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2019 Opponent Scouting Report: Chargers Defense, don’t panic, but Brissett probably won’t look great

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NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

On September 8, 2019 the Indianapolis Colts will kick off the season by traveling to the City of Angels to take on the Los Angeles Chargers. In this Week 1 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

In the past twenty years, our Colts haven’t fared well against the Chargers, going 4-6 including two playoff losses in ‘08 and ‘09. Most recently, our Colts got the better of the Chargers back in September of 2016 when (Buffalo Bills Running Back) Frank Gore’s 82 yards and a touchdown, combined with (ESPN Analyst) Pat McAfee’s three punts inside the Chargers’ 20, helped launch our Colts to a 26-22 victory. Hopefully the result is similar this time around.

Let’s figure out what we can expect in Week 1.


Defensive Scheme

Gus Bradley has been around the NFL as a head coach and defensive coordinator for a decade now. Colts fans likely remember him best as the coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars that held on to his job for four entire years while guiding the team to a 14-48 record in that span. That was a good run for our Colts. Before that Bradley helped lay the foundation of great defenses in Seattle and in no small part, helped usher in the emergence of the “Legion of Boom”.

Unfortunately for Bradley, he left for the Jaguars job a year before Seattle won it’s only Super Bowl. The man that took over for him, Dan Quinn, spent two seasons in Seattle before taking a far better head coaching job with the Atlanta Falcons. I’m giving you all this history lesson because, frankly I’m tired of writing about the Seahawks-inspired 4-3 under hybrid defenses that use a ton of single high safety coverage and it’s mostly Gus Bradley’s fault.

I’ve written about it here, here, here, here, here and here.

Sure, most of those links are to breakdowns of the Jaguars defense, but still, this is the seventh article I’ve written about this style of defense and if nothing else that should be telling of just how impactful those early 2010’s Seahawks teams were.

For those of you that want the full tour, I’ll give it to you, again, but I’m not changing the names and numbers. This breakdown was originally done for the Seahawks defense so if you want to take the time to edit all of the graphics to show accurate jersey numbers for this Chargers defense, be my guest. His base defense hasn’t changed all that much, so without further adieu:

A book could be written with the information that the guys over at Field Gulls have compiled. If you’re looking for a resource this is a fantastic place to start and I’m going to do my best to give you the basics in an easy to understand format. If you want to go deeper, you absolutely can, just click that link and have a good time.

The Seahawks run a base 4-3 Under defense. Danny Kelly of Field Gulls gives us this explanation:

The 4-3 Under, in it’s simplest terms, is a gap control system meant to stop the run and to pressure the passer. For the most part, each lineman and linebacker is responsible for one gap - this makes each player’s responsibility fairly cut and dry and eliminates a lot of the reads and thinking from the game.

In the late 1980’s, Monte Kiffin began coaching for the Minnesota Vikings with a coach named Floyd Peters and they further developed the 4-3 Under that emphasized rushing the passer. The 4-3 Under system uses almost exclusively a staggered alignment to the offense in this basic set.

As you can see, in a basic 4-3 Under, the SAM linebacker is lined up to the outside shoulder of the tight end off the line of scrimmage a yard or two and is responsible for the D gap (to the outside of the tight end). He’s also responsible for running in pass coverage from time to time. The strongside defensive end is lined up to the outside shoulder of the tackle, in a 5-technique alignment, and is responsible for the C gap (to the right of the tackle). The strongside defensive tackle is usually lined up shading the center in a 1-technique alignment and is responsible for the strongside A gap. The weakside defensive tackle is lined up in a 3-technique alignment off the weakside guard and is responsible for the weakside B gap in front of him. The weakside defensive end is lined up to the outside shoulder of the weakside offensive tackle and is responsible for the C gap on his side.

This leaves the strongside B gap and the weakside A gap open. These are the responsibilities of the MIKE and WILL linebackers.

Still with me? Good.

