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The Chargers Now Have a Defense to Match Their Offense

L.A. got aggressive this offseason, adding talent in Khalil Mack, Sebastian Joseph-Day, and J.C. Jackson. It could be enough to make the team a true title contender.

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Just after 2 p.m. PT on Wednesday, roughly an hour after the official start of the new NFL season, Khalil Mack, sporting a black hoodie with “California Love” written in blue script under a white arced lighting bolt, walked up to a podium inside the Chargers’ media center. Mack’s quiet demeanor and reserved tone belied the fact that he was just involved in one of the NFL’s most jaw-dropping offseason moves. But by the end of his presser, the onetime Defensive Player of the Year held up a powder-blue jersey bearing his surname above his no. 52, putting a bow on his arrival.

“It’s gonna be fun, man. I know that,” Mack said of joining the Chargers. “I know y’all are gonna enjoy watching the show.”

Mack was referring to what the Chargers will do on the field come September, but the team’s free-agency splurge this spring has already given fans a show. In addition to acquiring Mack from Chicago—in exchange for 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 sixth-rounder—the Chargers signed cornerback J.C. Jackson (five years, $82.5 million), along with defensive linemen Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson. They also re-signed receiver Mike Williams, who had a breakout 2021 campaign, to a three-year, $60 million contract. Considering that Los Angeles entered the offseason with more than $57 million in cap space and has $23 million still available, general manager Tom Telesco and Co. are probably not done making moves. The Chargers already had the makings of a fringe-playoff team with quarterback Justin Herbert behind center; Telesco’s wheeling and dealing has positioned them to leap into title-contender status in coach Brandon Staley’s second season at the helm.

But L.A. is not the only franchise that’s improved this offseason, not even within its own division. The AFC West landscape has tilted. An hour before Mack’s unveiling in Costa Mesa, the Broncos announced the arrival of Russell Wilson, acquired via trade from the Seahawks, in Denver. (“Holy shit,” exclaimed first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett.) In the hour before that, the Raiders acquired veteran pass rusher Chandler Jones in a trade with the Cardinals. (Jones’s new pass-rushing battery mate Maxx Crosby shared a celebratory screenshot from a FaceTime call following the news.)

Since Patrick Mahomes’s emergence as arguably the league’s best quarterback, the AFC’s pecking order has been the Chiefs and then everyone else. The rise of other young franchise quarterbacks has closed that gap; this offseason, the rest of the AFC West has crept closer to Kansas City, too. At the combine earlier this month, Telesco intimated that he understood the AFC West is a tough division, yet the difficulty rating has dramatically increased since then.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Telesco said, sizing up the AFC West in Indianapolis. “We didn’t make the playoffs last year. We thought we were a good football team but not good enough.”

The Chargers entered this offseason with tons of money to spend, thanks in part to Herbert still being on his rookie deal. That made now the perfect time for the team to go all in. The Chargers offense, which finished fourth in Football Outsiders DVOA ratings, will be good; their defense now looks capable of complementing it.

Staley has cut his teeth as a defensive mind—first, in the NFL, as a linebackers coach with the Bears under Vic Fangio, then as the Rams DC in 2020. In Staley’s Chargers debut campaign, however, his defense was not very stout, especially in the run game. Staley’s usage of two-high coverage shells and light boxes has earned him recognition as one of the league’s most forward-thinking defensive minds, but the results last season were underwhelming. The Chargers were so poor against the run that during the second half of the season, they were forced to start stacking the box. Per Sharp Football’s Dan Pizzuta, the team jumped in stacked-box rate from 21st (8 percent in Weeks 1 to 6) to third (25 percent in Weeks 8 through 18). The Chargers defense finished 2021 ranked 26th in Football Outsiders DVOA ratings (19th passing; 30th rushing). According to RBSDM.com, they ranked 24th in EPA allowed per play (21st in dropback EPA per play; 31st in rush EPA per play) and 27th in success rate (46.8 percent).

