Breaking Down San Diego's Defensive Struggles Against Atlanta

Christopher HansenNFL AnalystSeptember 25, 2012

September 23, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones (11) catches a touchdown pass while being defended by San Diego Chargers cornerback Quentin Jammer (23) during the second quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-US PRESSWIRE
Christopher Hanewinckel-US PRESSWIRE

The San Diego Chargers started the year 2-0 and won their first two games in convincing fashion. The Atlanta Falcons came to San Diego in Week 3 in what was expected to be a tough game. It turned into a blowout loss for the Chargers with Philip Rivers throwing two interceptions and the defense allowing 20 points in the first half.

For the Chargers, the lack of defense is concerning. The team changed defensive coordinators again and spent two premium draft picks on Melvin Ingram and Kendall Reyes. The defense was supposed to dominate when Rivers and the offense was clicking and keep the Chargers in games when they were not.

The defense might be able to dominate when Rivers and the offense are scoring points, but it couldn’t keep the Chargers in the game when the offense was struggling. Until it does, the Chargers shouldn’t be considered a threat in the playoffs even if they manage to win the AFC West.

What did San Diego do that made it so easy on the Falcons? The simple answer is that it gave Matt Ryan easy reads, a lot of time to throw and Atlanta’s receivers a lot of space to operate.


Play No. 1

Ryan is emerging as one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, and allowing him to make early pre-snap reads is a recipe for failure. Atlanta put Roddy White onto the same side of the formation as Julio Jones and no defender follows him over. That’s an easy read for any quarterback; the Chargers are playing zone.

The defenders give a lot of cushion, allowing the Falcons to have nearly unlimited options on first down. White could have run a short out with Jones blocking, and Eric Weddle is playing so far off he will not be able to get to Whiter before he gets a first down, and potentially more. The Falcons could also run a wide receiver screen and likely pick up good yardage with the defense giving so much space and quickly backpedaling at the snap of the ball.

The Falcons run a double post, which is a perfect play for this zone coverage because White takes Weddle toward the center of the field and away from Jones. Jones was wide open underneath against Antoine Cason, who has to cover Jones and protect deep.

The Chargers only rush four on first down, but that gives Ryan a lot of time to find his deep target.

The cushion allowed Jones to make the easy catch, and if Cason doesn’t come up and make a solid tackle, Jones is going to take this one the distance. Cason manages to trip up Jones, but the result is a big play.

The Falcons are a good offense, but this was way too easy to execute. San Diego’s linebackers need to sink into deeper into their zones to cut off passing lanes, get more pressure with just a four-man rush and not yield so much space to wide receivers.


Play No. 2

It’s 3rd-and-10, and the Chargers rush only four in an obvious passing situation. The Chargers used Marcus Gilchrist as the nickel cornerback on the slot receiver to the left. White is isolated on Quentin Jammer, who pressed at the line (circled).  Ryan knew from his pre-snap read that he had man coverage on the outside with a single safety over the top.

White gets a good release, and that’s enough for Ryan, but the play is not made until the safety commits to the slot receiver coming across the field.

Ryan is patient and allowed his slot receiver to draw the safety up and away from White. Ryan gets excellent protection thanks to the four-man rush.

White gained a half-step on Jammer at the line of scrimmage and just enough space on his cut to make the grab in front of the safety. The result is a first down.

This drive would not turn into a touchdown, mostly because the Falcons didn’t need to challenge the Chargers up 20-3. This was a good play by the Falcons, but it was made possible because the Chargers didn’t put pressure on Ryan or make any attempt to confuse him with their coverage.


The Conclusion

The defense may be fine against run-heavy teams or when the offense gets a lead, but problems start appearing against pass-centric teams, and those problems become glaring when the team is playing from behind. If Philip Rivers has intermittent issues throwing interceptions and getting the ball into the end zone, the Chargers could struggle as the defense continues to try and find its identity.

Defensive coordinator John Pagano would be wise to take a few more risks on defense like sending more than four rushers, having defenders shift into their zones late and giving the cornerbacks help over the top so they don’t have to yield so much cushion to wide receivers.