At one point early in the third quarter of their wild card game last Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens’ passing offense had a whooping -2 yards and one turnover on its résumé. While the Ravens are no offensive powerhouse especially when it comes to throwing the football, the number is still eye-popping in the NFL in 2018. Baltimore’s ineptitude to move through the air is only one part of the story, though.
The Los Angeles Chargers’ defense made life hard for quarterback Lamar Jackson and company all game long. Using a 3-1-6 defensive alignment with a safety taking over the linebacker role, the unit coordinated by Gus Bradley was able to stifle its opponent for most of the game. The super star defenders — edge rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa — played a big role in this, of course, but the unit’s strengths go beyond them.
In order to find out more about the Chargers defense ahead of the team’s upcoming divisional round playoff meeting with the New England Patriots, we spoke with Jamie Sewell who covers the club as an assistant editor for our sister site Bolts From the Blue. And Jamie is well aware that the group consists mostly of players that lack the national recognition of their more famous teammates Ingram and Bosa.
“Despite being the strongest part of a team that went 12-4, the Chargers defense doesn’t have a lot of guys that will be ‘known’ to fans of other teams,” Jamie said about the unit before taking a deeper look at its members. “Two names really come to mind, and that’s cornerback Desmond King (#20) and safety/linebacker Adrian Phillips (#31), as both were a First Team All-Pro this year (Phillips for his work on Special Teams, but he’s been just as valuable on defense).”
King and Phillips were at the center of last week’s quarters package that made life hard for the Ravens, and both are players to keep an eye on this Sunday. “King is a second-year slot cornerback out of Iowa, who despite winning the Jim Thorpe award in college fell to the fifth round, as teams didn’t think he had the necessary physical traits to make the step up to the NFL,” Jamie said about the 24-year old.
“That’s proven to be absolutely not the case, as he was named the First Team All-Pro DB this year, and it’s richly deserved. He features almost exclusively in the slot, and what he lacks in straight line speed he makes up for in quickness, instincts, and physicality,” he continued about a player that has been on the field for 78% of Los Angeles’ defensive snaps so far this season and is tied for the team-lead with three interceptions.
King, who also is a dangerous returnman averaging 13.8 yards per punt and 23.7 yards per kickoff, is actually still one of the better known Chargers defenders. The same cannot be said for the aforementioned Adrian Phillips, Los Angeles’ number three safety who has played 68% of snaps on defense this year. “Phillips is a much more under the radar name [than King],” said Jamie about the 26-year old.
“Signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Chargers, Phillips appeared on the transaction log 20 times in his first two seasons in the league, continually being waived and then re-signed by the Chargers. He was the type of player that you groaned when you saw him on the field, because despite the coaching staff raving about him continually, that certainly didn’t appear to translate to gameday,” said Jamie.
“The Chargers have kept him around, though, and after a solid end to last season he has absolutely exploded this season — and is probably just as important to this defense as Joey Bosa is, which is just an insane sentence for me to write,” he continued. “Normally a safety, a lack of healthy bodies and talent at linebacker has pushed him into more of a box safety/linebacker role this year, and Phillips has excelled.”
A look at Phillips’ statistics show why that sentiment exists: he is second on the team with exactly 100 tackles through 17 games, registered two interceptions, as well as a forced fumble and one recovery. “He’s making game-changing plays every week (he had a fumble recovery and an interception in the wildcard round), and despite being just 205 lbs is holding up well when teams try to run at him,” Jamie said.
“Phillips has gone from being a (often justified) scapegoat to being one of the most important players for the Chargers in the playoffs, and I couldn’t be happier for him,” the Chargers writer continued. Phillips like King is a core members of one of the NFL’s best secondaries — one that has been ranked by Pro Football Focus as the second best remaining in the playoffs behind only the Patriots’.
So why is the unit so good? According to Jamie, the answer is simple: talent. “Gus Bradley does a nice job of scheming to his players strengths, but for the most part the scheme is the same one that you’ve seen in Seattle and Atlanta, with the Chargers in a Cover 3 Zone for the majority of the time. He trusts his DBs to be physical and win their matchups, and that’s because of how talented the majority of the secondary is.”
“I’ve already spoken about Desmond King, but at outside cornerback you also have Casey Hayward (#26), who PFF ranked as the #1 cornerback last season,” continued Jamie. “He’s had a slight dropoff this year (but, apart from Darrelle Revis, does any cornerback maintain that level of play consistently from year to year?), but I still wouldn’t be able to name too many CBs that I’d rather take over Hayward. He does slightly struggle with quicker wide receivers, but will usually shadow the opposing team’s #1 WR with a good deal of success.”
From New England’s perspective, Hayward’s usage will reflect how the Chargers view the Patriots’ weapons. Julian Edelman is their number one wide receiver when it comes to volume and indeed a quick receiver. Consequently, it would not be a surprise to see Hayward take on Chris Hogan — mostly an inconsistent pass-catching option for quarterback Tom Brady so far this season — on the perimeter.
But while two of the cornerback spots on the Chargers are occupied by King and Hayward, the third one has seen plenty of turnover this year. “The other outside cornerback has been a bit of a whirlwind this season, with Jason Verrett once again going on IR and then Trevor Williams joining him,” said Jamie about the position. “Michael Davis (#43) has won the job, and is growing into it week by week.”
“An undrafted free agent out of BYU last year Davis is still raw, and I’d expect a quarterback like Brady to test him early and often,” he said about the 24-year old. “But after a shaky beginning Davis has started to show that he belongs as a starter regardless of injuries. He’s 6’2, and runs a 4.3 40 yard dash, so provides the speed that maybe Casey Hayward is somewhat lacking. I think the Patriots will have some success going after Davis, but he’s not a bad ‘weak point’ to have.”
So do the Chargers have any in their outstanding secondary? According to Jamie, one player stands out. “The real weak point is usually free safety Jahleel Addae (#37),” he said. “Addae is much more adept when playing closer to the Line of Scrimmage, but the arrival of Derwin James has pushed Addae back to play the deep safety in Gus Bradley’s defense, and he is just a complete fish out of water there.”
“Addae routinely is late getting over in coverage, takes terrible angles to ballcarriers, and hasn’t looked comfortable playing there all season,” he added about the sixth-year man out of Central Michigan. “However, last week against the Ravens, Addae played as a linebacker as part of the ‘Quarters’ package that Gus Bradley employed, with Rayshawn Jenkins (#23) getting his first career start and playing free safety.”
The plan worked very well for the Chargers, but the question is if they will use it again versus a far superior offense — one that is able to employ a power running game different form the Ravens’ quarterback-based rushing offense. “I’ve seen a lot of people say that the Chargers won’t run the same defense against the Patriots, but I don’t think they really have much of a choice,” thinks Jamie about the usage of the quarters package.
“All three starting linebackers are now on IR, and their replacements simply aren’t good enough to be playing meaningful action. Hayes Pullard, Nick Dzubnar and Kyle Emanuel combined for a total of two snaps last week (and they came on the same play),” he elaborated. “Considering that Phillips has been playing as a linebacker for most of the year. and the other two ‘LBs’ in this formation are Jahleel Addae (who’s far more comfortable in this role than his usual one anyway) and Derwin James, who is just a monster, I’d be surprised if we didn’t see the Chargers primarily operate in Quarters again this week.”
The reason for that is a simple one, thinks Jamie, and the basis of the Chargers’ defensive success fo far this season. “The talent that they can get on the field with that personnel simply far outweighs the talent they can get on the field with a more traditional look,” he says. Going against one of the most creative offensive teams in football, we will see whether the plan — if indeed used — again works as well as it did on wild card weekend.