Chargers linebacker Manti Te’o played arguably his best game of the season on Sunday in Jacksonville. Part of that is because he’s getting healthy after battling an ankle injury for most of the season. Another part of that is because he had Denzel Perryman next to him.
The Chargers defense has not been all that good for the majority of the season. The Bolts were next-to-last against the run for the first 11 weeks and fourth-worst in pass coverage against tight ends. Those two things are what linebackers and safeties are typically tasked with.
So, for the second time, the Bolts put Te’o and Perryman on the field together. The impact was immediate and apparent … these two guys make each other better football players.
“Those are two beasts,” said safety Jahleel Addae. “I’m really happy for Manti. He’s been battling injuries all year. He came back and he and Denzel had a great game. We feed off each other.”
Perryman had a team-high seven tackles (one for a loss) but the renowned big hitter also made his presence felt in the pass game. Jacksonville made four trips inside the Red Zone but was held to three field goals and one touchdown. On one particular drive Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles took off on a run from the seven yard line.
He was a full two yards past the line of scrimmage when he realized Perryman had him in his sights. That’s when Bortles decided to throw the ball in to the end zone, taking a penalty in the process. Perryman applauds the quick thinking.
“Yeah, I would have gotten rid of it, too, as a quarterback,” said Perryman. “Or, just anybody with the ball who has the intention of throwing it because I was getting ready to hit him, so getting rid of the ball was a great decision.”
Perhaps it was simple survival instinct or self-preservation that got the QB to do something new in that situation.
“I’ve never done that in my life,” said Bortles, “and I did it twice today. Running past the line of scrimmage and throwing it is kind of stupid.”
Throwing it right to the other linebacker might also be considered kind of stupid. Te’o jumped a route and made his second career interception, a juggling grab that reminded a few people of what made him a Heisman Trophy finalist.
“We saw the Notre Dame Manti today,” said Addae. “The one that’s flying around making plays, he was comfortable.”
And why, pray tell, was Te’o suddenly looking so confortable? Perhaps it’s because he has a perfect complimentary piece next to him now.
“The running game is my thing, so I was excited to face the run game,” said Perryman, who came in to the NFL with the reputation of being a run-stuffing machine and so far has not disappointed.
“We communicate before the play, after the play, when we get back on the sideline, back in the locker room, off the field, a lot of communication going on. A lot of chemistry,” said Perryman of his relationship with Te’o. “We constantly talk. I make sure he’s alright and he makes sure I’m alright.”
“We’re different players but we can play both situations (run and pass) so it’s good to have him out there,” said Te’o. “It’s good to be out there together.”
In a nutshell, here’s why these two are so good together. Perryman thrives on shutting down the run. Te’o thrives on dropping back and making big plays against the pass. When you put them in at the same time, you have all your bases covered because they already trust one another to do the jobs they do best.
Now, what has gone unspoken so far is this: Te’o and Perryman doing well together means they do better without Donald Butler.
San Diego’s highest paid linebacker and incumbent starter played his way out of the starting lineup because he lost the ability to cover tight ends and running backs and suddenly stopped tackling … well, anyone. Te’o’s best games have all come when Butler was not on the field.
After Butler went in Injured Reserve for the last two games of the 2014 season Te’o had the highest tackle totals of his career in the next two games. His first career interception, in a Sunday Night Football showdown with the Patriots, came against Tom Brady when Butler started … but was not on the field for the pick.
When Butler is on the field Te’o has to play a role he’s not suited to. When Perryman is on the field Te’o can be the playmaker the nation saw when he was leading the Fighting Irish to the National Championship game. So, perhaps Chargers fans should be happy Butler’s skills have declined so rapidly.
It's not often you bench your highest paid linebacker, who is still in his prime, and actually get better. But as it turns out Donald Butler's drop-off has actually been good for the Bolts defense.