight coverage on the back side, and that’s where Joseph helps. Joseph stands 6 feet 4 and weighs 329 pounds, and offensive and defensive teammates alike have raved about the tackle’s size and presence.
His length and power should force opposing linemen to double-team him. If they don’t, he’ll create havoc in the interior. If they do, it will free one-on-one matchups for others, including dominant ends Bosa and Melvin Ingram.
Chargers GM Tom Telesco believes teams will be adjusting their rosters a lot to start the season, and no one really knows what kind of team they have yet.
“He’s just pulling grown men, taking them backwards with nothing they can do about it,” Bosa said of Joseph. “It’s impressive. He’s going to occupy one, maybe two every time he’s in there. He should command a double team, otherwise he’s just going to be walking people back. If that happens, opposing quarterbacks won’t be able to step up and that will give me a bigger edge to work around. I feel like they’ll be running for their lives away from the middle this year.”
That’s the type of havoc the Chargers aim to inflict.
“The pressure starts with us on defense,” Harris said. “We want to be the best defense in the league. We know for us to be great it starts with us and we have to hold up our end of the bargain.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
Get the latest on L.A.'s teams in the daily Sports Report newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.