The defense that Pete Carroll now employs uses the basic tenets of the Monte Kiffin 4-3 Under defense and mixes in a variation originally pioneered by the legendary George Seifert in San Francisco. Seifert wanted to create mismatches against the opposing offensive line so he started using his weakside defensive end to rove around and rush the passer from a two-point stance (standing up position). This was the beginning of the “Elephant” position and one that Carroll uses today. We also see this position called the LEO, and in the Hawks’ defense can rush standing up or in a three-point stance.

It’s the same basic alignment but as you can see, the SAM linebacker comes up closer to the line to play hard contain and the weakside LEO is pushed out a bit, maybe a yard off of the weakside tackle. The LEO’s main job is to control the C gap while rushing the passer like a wild banshee and the SAM plays contain against the TE, runs in pass coverage with him, or rushes the passer in some situations.

Okay cool. So ole’ Pete likes his 4 man fronts and uses a DE in a 2 point stance. Danny Kelly goes on in part two to explain that the Seahawks will use more 2 gap responsibilities when their personnel allows. Based on their current roster, I believe they will continue 1 gapping.

Okay cool, these are the basics of their front seven. What about the Pete Carroll secondary? Danny Kelly talks about that too here:

Three main principles of secondary play:

#1 Eliminate the big play

#2 Out hit the opponent on all plays

#3 Get the ball -- either strip the ball or make the interception when in position.

These are Pete’s objectives for his DB’s. Got it.

”We play man-to-man or Cover-3, not much more than that. It’s not a secret.” - Kam Chancellor

Thanks for giving up your game plan, Kam. Danny wrote yet another piece that goes a little deeper into their coverage schemes:

Example 1: Three-down lineman nickel Cover-3 look

Again, this is a very general Cover-3, three deep, four under scheme I’ve drawn up.

Defensive line: In the illustration above, the Hawks have two defensive-end types rushing (No. 91 Chris Clemons and No. 56 Cliff Avril). Those players may go inside or outside the tackle/tight end to achieve pressure. Michael Bennett (No. 72) is aligned over the center (‘nose tackle’ ), and he’ll look to slice through and pressure the quarterback.

Linebackers: I’ve shown a look here where MLB Bobby Wagner (No. 54) would come in on a blitz, perhaps stunting or drafting off of Bennett. In any case, K.J. Wright could come with pressure here as well and alternate coverage responsibilities with Wagner. There’s flexibility. On the outside, you could see Bruce Irvin rush off the edge or stunt with Avril. Seattle has the athletes at the linebacker position to allow them to do both.

Safeties: Because Chancellor (No. 31) is almost a de facto linebacker, you’ll most often see him in the box, stopping the run and taking away short crossing patterns. He can drop into coverage, run in man-to-man or blitz. Earl Thomas (No. 29) would take the seam or post route into his area. If there are two, he splits the difference between the two.

Example 2: Four down lineman nickel Cover-3 look

In this case, I’ve replaced Bruce Irvin with NT Brandon Mebane. This could also be Clinton McDonald. In the case above, Thurmond could be playing man on the slot receiver, with everyone else in zone.

Example 3: Four down nickel look, mixed man/zone coverage

In this case, you see man on Sherman’s side, zone on Maxwell’s, nickel in man, and Chancellor lined up in man against Julius Thomas, for instance. This could easily be K.J. Wright switching with Chancellor, as well.

Kelly really gives us a great look into the basics of the Seahawks defense and what we can expect. I kept reading time and time again about how the Seahawks like taking 3-4 players and lining them up in 4-3 sets and letting them play to their strengths. Typing that and trying to convey what it means, frankly, hurts my brain. Long story short, expect to see a defense that functions most of the time as a 4-3, looks kind of like a 3-4 and could play like either a 4-3 or 3-4 on any given play.

...What about the defensive backs? Luckily that’s a little easier to predict. Like Kam Chancellor said they either run a cover 3 or man-to-man. They don’t care if you know what coverage to expect. The Seahawks defense is about execution, not the element of surprise.

So that’s it. Those are the basic tenets of this defense. If you’re wondering how often Gus Bradley uses those Seahawks cover three concepts:

https://twitter.com/SportsInfo_SIS

It’s pretty often.

