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5 Questions with Bolts From the Blue: What’s Wrong With Brandon Staley’s Defense, Drafting Justin Herbert and More

Sitting down with Michael Peterson to figure out what’s going to happen on Monday Night Football.

Tennessee Titans v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

In Week 16, our Indianapolis Colts will the Los Angeles Chargers. Knowing the party was coming, I sat down with Michael Peterson of Bolts From the Blue, SB Nation’s Chargers site. You can find him on Twitter here. We swapped questions and answers about this weekend’s Colts vs. Chargers matchup and the article that follows is what I learned about this week’s game.

CS: The Chargers have won three of their last four games and are currently in line for a wildcard berth. Their final three opponents have a combined win-loss record of 12-29-1. Is there any chance, at all, Staley and Co. take their foot off the gas on Monday night, or is this going to be the bloodbath we all expect?

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Los Angeles Chargers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

MP: If history is any indication, this game is much more likely to be a close one than anywhere near a blood bath. I know what it says on paper probably points to a lopsided game, but the Chargers have only won a single game in 2022 by double-digits and that came in week four when they beat the Texans 34-24. The Chargers unfortunately have a tendency to play up or down to their opponent’s level and I don’t see that changing this week.

However, with a revitalized defense, I could see this *potentially being the next double-digit win if Nick Foles comes off rusty in his first start of the past 12 months and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi has one of his best games of the season. Unfortunately that latter variable doesn’t strike up a lot of confidence in me.

CS: Brandon Staley came to the Chargers after being labeled as a defensive genius during his time as defensive coordinator with the Rams. Since becoming the head coach his defenses have ranked in the bottom third of the league. Is this due to a lack of talent on the defensive side of the ball? Has Staley run out of ideas? Have offenses just adapted to his system? What’s going on with that Chargers defense?

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Los Angeles Chargers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

MP: Injuries are unfortunately something that will always get pointed to in conversations such as these. Since the opening week of the season, the Chargers have used a number of different lineups on that side of the ball while dealing with a host of losses. Joey Bosa, Austin Johnson, and J.C. Jackson have all been out for the majority of the season. At times, the team has lost Derwin James, Bryce Callahan, and Sebastian Joseph-Day. However, when the defense was at its most injured during the team’s tilt with the Dolphins, it played its best game of the season en route to dismantling Miami offense. The team got back Callahan and Joseph-Day against the Titans, but even with James out, they still managed to corral Derrick Henry enough to come out on top.

So what REALLY is going on with this team? If I had to put my finger on it, it would be a combination of the wrong personnel, injuries, and a defensive scheme and simply didn’t seem to be clicking with the players who were asked to execute it.

Staley’s system asks defensive backs to fill lanes and rotate in order to go from light boxes to stacked boxes post snap. This is designed to coerce offenses to run the ball over pass — which is what Staley wants — but that idea has fallen flat most of the time as the Chargers have been one of the worst tackling teams in the league the past two seasons. That’s a huge reason why the run defense is as bad as it is. They keep showing ideal fronts to run against but the execution just hasn’t been there. With Johnson and Bosa, two of the defense’s best run-stoppers, it’s also no surprise the defense has been leaky. That’s pretty self-explanatory.

Lastly, Staley has switched up his secondary to run a bit more press man as opposed to off coverage in recent weeks. It’s a big reason why they were so successful against the Dolphins, according to players like cornerback Michael Davis and Asante Samuel Jr. They believed getting up in the face of the Dolphins receivers allowed them to be the aggressors instead of vice versa. If that’s all it took to turn some of this unit’s fortunes around, I cannot believe they didn’t figure this out sooner.

CS: We’ve all watched Justin Herbert become one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He is incredible to watch. Coming out of Oregon there were question marks about his mental toughness and his ability to lead in the NFL. Given the fact that Colts fans are desperately hoping for a first round quarterback in the 2023 NFL Draft, how was Herbert received by Chargers fans immediately following his selection? And now that we know those question marks were silly, how should Colts fans approach the draft this year knowing that every prospect is going to be picked apart by the draft community leading up to April 2023?

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Los Angeles Chargers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

MP: This is a great question.

I’ve personally eaten a lot of crow over the years as I have never shied away from admitting I prefered Joe Burrow or Tua Tagovailoa over Herbert during the pre-draft process. I believed those two just looked so much more natural at the position and I always felt that you could tell a good quarterback from a bad one simply by how smooth they looked in and out of every situation on the football field. Those two just exuded confidence and ability at the time. Hindsight is what it is, however.

The reception of Herbert was still very positive at the time. He grew up with some Chargers fandom in his past and as a west coast kid, it seemed like an easy fit to not only garner some Oregon fans into the stands, but general Pac-12 watchers, as well. Optimism was rampant as many wanted to start the post-Philip Rivers era off on the right foot. But honestly, no one could have predicted everything that has come after his first emergency start against the Chiefs in week two of 2020.

As far as how Colts should handle the draft process, try to enjoy it while it lasts. At some point, a quarterback will be taken and then that will be the guy (hopefully) for the foreseeable future. Otherwise, you may be back in this situation a couple years from now. Emotions will be at an all-time high throughout the months of January-April but just know that this is a rare opportunity for most franchises who don’t often pick this high with a need at quarterback. Enjoy it and hope for the best, but always stay prepared for the worst.

CS: If you were designing a defense to specifically stop the LA Chargers, how would you do it? What would it look like? Any matchups you would try to exploit? Where would your focus be?

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Arizona Cardinals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

MP: One of the defenses I saw the Titans run that looked to give the Chargers a fit was a 4-4 front that utilized some of their more athletic outside linebackers to both cover pass-catchers out of the slot and set the edge in the run game. The Bolts love utilizing two-TE sets and this front would be a perfect counter to those formations. With a stud defensive tackle like Deforest Buckner in the middle for the Colts and another stud at linebacker in Zaire Franklin, this seems like a plausible strategy for the Indy defense.

As for when the Chargers start to spread it out — which I’d argue they don’t do enough — I’d utilize bracket coverage on Keenan Allen in the slot and put your best, most-physical cornerback on Mike Williams. While he’s best known for making highlight reel catches over defenders, it’s mainly due to a lack of deep speed and agility. He wins with his physicality and if you can out-muscle him from the start, the Colts may be able to disrupt his rhythm throughout the night.

Lastly, the Colts can win the trenches by simply being the more physical team. No real secrets there. The Chargers have a weak spot at left guard in Matt Feiler who has regressed a bit from a year ago so I’d exploit that spot as much as possible.

CS: As of right now, according to DraftKings Sportsbook the Chargers are five point favorites on the road in primetime. Is that spread fair? How do you see this game playing out? And what’s the final score?

NFC: Chargers vs Titans

MP:I believe this spread is just right. The Chargers should win by more than a field goal but it’s been tough for them to beat teams by seven points or more.

In true Chargers fashion, this game will likely be close until the end. The Chargers will find a way to make one more stop and likely finish the game with the ball in their possession, but it won’t come until after a ton of stress for both teams in the waning minutes. I predict the Chargers to win 24-20 with it being one-score game for the majority of the fourth quarter.

As of this writing, DraftKings Sportsbook has the Colts as 5-point underdogs at home. If you’re betting on this game, you can find updated lines at DraftKings Sportsbook.

I can’t thank Michael enough for taking the time to answer my questions leading up to this one. Just three weeks of regular season football left so enjoy what you can, as long as you can, Colts fans.

As always, go Colts.