The 2019 season was a bag of mixed emotions for the Chargers on the field. The defense had games like holding the Packers to 11 points and games where they allowed the Vikings to put up 39 points.
Things could change this season.
Gus Bradley’s defense finished top six in total yards allowed and top five in passing yards allowed. They improved from being bottom three in rushing yards allowed in 2018 to 18th in 2019.
The defense also was 29th on third down, 21st in red-zone defense, and 28th in sacks per game. The stat that jumped out to not only Bradley but safety Derwin James was the lack of takeaways.
Chargers ranked 32nd in the NFL last season.
“Yes, you’ve got to stop the run,” Bradley said on a conference Zoom chat with reporters on Wednesday. “Yes, you’ve got to eliminate explosive plays. But you have to find ways to affect the quarterback. We didn’t do a good enough job last year in doing that.”
Bradley mentioned he wanted to pressure the quarterback the way they did against Nathan Peterman and the Buffalo Bills in 2017 when the Bolts defense had five interceptions.
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In 2019, the Chargers pass rush has one of the best duos in the NFL in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, but out of 30 team sacks (bottom fifth in the NFL), Bosa and Ingram had a combined for 18.5. That means the rest of the team only had 11.5 sacks. That has to change in Bradley’s opinion because, as he said, the more they pressure the quarterback, the more turnovers they will create.
During free agency, the Bolts brass added some defensive players they feel could help turn that around. They added cornerback Chris Harris Jr., defensive tackle Linval Joseph and linebacker Nick Vigil.
Bradley said when he coached Harris Jr. in the Pro Bowl in 2018 he thought the cornerback would be a great fit for his defense and now he has him. Joseph was brought in because they want to bring more explosiveness from the defensive tackle position so they can push back the quarterback into Bosa and Ingram’s hands. The defensive coordinator likes the intelligence Vigil adds to the defense and says he could see him playing all three linebacker spots, and Bradley wants for every player to learn other positions just in case an injury happens.
“We need to mix it up more,” Bradley said. “Playing man I think lowers the quarterback rating. Generally, when you look at them (man-to-man statistics) over the course of a year, if you don’t overdo it, they have better numbers than zone.”
Different schemes affect different offenses. In the 2019 playoffs, the Chargers zone defense did well against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Wild Card round, but Tom Brady picked it apart in the Divisional Round racking up 41 points and over 490 yards of offense.
Now the Chargers defense will be missing a massive piece in Adrian Phillips who signed a one-year deal with the New England Patriots. Phillips played all over the field in the slot, at WILL linebacker, and safety. Now they will need to find someone new. Bradley mentioned RayShawn Jenkins, Nasir Adderley, Alohi Gilman, Desmond King, and even Derwin James.
All those players fit in the position Phillips used to play, but it sounds like Bradley may rotate different players to see who potentially fits where on the defense. He did say it will be challenging to know who fits where until they get on the field. It also sounds like King could be one of those guys moving around the field with Bradley mentioning that King could play safety in their “DIME package."
Bradley mentioned how the defense would need defensive tackles Jerry Tillery and Adderley (2019 first and second-round draft picks) to step up. He said Tillery showed flashes last season, but that he has been focusing on getting stronger and bigger to help him deal with offensive lineman. He also said Adderley has excellent ball skills, which could come in handy to create more turnovers.
The Chargers traded back into the first round to draft linebacker Kenneth Murray from Oklahoma, whom Bradley said has length, speed, and has an alpha personality. The way Telesco, Lynn, and Bradley have raved about the linebacker, they are counting on him to be a day one starter.
Bradley knows how dangerous his division is that features the reigning Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs (whom the Chargers D plays well against holding quarterback Patrick Mahomes to under 200 yards throwing in both meetings last season), the Denver Broncos who have had a strong offseason, and the pesky Las Vegas Raiders who have improved their offense as well.
This could be one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, and to keep up, Bradley knows his defense will have to be disciplined and on the same page to have a chance to compete in the AFC.