Because I am who I am and I just felt that I needed to go further, I found another article that chronicled one of the inherent weaknesses of this style of defense that many Colts fans should find interesting, from Ian Wharton of Fansided:

One of New England’s greatest strengths, throwing to their backs and creating easy yards, is going up against the biggest weakness of the Chargers. If Bradley runs his traditional Cover 3 as usual, even out of dime or quarters formations, Tom Brady’s going to march up and down the field as he did in their 2017 matchup.

The video above is a cut-up of every target to the running backs from that matchup. In total, Brady completed 14-of-15 attempts for 163 yards to his backs. White and Burkhead totaled 12 of those receptions for 123 yards, often getting into the flat with huge lanes in front of them.

What’s notable about this performance is that Bradley’s and defenses architected by Bradley have been similarly shredded on other occasions.

Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks featured Shane Vereen’s career-changing game as he racked up 11 receptions for 64 yards. White broke out with his 14 reception, 110-yard, one touchdown performance in Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons.

Both of those Seahawks and Falcons defenses were either coached by Bradley or one of his disciples. Years after both of those games, Bradley’s defense still hemorrhages yards to running backs.

So there you have it. All Jacoby Brissett has to do is throw to Nyheim Hines in the flat and the Colts should have some success. That is, if Brissett can show even a hint of being able to throw with touch.

Let’s get into the individual position groups.


Defensive Line

As a team, the Chargers gave up just 106 rushing yards per game in 2018, which was good enough for 9th in the league, the Indianapolis Colts gave up 102, which put them at 8th overall, but who’s counting? They also had 38 sacks a year ago, which tied them for 19th. The teams they’re tied with; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts.

Statistically speaking, if you feel good about the Colts front seven, you should be just as concerned facing this Chargers team. Though, there is one area of concern.

Nose Tackle:

Damion Square hasn’t been great historically. and with the other option being a 34 year old Brandon Mebane, this is the weakest point up front for this Chargers team.

The hope for the coaching staff and fans alike has to lie in the numerous additions made at other positions in the front seven as well as (seemingly) half of their starters on defense finally being healthy, if those things can take up the slack for this issue, it may not matter all that much.

Joey Bosa:

Joey Bosa played in 7 games last year and he had 5.5 sacks in those 7 games. Had Bosa been healthy all year, the Chargers would have finished with far more than the 38 sacks they had. Unfortunately for our Colts, Joey Bosa will be playing week one.

Also, I’m not sure what Jeff Driskell did to deserve that level of effort from his offensive line, but this is Joey Bosa, at least stand in his way or something.

What run defense should look like:

This is just a good example of the Chargers front seven maintaining their gap responsibilities on an outside zone run. These plays can be very difficult to maintain that responsibility because it’s a moving target. Instead the 2018 Chargers defenders picked up and moved right along with the Bengals offensive line, leaving the back nowhere to go.

The Chargers defensive line has talent and some depth. First round pick, Jerry Tillery should see some time up front along with second year pro and listed starter Justin Jones.

Starting opposite from Joey Bosa is Melvin Ingram III. Together they have formed one of the best pass rushing duos in football since 2016. This will be a heck of a game to watch the Colts offensive line battle against an opponents’ defensive line. I do think the Colts have a clear advantage with Ryan Kelly at center and Quenton Nelson at guard. Braden Smith is going to need help with Bosa and Anthony Castonzo vs. Ingram should be worth the price of admission all day long.


Linebackers

Starting MIKE linebacker, Denzel Perryman missed most of last year with an injured LCL. Throughout the season, most of the linebacking corps missed significant time, the position was absolutely decimated.

As a result the Chargers signed 84* year old Thomas Davis and drafted Drue Tranquill in the fourth round out of Notre Dame. Both Tranquill and Kyzir White are converted safeties, while Jatavis Brown is a third year linebacker out of Akron who ran a legit 4.47 40 yard dash. These guys can all run and cover while Perryman is the guy that can be found laying wood in the run game.

Earlier in the preseason there was some concern with Perryman as he played deep into the second half of the Chargers second preseason game, when most starters were out. Anthony Lynn said it was just to knock off some rust for Perryman, and thus that narrative was killed. No matter what you’ve heard, Marlon Mack needs to make sure he knows where Denzel Perryman is and how to avoid him.

