INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Brandon Staley uses a go-to phrase when describing his pass-defense philosophy: putting a roof on the coverage. In a nutshell, it means preventing opposing offenses from completing passes in the deep part of the field, and that stated goal is the central pillar around which Staley has built his defensive approach.
In their season opener, though, the Los Angeles Chargers might as well have been cowboys camping in the Mojave Desert. No roof on the coverage for miles and miles. And staring into the night sky, the Chargers watched Tyreek Hill soar through the stars like a blinding, flaming meteor.
The Chargers fell to the Miami Dolphins, 36-34, on Sunday afternoon at SoFi Stadium. Hill caught 11 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns. Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw for 466 yards, averaging more than 10 yards per attempt and nearly 17 yards per completion.
Staley’s defense had such high expectations heading into 2023. The Chargers were fully healthy. They only had one new starter on defense. Continuity. An understanding of the scheme. Improved communication and comfortability. Even Staley said in late August that he had been able to “engineer” his defensive personnel “the way that we want it.”
‘Do or die’: Brandon Staley’s Chargers defense must reach the next level in 2023
They had a chance to make a statement Sunday, to prove that those comments were not just words spoken into a recorder or at a podium. Instead, they put together one of the worst defensive performances of Staley’s tenure as head coach. They gave up 536 yards of offense. The Dolphins punted once on 11 possessions. The Chargers surrendered 14 explosive passes — defined as any completion of 16 yards or more. That’s the most explosive passes allowed by any defense since 2011, according to TruMedia.
“It starts with me as the coach,” Staley said. “I got to do a better job.”
Hill caught six of those 14 explosive passes. His 215 receiving yards tied the second-highest single-game total of his career. The Chargers tried different defenders on Hill. They tried different coverages. It did not matter. Hill had his way.
Hill beat J.C. Jackson for a 35-yard touchdown in the third quarter. He beat zone coverage for a 30-yard gain earlier in the third quarter, breaking tackle attempts from safety Derwin James Jr. and Jackson. He beat Michael Davis on an over route off play action early in the second quarter for a 28-yard gain. In crunchtime, later in the fourth quarter with the Chargers leading 34-30, Hill beat Ja’Sir Taylor for his biggest play of the game, a 47-yard reception on a wheel route out of the slot. He then capped that drive with a go-ahead touchdown, beating Davis on a fade from 4 yards out.
“Everybody on defense today that was covering did not have a good game,” Staley said.
Tagovailoa, Hill lead Dolphins to wild road win over Chargers
Yes, it is Week 1. The season has just begun. Plenty of good defenses suffer duds in the opener only to find their groove later in the season. That caveat is important.
At the same time, this is not a one-off issue. The Chargers gave up the fourth-most explosive passes of any defense in the league last season, according to TruMedia. They allowed explosive passes on more than 17 percent of opposing pass attempts, which ranked 31st in the league. This was an area in which Staley vowed to improve after the season.
Instead, the Chargers opened the season with their worst pass-defense showing since Staley was hired in 2021. By EPA per play, it was their worst overall defensive performance under Staley, according to TruMedia.
“Some days you’re the bug,” defensive lineman Morgan Fox said. “Some days you’re the windshield.”
Jackson was playing in his first game since rupturing his patellar tendon in Week 7 of last year. He struggled all game. Hill’s 35-yard touchdown was the last snap he played. The Chargers brought on Taylor for Jackson. Taylor played in the slot. Asante Samuel Jr. shifted to the outside, where Jackson had been. The performance did not improve with the change in personnel.
Jackson’s lone highlight was an interception in the end zone earlier in the third quarter. Even that was marred by a boneheaded decision. Jackson decided to return the interception out of the end zone instead of kneeling and taking the touchback. He was forced out of bounds at the 4-yard line. The Chargers offense then lost 3 yards and went three-and-out. JK Scott had to punt out of his own end zone. That kick went 34 yards. Tagovailoa hit Hill for the touchdown on the first play of the next drive.
Perhaps even worse was Jackson’s pass interference penalty late in the first half. The Chargers had tied the score 17-17 on a field goal. The Dolphins took over at their own 25 with nine seconds left before halftime. After a completion to Jaylen Waddle for 22 yards, the Dolphins faced a first down from their own 47 with two seconds remaining. Tagovailoa chucked up a Hail Mary that came up well short of the end zone. Jackson, inexcusably, made contact with Dolphins receiver Erik Ezukanma.
Miami kicked a field to take a 20-17 lead on an untimed down, the final play of the first half.
When asked about Jackson’s performance after the game, Staley said: “Not very good.”
The coverage was horrendous all afternoon. Staley said he attempted to make halftime adjustments after allowing 264 passing yards in the first half, including 104 to Hill.
“We tried to change up some of the personnel groupings,” he said. “We tried to give a little bit more five-man rush. We tried to change some of the leverages on some of our doubles on him.”
They tried. They failed.
The run defense held up, allowing 70 yards on 20 carries. But the pass rush was non-existent even with Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack both healthy. The Chargers only hit Tagovailoa twice. Yes, he was getting the ball out quickly. The Chargers also did not capitalize on pass-rush opportunities. They allowed third-down conversions of 8, 10 and 15 yards. The third-and-10 was the 47-yarder to Hill.
“This is definitely a humbling loss defensively,” Mack said.
The defense’s performance overshadowed what was an impressive debut from the Chargers offense under new play caller Kellen Moore. The offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, and the Chargers rushed for 234 yards — 117 and a touchdown from Austin Ekeler, 91 and a touchdown from Joshua Kelley.
Controlling the ball was an important part of facing this high-powered Dolphins offense with Hill and Waddle. The Chargers won the time-of-possession battle by more than five minutes.
“We got to do better for our offense,” James said.
Eight months after that unbelievable playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Chargers found another mind-numbing way to lose.
Since 2000, teams that rushed for more than 200 yards, allowed fewer than 100 rushing yards, did not turn the ball over and won the turnover margin by at least two were 110-0.
“Not how you draw it up,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said.
Certainly not how Staley draws it up.
After the game, Staley was asked why, three years into his time with the Chargers, the defense still is not clicking.
“We do have a good group of guys,” he said, “and we just got to come back.”
This was as bad as it could start for Staley’s defense.
The Chargers have 16 games left to get it right.
(Top photo of Tyreek Hill catching a TD pass against Michael Davis: Harry How / Getty Images)
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