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Browns beware: Versatile Derwin James Jr. is Chargers’ safety valve on defense

Chargers free safety Derwin James Jr. celebrates.
Derwin James Jr. celebrates the Chargers’ defense Monday night against the Raiders.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

He has gone from playing nowhere to playing everywhere, Derwin James Jr. once again visible all over the Chargers’ defense.

He has been on the field for 97% of the team’s defensive snaps through four games, missing only a brief stretch against the Kansas City Chiefs after he dislocated his shoulder and had to pop it back in place.

Under new coach Brandon Staley and now healthy, James is second on the team with 26 tackles and sealed a victory over the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday with a late interception.

“We came together, me and him, before in the fourth quarter,” edge rusher Joey Bosa said. “We’re like, ‘This is on us, man. We got to do this.’ For him to come up with it was awesome.”

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James sat out 2020 after suffering a knee injury in August, his loss helping derail a team that dropped nine of its first 12 games. This came after a 2019 season in which he was limited to five games because of a foot injury.

Now, similar to his All-Pro rookie year, James is being deployed throughout the defense, from the line of scrimmage to the player positioned farthest from the ball.

Chargers coach Brandon Staley said defensive star Joey Bosa has earned the right to voice his displeasure about officiating.

Staley said the Chargers are using James in five different spots, including both free and strong safety. He’s also playing what the Chargers call “star,” “money” and “X” — each a variation of sets that employ extra defensive backs.

In addition to those roles, James also calls the defensive signals, an assignment that includes making sure his teammates are lined up correctly. Next up: the 3-1 Cleveland Browns at home Sunday.

“It’s a tall, tall job description,” Staley said. “He’s one of the few guys in the entire world that can do it.”

Before his interception Monday, James was beaten deep by Raiders wide receiver Henry Ruggs III for a 51-yard gain early in the fourth quarter.

 Chargers free safety Derwin James Jr. (33) celebrates after teammates sacked Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.
Chargers free safety Derwin James Jr. celebrates after teammates sacked Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. Moving James around defensive formations has helped others produce, says coach Brandon Staley.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Afterward, Staley took the blame for the completion, saying, “the error is really on me for asking him to do so much.”

James chose to give credit to the speedy Ruggs.

“He got up on me a little bit,” James said, smiling. “I should have backed up. I gotta be deeper.”

Despite the miscue, Staley has no plans to dramatically alter James’ workload simply because he is too important, his versatility too vital to making this defense function at its highest level.

Justin Herbert remained poised and productive, and the Chargers’ defense was smothering against the Las Vegas Raiders. Here are six takeaways from the 28-14 win.

The Chargers drafted James in the first round — with the No. 17 pick — in 2018. Since, the team is 16-9 when James plays and 11-16 when he doesn’t.

“If Derwin James were just doing two jobs out of five, it would be easier for him,” Staley said. “You might see more production from him. But it wouldn’t be as good for our team. Him playing five roles for us helps us be the best defense and the best team that we can be. That’s why he’s amazing.”

On Sunday, the Chargers face a Cleveland offense that features the NFL’s leading rushing attack and a quarterback in Baker Mayfield who can perform with flair.

“We just got to keep it going, keep getting momentum because the season doesn’t end this week,” James said. “It don’t end next week. So we gotta keep stacking the wins.”


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