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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Alex Katson

Chargers’ keys to victory vs. Jaguars in Wild Card round

The Chargers’ season comes down to a matchup with the Jaguars on Saturday, with a likely meeting with the Chiefs on the line.

After being embarrassed at home by Jacksonville in Week 3, Los Angeles will look to exact their revenge with higher stakes.

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Here’s what the Chargers need to do to be successful against the Jaguars.

Early down success

This goes both ways. On offense, LA has been a top-ten team in third down conversion rate all season, but many of those plays have resulted from Justin Herbert bailing the team out on third and longs. In his first playoff game, it’d be nice to get him in rhythm, especially early, by feeding him some early first downs and third and short conversions. Defensively, the Chargers have to contend with a Jacksonville offense that’s right up there with Los Angeles’ in terms of third-down efficiency. The Jaguars convert on just shy of 42% of their third downs, ninth in the league and one spot below the Chargers (43.58%). However, Jacksonville’s offense is also predicated on the quick passing game because their receivers suffer from many of the same deficiencies as LA’s. In Week 3, they were afforded plenty of opportunities to lean into that quick game: out of 15 total third downs, Jacksonville had six or more yards to the sticks only four times. All four times resulted from a run stop on first down – gains of 2, 1, 0, and -4. To keep the Jaguars behind the sticks, LA has to perform more consistently on early downs on defense. To keep Jacksonville at bay on the scoreboard, the same is true for LA’s offense.

Rebound against the run

So, we’ve established that run stops on early downs are generally good for putting opposing offenses behind the sticks on third down. But how do the Chargers, whose 5.4 yards per carry allowed are the worst in the NFL this season, generate those run stops? It’s an especially pertinent question considering that Jaguars running back Travis Etienne is the league leader in rushing yards over expected and fifth in the NFL in broken and missed tackle percentage per attempt. To put it plainly: the Jaguars aren’t blocking Etienne into chunk plays. He’s doing it himself. So, the solution here is to ask the Chargers, especially on the second level, to execute at a higher level than we’ve seen them in a few weeks. Second-level defenders like Kenneth Murray Jr., Drue Tranquill, and even Derwin James have sometimes shown gullible eyes when plugging run gaps if the picture isn’t clear. That’s opened cutback lanes and huge holes, while missed tackles from those defenders and smaller secondary players have made bad gashes worse. That needs to improve, and part of that onus shifts back to the defensive line, who will have to do everything in their power to eat up blocks and clear the way for Murray, Tranquill, and James to get downhill. Expect to see a lot of Breiden Fehoko and maybe more Christopher Hinton than we’re used to. The undrafted rookie has shown some nice flashes recently and could be an X-factor on Saturday.

Jam up the receivers

Let’s circle back to the quick game and what makes it so effective for Jacksonville. Quick passing concepts rely heavily on timing to work correctly, and Doug Pederson and his offensive staff have done a great job this season scheming up those plays to operate on a very precise timer. The way to muck up the quick game, as Chargers fans saw in the Dolphins game, is to get in the face of receivers and disrupt the timing of routes. Oftentimes, these concepts are thrown to spots, not players, and ensuring that the player can’t get to his spot by the time the quarterback hits the top of his drop throws a wrench in the whole play. Los Angeles did a fantastic job of this against Miami while mixing in exotic pressure packages to get Tua Tagovailoa even more off-rhythm. The key difference between the Dolphins’ offense and this Jaguars team is that Jacksonville lacks the speed Miami has. Los Angeles can, therefore, afford to add an extra man into the box as a coverage player or extra man in run support. Perhaps that means we see more packages with Derwin James, Nasir Adderley, and Alohi Gilman all on the field at the same time, with James rolled down into the box. Jacksonville’s primary threats are Christian Kirk and Evan Engram, who do most of their damage split out into the slot. This is why I think Bryce Callahan got a rest week against Denver: LA needs him at his healthiest to battle with Kirk all game. James will likely take the bulk of the Engram assignment, while Michael Davis will be tasked with getting physical with Zay Jones to minimize his impact. The Chargers have the personnel to jam Jacksonville at the line, and the Jaguars don’t have the speed to make them pay for being overaggressive.

To blitz and be blitzed

Jacksonville and LA are two of the most blitz-heavy teams in the league on third down. They also have two of the best quarterbacks in the league at handling the blitz. Trevor Lawrence has been outstanding this season when teams send an extra rusher, largely because Jacksonville is one of the best teams in the league at picking up the blitz. With no pressure coming, even with extra rushers bearing down, Lawrence can scan the field and find the open window with precision almost every time. Now, Lawrence has struggled when the pressure actually gets home. With rushers in his face, the second-year QB’s passer rating drops to 62.7 with 15 turnover-worthy plays (per PFF), and his nine lost fumbles on the season are the most in the league. Such is the conundrum: to blitz Lawrence is to risk being picked apart if his protection holds up, with the knowledge that you can force a mistake if you can get home.

