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Cowboys scouting report: Breaking down the Chargers defensive scheme

A look at the shaky Chargers defense

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys just got punched in the mouth by the 49ers, and their new-look Texas Coast offense looked more like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the hands of Nick Bosa and the San Francisco defense on Sunday night. Now, they travel to Los Angeles to take on the Chargers.

Brandon Staley was hired as the new Chargers head coach following a one-year stint as the Rams defensive coordinator. Staley, a longtime disciple of Vic Fangio, had so much success in his one year with the Rams that everyone in the league suddenly rushed to adopt the Fangio style of defense. The success also led to Staley getting hired to run the other NFL team in Los Angeles.

However, defense has been an issue for Staley since taking over the Chargers. Just take a look at the defense’s rankings by year under Staley’s tenure:

Chargers Defensive Rankings

Points per Game Yards per Play Takeaways Sacks DVOA EPA/play
Points per Game Yards per Play Takeaways Sacks DVOA EPA/play
2021 29th 22nd 18th 21st 26th 24th
2022 22nd 30th T-11th 17th 21st 19th
2023 24th 29th T-11th 5th 22nd 25th

As you can see, the Chargers have made strides in their ability to produce sacks and have been marginally better at generating takeaways. Adding Khalil Mack to rush the quarterback opposite Joey Bosa certainly plays a part in that, though.

The rest of the defense has been consistently terrible. They give up yards and they give up points, and have generally been unable to stop so much as a nosebleed. Their Week 4 win over the Raiders marked the first time this season they limited an offense to less than 20 points. So what’s the problem?

As mentioned, Staley comes from the Fangio school of defense. What that means is that the Chargers employ a ton of two-deep safety coverage shells, playing way back so as to take away anything over the top in the passing game. This scheme also tends to feature very light boxes, almost begging offenses to run the ball.

When Staley was coaching the Rams, he was able to get away with this because he had Aaron Donald manning the middle of the defensive line. That made it hard for anyone to run the ball despite light boxes, and the heavy use of quarters coverage left offenses no choice but to dink and dunk in the passing game and try to beat Jalen Ramsey and a very talented secondary.

Simply put, Staley doesn’t have Donald or Ramsey today. Staley has largely relied on the duo of Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson to hold up against the run, while interception machine J.C. Jackson was signed to a big contract last year to pair with Asante Samuel Jr. It never worked with Jackson, who was traded to New England earlier in the week after a really poor start to his Chargers tenure.

The run stoppers upfront have also failed to stop much of the run. Los Angeles is giving up 4.1 yards per carry on the year and they rank 28th in run defense DVOA and 30th in EPA/rush. They’re also giving up a league-high 47.2% success rate on all carries this year, which is startlingly high.

While the run defense has been bad, the pass defense hasn’t been a whole lot better. Samuel Jr. is allowing a 72% completion rate while Michael Davis is just a hair under that at 71.9%. Davis has especially struggled, giving up a league high four touchdowns in coverage and posting the fifth highest passer rating allowed.

Second-year pro Ja’Sir Taylor, mostly manning the slot, has been decent. He’s allowing a 52.4% completion rate, but he’s also giving up 12.9 yards per catch despite having a considerably lower average depth of target than Samuel or Davis. In other words, he forces a lot of incompletions but tends to give up big plays when he does give up a catch.

With all of these challenges in coverage, Staley’s defense has really upped their reliance on the pass rush. Staley doesn’t blitz too often, sitting around the middle of the pack in blitz rate this year, but he has two great edge rushers in Bosa and Mack. That said, the pass rush hasn’t been that good this year. Bosa has just eight pressures on the year (tying him for 71st among edge rushers) and is now on the injury list, while Mack has posted 21 pressures, but with nine of those coming just in one game. On the year, the Chargers rank 23rd in pressure rate.

All of this makes it easy to see why the defense is struggling. The pass rush isn’t getting home, the secondary is letting guys gets open (less than 13% of targets are contested), and the defensive line isn’t keeping running backs from breaking free into the light boxes they present. These are the weaknesses that come with running this defensive scheme, and when you don’t have the players to shore up those weaknesses the only other solution is to tweak the scheme.

The Chargers have to hope Staley used the bye week to do just that. On the surface, the Cowboys seem like a perfect nightmare for this defense. The Texas Coast already prioritizes quick underneath throws and running into light boxes, and they put up good numbers against a similar scheme when facing the Jets, who had decidedly more talent.

If Staley hasn’t introduced some new quirks to his defense, then this game projects as a great opportunity for Mike McCarthy and this offense to get right. The table is set well for them to bounce back on offense; the caveat to that is the possible scenario where they don’t get right, in which case there will be some very difficult conversations to have about this offense and its direction under the head coach.

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