Sure, the output was disappointing. But the experience allowed for Staley to employ his scheme and then clearly identify where improvements were needed to execute it at a high level. Last offseason, the team’s roster construction focused on supporting Herbert, with Telesco adding reinforcements at offensive line (four new starters) and tight end (Jared Cook). This offseason, the Chargers have been able to aggressively pursue defensive starters that Staley says, “really feel like [they] fit, not only the position-specifics, but also the culture of our team. I think that both of those things have to happen at the same time.”

The Mack acquisition is an example of a perfect schematic and culture fit. Staley was the Bears’ outside linebackers coach when they acquired six-team Pro Bowler Mack in 2018—which was also his most recent first-team All-Pro season. Staley has a unique understanding of how Mack would fit within the team, both on the field and in the locker room. Mack is an underrated run defender, ranking fifth in among edge players ESPN’s run-stop win rate in 2020. He’ll play opposite Joey Bosa, a four-time Pro Bowler who ranked 10th in that same metric among edge players in 2021. Staley also previously coached Joseph-Day for one season with the Rams. Like Mack, Joseph-Day has proven success executing his role in Staley’s system as a run-lane-clogging lineman:

Based solely on improvements along the defensive front, the Chargers should be much more successful at stopping the run in 2022. But, obviously, stopping premium passing attacks is just as vital, especially when considering the makeup of the AFC West. With Denver adding Wilson, and the Chiefs (Mahomes) and Raiders (Derek Carr) already set under center, all four teams now boast Pro Bowl–caliber passers. L.A. needed to address its pass defense this offseason, which leads to an important debate: Is it more beneficial to bolster the pass rush, or the secondary? Staley’s philosophy on the matter is pretty down-the-middle on its surface: “Pass defense is both of those things,” he said Wednesday. But he later explained why there’s arguably more value in coverage players because an offense can neutralize a great pass rush by leaving more numbers in protection.

“With the way that passing attacks are in the NFL nowadays, you have to defend longer because of the mobility,” Staley said. “That’s why I [say] that zone is the worst thing to play, because when you play zone, there’s more air in the coverage for [offenses] to take advantage of [when plays are] off-schedule. When you have good coverage players, you can stay connected longer in the down, and it’s a better place to be.”

That’s where the signing of Jackson is massive. The former Patriot recorded eight picks last season (after nabbing nine in 2020) and led the league with 23 passes defended. He’s also established himself as one of the league’s best pure covermen, successfully taking on assignments with opponents’ no. 1 receivers and traveling with them. Staley believes that having more talented coverage players will allow his defense to play a greater variety of coverages. While many think that L.A. is a zone team, he explained why that’s not completely accurate. “We’re pattern-match zone, [which] means your coverages play like man,” Staley said. “We play a lot of man-to-man.” Considering that, having a trustworthy player like Jackson is important. “[Adding him] is gonna allow us to become a lot more of a complete defense,” Staley said.

Building toward that is a more urgent task than it perhaps was a few months ago. The race in the AFC West is on, and the Chargers are doing everything they can to win it. There is clear alignment between key stakeholders, from owner Dean Spanos, to Telesco, to Staley and to his players. That’s why, despite Telesco being relatively calm when he walked into Staley’s office to tell him about getting the Mack trade done, Staley felt excited about his vision being supported.

“You partner up with a GM that believes in what you do, and you have a vision for how you’re going to build a team and what you need,” Staley said. “It was just exciting to see it all come together.”

The Chargers understand that maximizing their current window is crucial. A team with a signal-caller on a rookie deal has reached the Super Bowl in each of the past four seasons. Last year, the Bengals—in a crowded AFC North—followed a similar route, loading up on defensive stars in free agency to bolster the unit opposite of quarterback Joe Burrow. Cincinnati’s efforts netted a Super Bowl appearance. It’s too early to tell if the Chargers’ offseason additions can produce the same. But, like a midgame fourth-down attempt, they are aggressively going for it.

“Your circumstances change every year,” Telesco said, “due to cap space, where your roster is, and where your QB is—do you have a QB or not? It is just different [this year]. But our goal [every year] is to go win a championship.”