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Look out! What you see is not what you’ll get against this Chargers defense

San Francisco 49ers running back Wayne Gallman, bottom, is tackled by Chargers linebacker Nick Niemann.
San Francisco 49ers running back Wayne Gallman, bottom, is tackled by Chargers linebacker Nick Niemann during a preseason game on Aug. 22 at SoFi Stadium.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

The defense has been called dynamic, deceptive and ever-changing.

Corey Linsley offered another description for the scheme that Brandon Staley has brought to the Chargers:

“It’s a pain in the butt.”

That was the veteran center’s assessment during training camp when asked about facing Staley’s defense, something Linsley did as recently as January.

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Playing for Green Bay, Linsley matched up against Staley — then the Rams’ defensive coordinator — in the NFC divisional playoff round.

“You gotta be on your stuff,” Linsley said. “He brings a ton of looks. They look like the same looks and they’re not the same looks. He brings a ton of blitzes and twists. You gotta keep your head up. … This defense makes you think.”

Chargers backup quarterback Chase Daniel has been impressed by the football IQ of second-year player Justin Herbert.

The Rams finished the 2020 regular season ranked first in the NFL in points and yards given up. They also led the league in fewest touchdown passes and were among league leaders in interceptions.

In their first playoff game, the Rams went to Seattle and limited Russell Wilson to 11 completions for 174 yards. They sacked the often-elusive quarterback five times in a 30-20 victory.

To understand why Linsley is now a Charger, consider what he and the Packers did to Staley’s defense the next week. Green Bay amassed 484 total yards, including 188 on the ground, and surrendered zero sacks.

Staley was so impressed that, two months later and now the Chargers head coach, he convinced his new bosses to offer Linsley what was then the biggest contract for a center in league history.

“There was one team that blocked us and that was them,” Staley said of the Packers. “He was a big part of that.”

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“Nobody’s going to have a bead on what we’re doing.”

Chargers defensive tackle Justin Jones, on trickery of the new defense

Yes, Staley knows his defense, and he knows his defense works. He learned from Vic Fangio, a touted NFL architect he used to study when Staley was coaching small-college football.

Fangio later hired Staley to work with his outside linebackers, first in Chicago and then in Denver before last season, when Staley joined the Rams and very quickly became a white-hot head coaching candidate.

A former college quarterback, Staley updated — and upgraded — his resume in bold, red ink last year with what he did with the other NFL team in Los Angeles.

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Now, the Chargers are benefiting from Staley’s designs that emphasize multiple personnel groupings, disguised looks and a play-downhill attitude.

“They’re not going to know who’s blitzing, who’s coming, who’s not,” defensive tackle Justin Jones said. “We’re never a standstill defense … and it’s going to change game by game. Nobody’s going to have a bead on what we’re doing.”

Before installing his scheme, Staley first had to sell his players on the philosophies of the defense, the whys behind all the Xs and O’s. Part of that pitch was simply pointing to the production.

 Chargers safety Derwin James makes a catch during practice.
Safety Derwin James is the leader of the Chargers defense.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
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The Chargers had to look only as far as their SoFi Stadium, which they share with the Rams. Staley noted the 2020 performances of players such as Leonard Floyd and John Johnson.

He also pointed to Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson, two players who have flourished in this system in Denver, one of the Chargers’ AFC West rivals.

“It kind of gave them a little outlook on what those guys did and how their production played over there,” defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill said. “So, I think Day 1, when those guys came in, they were eager to learn.”

It will look different from recent seasons. There will be more blitzing, varied pass coverages and multiple fronts. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. will at times line up at safety. Pass rusher Joey Bosa could drop in coverage.

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Safety Derwin James Jr. will be spread all over the field to utilize the abundant skills that made him an All-Pro in 2018. He also will relay in the huddle the signals from Staley, who called James “a rare leader.”

“People respond to him, not just his teammates,” Staley explained. “Players, coaches, everybody. There’s nobody that I would want talking to our defense [more] than him.”

The Chargers released Michael Badgley, making Tristan Vizcaino the team’s new placekicker. See the Chargers’ 53-man roster after cutdown day.

Said offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, “I know this, after being around Derwin for a little bit, I’ll put my money on him over anyone.”

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Through training camp and the preseason, the Chargers appear to have bought all-in on Staley and his defense — the changing pieces, the shifting looks, the plotting to establish and then expose mismatches.

Bosa said the scheme “messes with offenses” because of all the deceit and, in his ideal world, could result in “the tackle spazzing out” and allowing him a free run at the quarterback.

“I mean, I like beating guys and getting sacks,” Bosa said. “But I’ll take some free ones, as well.”

It can be a pain, yes, this defense that Bosa and the rest of the 2021 Chargers hope puts opposing offenses on their fannies.


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