The Los Angeles Chargers offense is stumbling.
After an electric start to the season, coordinator Kellen Moore’s unit can be best described as inconsistent over the past three games. The Chargers have gone scoreless in the second half of two of those games — a Week 4 win over the Las Vegas Raiders and Sunday’s loss at the Kansas City Chiefs.
Through three weeks, the Chargers ranked second in the league in expected points added per drive and offensive success rate, according to TruMedia, trailing only the Miami Dolphins in both metrics. Since Week 4, the Chargers rank 14th in EPA per drive and 31st in offensive success rate. Explosive plays — such as receiver Joshua Palmer’s 60-yard reception and running back Joshua Kelley’s 49-yard touchdown on Sunday — have raised the drive-to-drive efficiency numbers. But on a down-to-down basis, the Chargers are creating successful offensive plays just 35 percent of the time over the past three games, according to TruMedia.
Any explanation for the Chargers’ 2-4 record must start with coach Brandon Staley’s defense. The Chargers are 31st in defensive EPA per drive. Only the Denver Broncos, who gave up 70 points in one game to the Dolphins, are worse. And this version of Staley’s defense, three years into his tenure as head coach, is as bad as it has ever been. In 2021, the Chargers allowed -.40 EPA per drive, according to TruMedia. In 2022, that improved to -.08 EPA per drive. This season, the Chargers are averaging -.57 EPA per drive — which effectively means the unit is giving up over half of a point of value every drive it plays.
‘Too much zone’: Chargers can’t overcome first-half coverage calamity in loss to Chiefs
If the Chargers are going to turn this season around and make a push for the postseason — an almost outlandish concept at this stage — the defense must improve substantially. Even if that happens, though, the best-case scenario is for the Chargers to end up as a middle-of-the-pack defense. And that middle-of-the-pack defense must be complemented by an elite offense with an elite quarterback. Otherwise, the Chargers do not stand a chance of transforming into playoff contenders.
What has happened to the Chargers offense over the past three games? What has led to the inconsistency?
It starts with injuries.
The Chargers lost center Corey Linsley after a Week 3 win over the Minnesota Vikings. Linsley is dealing with a heart-related medical issue and has been on the non-football illness list since the Saturday before the Chargers defeated the Raiders. He has missed the entirety of this three-game stretch.
Linsley is a difference-maker in so many phases. First and foremost, he is a security blanket for Justin Herbert in pre-snap identification and protection adjustments. Linsley was coming off one of the most impressive performances of his Chargers career against the Vikings, when Herbert completed 40 of 49 passes for 405 yards despite Minnesota blitzing on 83.7 percent of his dropbacks.
“Corey was fantastic in the game from an identification standpoint,” Staley said on the Monday after that win.
Over the past three games, with Linsley out, the Chargers have allowed the highest pressure rate of any offense in the league on a per dropback basis — 45.9 percent, according to TruMedia. Linsley signed with the Chargers in free agency in 2021. Since then, Herbert has been pressured on 30.5 percent of his 1,331 dropbacks with Linsley on the field, according to TruMedia. With Linsley off the field, Herbert has been pressured on 38.5 percent of his 408 dropbacks.
The protection issues stretch beyond Linsley’s absence, though. Left tackle Rashawn Slater is not healthy. He is dealing with an ankle injury that is very apparently affecting his play as a pass protector and run blocker. Right tackle Trey Pipkins III has allowed four sacks in the past three games, tied for most in the league over that span, according to TruMedia. Two of those sacks allowed came in Sunday’s loss. Left guard Zion Johnson has not made the strides as a pass protector that the Chargers were hoping for.
Herbert was pressured on 41.7 percent of his dropbacks Sunday, according to TruMedia, and he was sacked five times.
Linsley also impacts the game as a run blocker. The Chargers faced an excellent Tennessee Titans front in Week 2. They faced all those blitzes in Week 3 against the Vikings, which affected their rushing looks. The Dallas Cowboys, too, boast one of the best fronts in football. But there should have been opportunities to run the ball consistently against the Raiders in Week 4 and Chiefs this past Sunday. Those are two of five worst run defenses in the league by EPA per rush. The Chargers had explosive rushes in both of those games — Derius Davis’ 51-yarder against Las Vegas and Kelley’s 49-yarder against Kansas City. But they finished with a rushing success rate of 30.2 percent in those two games, according to TruMedia. They went scoreless in both second halves and had a combined rushing success rate of 23.7 percent in the third and fourth quarters of those games, according to TruMedia.
The Chargers are feeling Linsley’s absence. They are feeling Slater’s ankle injury. The rest of the offensive line, including backup center Will Clapp, has been pedestrian. The tight end blocking has not been consistent, either — though Gerald Everett did have a fine block that helped spur Kelley on his touchdown run Sunday.
look at that man go
— Los Angeles Chargers (@chargers) October 22, 2023
“The consistency of the run game in the second half, we came up empty in that phase,” Staley said of Sunday’s loss. “When you don’t run the ball effectively enough, and it’s loud, then you’re going to have to protect the passer at a high level and really execute at a high level in the passing game, and we weren’t able to do that outside of the first drive of the second half.”
The drive Staley alludes to ended with a Herbert interception on third-and-goal from the Chiefs’ 8-yard line. The Chargers trailed by seven points at the time. That was one of two interceptions Herbert threw in the game. The second came in what amounted to garbage time, with the Chiefs up by two scores. Kansas City defensive lineman Chris Jones hit Herbert’s arm as he threw. Jones beat Slater on an inside move off the edge on the play.
That is another injury we must address: Herbert’s fractured middle finger on his non-throwing hand. Herbert suffered the injury in the second half against the Raiders in Week 4. He has not looked like the same quarterback since. The injury is, at times, affecting how he handles the ball while receiving shotgun snaps. On Sunday, the splint on the finger was dislodged after Herbert took a hit in the first quarter. He handed the ball off awkwardly with his right hand on a few under-center snaps. Additionally, Herbert is noticeably cognizant of how he is falling to the ground to try and protect the finger from further damage.
In his career, Herbert has finished 13 games with a completion percentage under 60 percent, according to TruMedia. Three of those have come in the last three games while he has been navigating this injury.
“Being able to use both hands is essential,” Herbert said Sunday night in Kansas City. “So I think we’ve done a good job of handling it, putting casting on it and taking care of it.”
He added: “It’s a tough sport. It requires tough people.”
And finally: Wide receiver Mike Williams suffered a torn ACL in the Week 3 win over the Vikings. His absence cannot be overlooked. Palmer has performed well since moving in the No. 2 role. He set a career high with 133 yards receiving on five catches Sunday. But the vision for this offense was majoring in 11 personnel with two elite wide receivers in Keenan Allen and Williams and a third excellent complementary option in Palmer.
That vision is no more. The Chargers drafted a receiver in the first round in Quentin Johnston. He has just two catches on seven targets over the past three games since taking over the No. 2 role. Johnston created more separation in Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs, but he remains an afterthought on many of the Chargers’ designs and concepts in the passing game. Herbert has so much trust in Williams, especially down the field in one-on-one situations. He does not yet have the same trust in Johnston.
The Chargers still rank fourth in the league in offensive EPA per play on the season. But isolating these past three games — while considering the injuries that have occurred leading up to and during the span — shows a unit on the decline.
In a perfect world, the Chargers offense would be getting more help. Staley’s defense would be performing.
But that is not reality. The offense has to carry the load. Herbert has to carry the load. Moore’s unit must rediscover its form, or this season could spiral even further out of control.
(Top photo of Justin Herbert being sacked by Drue Tranquill: Jamie Squire / Getty Images)
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