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Can New Blood Revitalize Brandon Staley’s Defense in Los Angeles?

The Chargers were helpless to stop the run in 2021. Through an aggressive offseason plan that included the addition of Khalil Mack, can the Chargers’ biggest weakness become a strength?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The moment that ended the Chargers’ 2021 playoff hopes changed the course of the offseason. Remember Brandon Staley’s timeout? The one before a third-and-4 in overtime of a tied game with the Raiders in Week 18? The Chargers wanted to make sure their best run defenders were on the field for what would almost certainly be a Raiders’ run play. But it didn’t matter. Vegas running back Josh Jacobs took off for 10 yards; the Raiders were off to the playoffs, while the Chargers were sent into an absolute frenzy to fix one of the NFL’s worst run defenses.

That the Chargers couldn’t stop the run in the most critical moment of their season was not a surprise. Los Angeles tied for 28th in yards per carry allowed (4.0), and allowed 100-plus rushing yards in 12 of 17 games during the regular season, including the 174-yard running riot from the Raiders in Week 18. Only two teams allowed more rushing yards per game (138.9).

The severity of the team’s struggles against run cost the defense across the board. While the pass defense was closer to middle of the pack (12th in EPA allowed per dropback), the Chargers defense ranked 31st in success rate allowed on early-down runs, per, which routinely put the defense in disadvantageous third-down situations, and opposing offenses were able to convert 50 percent of the time. Only Houston, Washington, and Atlanta allowed first downs at a higher rate in 2021.

Star power wasn’t the issue. Defensive end Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James, two of the NFL’s best players at their respective positions, each made the Pro Bowl, but the Chargers struggled to stop just about everybody, finishing 24th in EPA per play allowed by the end of the season. The problem was a lack of proven NFL talent surrounding Bosa and James, so Staley, in his second offseason, and longtime general manager Tom Telesco prioritized adding not just better players, but players who would also be a better fit for Staley’s defense, which relies heavily on two high safeties and complex pass coverage schemes. That means, however, there’s often one fewer defender in the box devoted to stopping the run. Staley isn’t going to abandon his core defensive principles to load up the box, so the answer has to be more talented interior players.

“All those guys that we acquired through trade or free agency, those guys are proven NFL players,” Staley said last Friday. “As it relates to what I expect from them, I expect us to play team defense. Last year, that was a weakness of our football team. And I don’t expect that to be the case [this year]. That’s why all of those guys are here.”

That all started with the biggest addition: Khalil Mack. The Chargers traded a 2022 second-round pick (no. 48 overall) and a 2023 sixth-round pick to acquire the three-time All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowl defensive end from the Chicago Bears shortly before free agency began in March, believing Mack was a fit not just because of his ability to rush the passer but for what Staley believes he can provide as a run defender as well. He ranked in the top five among NFL edge defenders with 200-plus snaps played in Pro Football Focus run defense grade in each of his first seven seasons in the league. He will replace Uchenna Nwosu, who ranked 41st in PFF run defense grade (56.1) last year.

“We’re looking for playmakers, and we’re looking for style of play too,” Staley told reporters at the time. “And [Mack] brings both of those things. He brings the playmaking ability. He also brings the style of play that we really believe in. And I didn’t think we had enough of it [in 2021]. Not even close.”

The Chargers are counting on a rebound season from Mack, at age 31, as he returns from a foot injury that ended his season last year in Chicago. He didn’t get to pick his destination when Chicago decided to trade him, but landing with the Chargers can give both team and player what they desire—an on-field upgrade for the Chargers, and for Mack, a realistic chance at making a Super Bowl for the first time in his career.

“Ultimately, we want to get to a Super Bowl and we want to win it,” Mack said Wednesday. “And that’s the only thing on my mind at this point in my career.”