Making the tackle:

Here Perryman does a good job filling the gap while not getting sucked up into the play which may have allowed Derick Henry the opportunity to bounce the run to the outside. Instead he displayed patience and took a good, instinctual angle to the ball carrier.

This ball was intercepted no matter what:

I’m not sure why Marcus Mariota would be throwing into a group of six Chargers defenders but the clip is right there, you can see it for yourself, that’s exactly where he was trying to throw that ball.

Either way the Chargers were in good position and ready to make a play. I’m sure it could happen but I am choosing to not think of ways that Jacoby Brissett could do something this dumb on Sunday.

The Chargers worked hard in the off season to add talent and depth at the linebacker position. On Sunday we’ll if those additions will begin to pay off.

*number approximate


Defensive Backs

Depending on who you talk to the Los Angeles Chargers have the best cornerback trio in the league. I usually don’t put much stock in PFF rankings and I’m not going to change that now but making their top five means they’re probably pretty good.

The folks over at PFF said that Casey Hayward, Desmond King and Trevor Williams were as good as it gets for NFL corner backing trios headed into 2019. Hayward and King certainly played great in 2018, with King earning first team all-pro honors but Williams is another story. Trevor Williams looked very good in 2017 but spent much of 2018 battling injuries, eventually losing his starting role to Michael Davis.

Davis is currently listed ahead of Williams on the teams depth chart but if you hadn’t gathered, the Chargers corner backs are, in fact, pretty good.

But wait, there’s more! The Chargers also have two safeties that earned first team all-pro honors last season in Derwin James and Adrian Phillips. Unfortunately for the Chargers (and very fortunate for us) James expects to miss at least half of the season with a stress fracture in his foot.

As of this moment the depth chart on Chargers.com lists Rayshawn Jenkins as his replacement but the Chargers used the 60th overall pick in the 2019 draft to select Nasir Adderley. Adderley didn’t play much in the preseason but the one game he did play... well he looked really good. I expect we’ll see the rookie at some point on Sunday, I just hope we don’t give him, his first career interception.

I hope he thanked the line:

I could have easily listed this clip in the section on the defensive line, a good pass rush is a defensive back’s best friend. And yes this is Derwin James, and no, he won’t be playing Sunday, or anytime soon unfortunately. But any decent DB trailing that tight end is making a play on that ball and the Chargers have a lot of “decent” DB’s.

Desmond King:

There aren’t a lot of 5’10” corner backs that can do this to the best tight end in football, Travis Kelce. Actually there aren’t a lot of corners who can do this consistently at any height. Sure, maybe saying he can do it consistently is a stretch, maybe it’s not, King is excellent at what he’s asked to do.

This is stupid:

I’ve included this play, entirely because of how absolutely ridiculous it is. This is really good coverage. No one should look at Tyreek Hill and think “yeah, he’s open.” He isn’t open and there aren’t five quarterbacks that intelligently try to make this throw in a game.

I’m pretty high on Jacoby Brissett coming into the season but I would bet a lot of money he’s not going to be able to do this.


Final Thoughts:

If this Chargers defense can stay healthy it will be one of the best units in the league. On talent alone this is a top five defense. That said it’s not without it’s holes. I do give an edge to Ryan Kelly against anyone they line up at the 0/1 tech and Quenton Nelson is a walking mismatch, so I expect to see some success on the ground for the Colts but I’m not confident we’ll see a ton of it.

The rest of the defense is talented enough that the Colts are going to have to rely on Frank Reich’s ability to call plays and plan to beat this defense. While Reich is good enough to do that, I’m not sure if it will be enough to overcome a tough matchup.

At this point in the season defenses are always ahead of offenses. That’s just how NFL football works early in the season. I will hold off on my prediction until tomorrow but I will say that I expect both the Colts and Chargers to be good defensive teams this season so this game is likely going to be determined by which offense is more ready to roll from day one and from the outside looking in, it would be tough to expect Jacoby Brissett to be more ready than Phillip Rivers.