Conversely, the Chargers have been less effective at picking up the blitz. Austin Ekeler and Joshua Kelley are good pass protectors, but there’s always one small thing that goes wrong when the Chargers face an extra rusher and suddenly, Justin Herbert is running for his life. Luckily, Herbert can do that: nearly every metric places him amongst the best in the league at delivering under duress. But Jacksonville is a man-coverage-heavy team, which is a worse matchup for the Chargers’ plodding receiving corps. Against zone blitzes, you can ask a receiver to settle between zones to give Herbert a target to find as the rush closes in. Against man, you have to ask one of those receivers to either create separation or win a contested catch situation. Such, again, is the conundrum: Herbert can escape for an extra few moments, but if his receivers can’t break free, does it really matter?

The lesson here is twofold: if the Chargers are going to blitz, which they will, they must get a rusher home to be effective. If they’re going to be blitzed, which they will, they have to execute at a level beyond their usual capabilities.

Generate interior pressure

The weakness of this Jacksonville offensive line is up the middle. Neither Tyler Shatley nor Ben Bartch has been viable options at left guard, and Shatley is coming off allowing three pressures last week against Tennessee. Right guard Brandon Scherff has an All-Pro pedigree and played in every game for the first time since 2016, but abdomen and ankle injuries rendered him questionable and less effective than normal versus the Titans. Center Luke Fortner is playing well for a rookie, but there are still times when you’re very plainly reminded that he is indeed a rookie. On the exteriors, Walker Little and Jawaan Taylor have performed about as well as you can ask for. Taylor has mastered the art of timing the snap – don’t be upset if he doesn’t get called for false starts on Saturday because they aren’t. It’s allowed him to make up for subpar movement skills by getting a head start to the corner. Little stepped in halfway through the season after an injury to Cam Robinson and has looked the part, by and large. For the Chargers, the path here is pretty obvious. Morgan Fox needs to continue his stellar season, which has already cemented him as one of the more valuable free-agent pickups of the offseason anywhere in the NFL. That’s step one. Step two is unleashing Kyle Van Noy the way the Chargers intended to coming into the year. The two-time Super Bowl champ has been pigeonholed into more of a traditional EDGE role since Joey Bosa’s injury against this Jacksonville squad in Week 3. With Bosa back, LA can move Van Noy all over the formation. Bosa or Khalil Mack can kick inside to get a one-on-one with a guard while Van Noy rushes from the perimeter. The linebacker can line up head-up with an interior lineman and then rush as a blitzer or drop into coverage while Drue Tranquill or Kenneth Murray get after the QB instead. To get back to a previous point, Lawrence is a much different player under pressure, and the best way to create that pressure is to overload the interior of the line, especially on the left side.

Give Herbert time

Back to the offense, which we’ve now established is going to be up against some aggressive man coverage. Jacksonville can afford to play coverage like that because LA doesn’t have a threat over the top to punish aggressiveness, especially now that Mike Williams (back) has been ruled out. The Chargers receivers are also not premier separators underneath: the closest thing they have is Keenan Allen, who still flashes that ability at times but has largely looked sluggish since coming back from an early-season hamstring injury. That means LA needs more time for even short routes to develop. Jacksonville, as we’ve already established, is going to send the blitz after Justin Herbert. Even if they don’t, their rush tendencies are uniquely built to beat the Chargers. Josh Allen is one of the better speed rushers in the game, a trait that left tackle Jamaree Salyer has struggled with throughout his solid rookie season. Arden Key has been a monster on stunts and loops, which the Chargers have had issues picking up cleanly because of injuries causing shuffling along the line and general ineffectiveness at times. So, LA has to find a way to avoid that threat and get Herbert more time to make a play as his receivers plod down the field.

There’s two ways the Chargers can attack this. Number one: focus on the slot. Jacksonville’s interior secondary players have been much worse than their exterior ones, which isn’t a knock given the seasons Tyson Campbell and Darious Williams have had. Keenan Allen historically does most of his damage from the slot and has had at least five receptions in each of the last eight games. It’s harder to press receivers from the slot, which gives Allen more time to win with his craftiness in space. Tight end Gerald Everett also fits into this equation as an option over the middle of the field on (gulp) stick routes.

Number two: get Herbert in space. The Chargers’ offense has been at its best when they redefine the boundaries of the pocket by getting Herbert moving on bootlegs and play-action looks. Herbert is always a threat to run for a few yards, which draws a defender down to account for him. They’re naturally longer-developing plays, which gives the receiving corps enough time to get open on crossing routes by the time Herbert is ready to let the ball loose. They avoid the interior offensive line, where LA has given up its fair share of pressure against a litany of outstanding pass rushers this season.

As long as Herbert has enough time to make a play, there’s little reason to doubt that he will. He looked locked in against Denver before being taken out for rest reasons and has played some of his best football with his back against the wall. He just needs to keep his back off the ground if the Chargers are to come away with the win.

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