Mack gets the hype as the bigger name, but Sebastian Joseph-Day might be just as important to Staley’s plan to fix his team’s biggest liability. He signed a three-year, $24 million contract with the Chargers in March to reunite with Staley, whom he played for with the Rams in 2020. Joseph-Day led all players at his position in PFF run stops (35) and run-stop percentage (14.2 percent) in his lone year in Staley’s defense. And according to Warren Sharp, the Rams’ early-down run defense ranked first in yards per carry allowed (3.0) with Joseph-Day on the field and 27th (4.7) when he was sidelined. Before tearing his pectoral muscle last October, Joseph-Day led all NFL defensive tackles in PFF run stops (18) and run-stop percentage (15.8 percent).

Staley’s 2021 Chargers had no one like Joseph-Day to anchor the 3-4 front. Veteran Linval Joseph had the size, at 6-foot-4 and 329 pounds, but he simply couldn’t disrupt the line of scrimmage enough to make a positive impact defensively, and he finished the season ranked 59th in PFF’s run defense grade (49.8).

Now reunited with Staley, Joseph-Day will be paired with fellow free agent addition Austin Johnson, a 314-pound defensive tackle who is coming off a career year with the Giants in which he played a career-high 664 defensive snaps and ranked top 10 in total run stops (37) and run-stop percentage (10.4 percentage), per PFF. And, perhaps even more important, Johnson has played in every regular season game in each of the past five years.

“For those two guys, when I saw that we signed them, I was like, ‘Man, these are awesome,’” Chargers center Corey Linsley, who has been lining up opposite the Chargers’ new tackles, told the media following the team’s first padded practice of camp on Monday. “Sebastian is a phenomenal nose tackle. He’s definitely one of the best that I’ve ever gone up against. For us to get him and Austin, those are two huge pickups.”

Joseph-Day and Johnson ran with the first-team defense through the first week of training camp and are expected to start inside of Mack and Bosa along the defensive line. Joseph-Day will replace Joseph at the nose, and Johnson will take snaps away from Jerry Tillery and Christian Covington at defensive tackle. Tillery and Covington, like Joseph, were among PFF’s lowest-graded defensive tackles in the NFL last season.

The three new starters along the defensive line are the most significant changes, but not the only new additions for Los Angeles. The team also entered 2022 with questions at off-ball linebacker, and part of the answer should be yet another offseason addition with the exact experience, versatility, and physicality Staley chased in Mack, Joseph-Day, and Johnson.

Enter Kyle Van Noy, who signed a one-year deal with the Chargers in May. He’s already taking first-team reps at middle linebacker, filling in for Kenneth Murray, the former first-round pick who is recovering from ankle surgery. The floor for Van Noy’s role is providing valuable depth at multiple positions on defense and the experience of a veteran who won two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots, but don’t rule out him keeping the starting job at middle linebacker as he continues through camp and into the season.

“We’re just at the beginning with Kyle [Van Noy],” Staley said Friday. “And I think he’s capable of so much. We’re going to use this training camp to figure out the best role for him. Fortunate for us, he can play so many places. I’ve really enjoyed teaming up with this guy. This guy is really, really special.”

Van Noy, Murray, and 2019 fourth-round pick Drue Tranquill will all compete for the two starting off-ball linebacker positions in Staley’s defense. Murray has struggled mightily even when healthy through the first two years of his NFL career, and he won’t even have an opportunity to prove otherwise until he is practicing again, which may not be for another three to five weeks. Van Noy and Tranquill should be the favorites to start Week 1.

The spree of investment on defense is an all-in chip push to ensure no running back runs away with their playoff bid in 2022. Bosa is the only returning starter among the Chargers’ front seven that played more than 50 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in 2021—a complete overhaul that’s already drawing attention from the Chargers’ offense in camp.

Running back Austin Ekeler said Friday he’s noticing the bigger bodies in the box and how the additions are making things a bit tougher to run the football. And Keenan Allen sees a completely different unit altogether.

“The defense is already looking like a 360 team,” Allen said Thursday. “They kicked our ass today, which is a good thing. Hopefully we can keep building on it.”