Chargers’ defense is missing finer points and allowing a lot of them
The Chargers allowed as many as 24 points once in their first four games.
They’ve given up at least 24 in every game since, although Denver needed a defensive touchdown Sunday to reach that mark.
Still, the streak is now at seven games, which is only two short of the franchise record.
“We’ve really had to fight this year to figure it out on defense,” coach Brandon Staley said Wednesday. “I think we’re a work in progress.”
This was not what was forecast back in January when the Chargers hired Staley after he coordinated the NFL’s No. 1 defense in 2020 with the Rams.
The team statistically has taken a step back this season. A year ago, the Chargers defense ranked 23rd in points and 10th in total yards. This year’s unit is 29th and 14th, respectively.
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The Chargers have been the NFL’s worst run defense for most of the season and currently sit at No. 31 on defending third down. Against the Broncos, they permitted eight of 11 third downs to be converted.
Staley said he likes how the Chargers have limited explosive plays and attacked the football, noting their 13 forced fumbles, a total topped only by Arizona and Houston.
But even in that success there is failure. The Chargers have recovered only five of those fumbles. Indianapolis’ defense also has forced 13 fumbles — and recovered each one.
“We’ve done a good job of staying together and figuring it out as coaches and players because it hasn’t been easy,” Staley said. “I’m excited that we’ve got six games and hopefully more to prove ourselves here at the end.”
The issues start with the inability to stop the opposition on the ground, something that could be a significant factor Sunday, when the Chargers play at Cincinnati. The Bengals feature running back Joe Mixon, who is sixth in the NFL with an average of 84 yards per game.
The Chargers’ defense could not get off the field on third down, and the off-kilter offense could not recover from a two-touchdown deficit.
Mixon also is fourth in yards after contact and tied for first with 19 broken tackles, a particularly eye-popping number to a defense that, at times, has struggled to, in fact, tackle.
Staley explained that many of the Chargers’ problems have been caused by poor alignment or technique along the defensive front. He pointed out two identical plays against Denver, one that went for a long gain early and then no gain later.
“It’s the same exact front,” Staley said. “It’s the same exact cover system. It’s the same exact players doing the same exact thing. All it was was an alignment and a technique between three guys at the point of attack.”
The other glaring problem has been on third down, where the Chargers are permitting a conversion rate of nearly 49%. As bad as that is for the defense, each failure also keeps the ball from quarterback Justin Herbert.
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Early in the season, the Chargers couldn’t stop their opponents on third and short. Lately, third and long also has been a concern as the secondary has suffered mounting injuries.
Cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr., Michael Davis and Asante Samuel Jr. and safety Nasir Adderley have all missed time in 2021. Samuel remains out because of a concussion.
“When some of that attrition hit us in the secondary,” Staley said, “some of the technique and the communication and all these little things that make a big difference started to creep up.”
Harris, 32, is in his 11th season. A former All-Pro, he has not been as dependable this year. Davis also has stagnated in Staley’s system after signing an extension in March.
Back in line
Matt Feiler returned to practice Wednesday on a limited basis. The Chargers hope to have their starting left guard back against the Bengals.
Feiler missed the Chargers’ loss Sunday because of an ankle injury. His replacement, veteran Senio Kelemete, had a tough time, giving up a sack and being called for two penalties.
The Chargers expect to activate defensive tackle Linval Joseph off the COVID-19 reserve list Thursday when he becomes eligible to return. He has missed the last two games.
Joseph also has been dealing with a shoulder injury, something the Chargers will continue to monitor.
Reserve safety Alohi Gilman (quadriceps) remains out. Staley said he does not anticipate Gilman being able to play Sunday.
Bryan Bulaga continues to work his way back from core muscle surgery, Staley saying the hope remains the starting right tackle can return this season.
The veteran has been out since the season opener, when he played 45 offensive snaps in a 20-16 victory over Washington.
“I know that it means a lot to him,” Staley said. “I’ve been really pleased with how he’s attacked it. Hopefully, we’ll get good news here soon.”
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Bulaga, 32, is in his second season with the Chargers. He dealt with injuries last season, as well, missing significant time because of a back problem.
Cornerback Devontae Harris joined his new teammates after being signed off San Francisco’s practice squad Tuesday. Harris and Staley spent the 2019 season together in Denver, where Staley was coaching outside linebackers.
“He’s got athleticism for the position,” Staley said. “He’s got a pro body. He’s got real traits for corner.”
Harris, 26 and in his fifth NFL season, was a fifth-round pick by Cincinnati in 2018. He has appeared in 31 games, with eight starts. His most extensive playing time came with the Broncos two years ago.
“With where our numbers are right now at corner,” Staley said, “we needed to on-board somebody that we felt like could do the job and help us and make us better.”
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