Evaluating the 2017 Chargers: Defensive Line Grades

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Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Chargers switched to a 4-3 defense which was one of the biggest changes in Anthony Lynn‘s first year. Lynn hired Gus Bradley to lead his defense and the impact showed late in the season.

Joey Bosa and Mark Ingram combined for one of the best past rushing duos in the NFL. They combined for 23 sacks which helped the pass defense rank as the third best in the NFL. This is the first time since 2006 that the Chargers had a double-digit sack duo.

Bosa built on his rookie season by registering 12.5 sacks and 70 tackles. Ingram made his debut as a full-time defensive end and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. This is after he signed a four-year, $16 million contract.

Darius Philon got 4.5 sacks in 2017 as a rotational player. Chris McCain registered 5 sacks in his first year with the Chargers which was more than twice as much of what he had over his entire career.

All of them were a large reason why the Chargers ranked as No. 7 in adjusted sack rate with 43 sacks. Versus the run, the Chargers were the second-worst defense in the NFL as they allowed 131.1 yards per game. Los Angeles ranked No. 24 in opponents adjusted line-yards, per Football Outsiders.

Veterans Brandon Mebane and Corey Liuget were brought in as run-stuffers in the previous regime. In 2017, those players saw themselves phased out on pass rushing downs. Some of this is attributed to the scheme change.

While Bradley changed the scheme, the Chargers defensive line kept their coach in 2017. Giff Smith was in his second year as the defensive line coach. Here’s how the Chargers defensive line did in 2017.

Strengths

As a whole, the Chargers have very good athleticism across their defensive line. On the ends, they have elite combinations of size, explosiveness, length and speed. In the interior, they bring a good combination of size, agility and strength. This group is solid at recognizing and processing the play as a unit. They are also tough to not easily give up their assignments pre-snap. Hence, they play with very good speed since they are both athletically gifted and solid at reacting to the offense.

Versus the run, they can use solid first step to split double teams versus average competition.  They are also using solid hands to extend interior blockers, maintain gap integrity and outside shoulder free before finding the ball carrier and freeing up second level defenders.

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On the interior, they create solid push using their strength and hands to push defenders back as well as solid leverage to drop anchor and stalemate lineman. They’re strong at setting edge on outside run by using good, quick feet to beat tackles off the ball and using both strength and length to keep outside should free. The interior is solid at getting into gaps and getting up field on pass rush. Both ends have elite first steps that can get pass blocking tackles off balance.

Versus the pass, they use good strength to visibly knock blockers back on pass rush as well as keep shoulder free versus the run. They’re also good at maintaining bend and tracking opposing quarterbacks on the outside. The Chargers ends use good hands to get tackles off balance.

Los Angeles’ ends have very good motors to consistently chase QBs until the pass is away. They have good pass rush plans with solid counter moves. Both ends are very good at cornering, wrapping and finishing the quarterback when they’re in the backfield on pass plays. Good mental processing speed to get hands into passing lanes when they can not shed blocker. Los Angeles’ d-line recognized screens and draws well too.

Weaknesses

In the interior, they have a solid motor but could be more tough to beat blockers throughout the game. They noticeably wore down on long drives and at the end of games, despite using a deep interior d-line rotation.  

The interior line can struggle getting push when their initially beat off the ball or allow superior blockers’ hands to get into their chest on run plays. They can struggle dropping anchor versus every good lines who can get leverage in run blocking. They can also do more with their hands on the interior to shed run blockers and make the play on the ball carriers.

Also versus the run, the line can attack too far upfield which can create seems. One-on-one, lines with very good strength can also push them back. A pass blocker with good hands and punch timing can also lock the interior defenders out and prevent them from getting good interior push on pass rush.

The defensive line was also not always good at maintaining leverage and explosiveness on long stunts and twists. The interior group could do more to maintain power and balance when attacking and finishing the quarterback. Versus the pass, the ends also struggle versus elite blockers who can recovery versus their primary counter move.

Grade: A-

As a unit, the Chargers defensive line was among the NFL’s best versus the pass. However, they also left a lot to be desired versus the run. They deserve an A not only because of the talent the they have upfront but they also found some unlikely contributors deep in their depth chart. Combine that with a scheme change and Los Angeles’ d-line deserves their high grade. This defensive line created pressure that helped Los Angeles maintain one of the best pass defenses in the league.

Moving forward, the Chargers’ d-line can do more to stay consistent and dominate throughout long drives and tough games. Specifically, they can do more to shed blocks and stuff runs. They should also add some strength players better at dropping anchor in the middle of the line. In the interior, they can also add players with a quicker first step to get interior push and pressure versus the run and pass. At the ends, they can become elite by refining their counter moves versus very good pass blockers. Collectively, they need to improve their gap discipline versus the run too.

Overall, this is a good group that can become elite with more consistency and discipline especially in the interior. Some strength and quickness is also needed to make life easier on the linebackers versus the run. Nonetheless, the group was able to use their athleticism and pass rush skills to help the Chargers dominate versus the pass. Los Angeles will be smart to continue strengthening this unit and build their defense around its strength.

 

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