There are only a few words that can be used to describe the San Diego Chargers defense. On a typical Sunday, those words might also include a few expletives from the fans who so faithfully follow the team.
Needless to say, it’s been a tough year for the defense in San Diego. When parsing the reasons for the team’s 5-7 record, the defense deservedly gets the bulk of the blame.
Someone has to be held accountable for the abominable defensive play because no poor performance in the NFL goes unpunished. But should it be the players or the coaches? It’s obviously a bit of both, but determining how much of the blame goes around could factor into who has a job next season.
It’s a lot easier to give the coaches a pass considering the major injuries to outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney. The team wasn’t very good rushing the passer last season, and Ingram barely contributed.
The Pass Rush
San Diego’s 2012 sack total was also inflated after an 11-sack performance against the New York Jets and quarterback Greg McElroy in Week 16. The Chargers recorded 29.8 percent of their sack total in that game alone, as they picked on McElroy during his first and only career start.
The Chargers also opted not to re-sign their most productive pass-rusher from 2012—Shaun Phillips. The ability of the team to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks hinged mostly on Ingram, who was the team’s 2012 first-round pick.
The Chargers moved quickly to sign Freeney once Ingram went down, signifying that the organization knew they would be in trouble without a decent outside pass-rusher on the team. The thinking at the time was that young defensive ends Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes would also help generate pressure but weren’t going to be sack artists.
Who is to blame for the defensive struggles?
The team’s worst fear was realized when Freeney went down. Liuget and Reyes have chipped in seven sacks, which is in line with expectations. Liuget is actually tied for the team lead in sacks, with four.
The Chargers have generated six more sacks this year than they had last year at this point, but they may be doing it at the expense of coverage. San Diego’s pass coverage has been dreadful this season and is near the bottom of the league in just about every statistical category.
If the offense is improved and the pass rush has been more productive than last season to this point, then the only remaining explanations for the issues on defense are coaching and the secondary.
Safety Eric Weddle is easily the best player on defense for the Chargers, but he can’t do it all alone. At the other safety spot is Marcus Gilchrist, who hasn’t been horrible, but also hasn’t been very good.
The Chargers biggest issues are at cornerback. Derek Cox, one of the Chargers’ big free-agent acquisitions, was benched in favor of Richard Marshall last week. Heading into Week 14, Cox had been benched in three of the previous four weeks, per Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com.
Shareece Wright, San Diego's other starting cornerback, hasn’t been much better than Cox. To further complicate things for the Chargers, they don't have a solid nickel cornerback. A nickel cornerback typically plays more than 50 percent of a team's offensive snaps, yet neither Johnny Patrick nor Marshall have played well in that role.
In the Chargers' Dec. 1 showdown against the Cincinnati Bengals, one of the few games in which the defense played decently, the secondary was still the team’s undoing. With the game tied 7-7, the Chargers allowed a 21-yard touchdown to Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green in the third quarter, which ended up deciding the game.
Being that Green is one of the best in the league at his position, it would be a good idea to know who is covering him. These types of coverage issues have been a problem all season for the Chargers, so the blown assignment shouldn't come as a surprise.
If we go back to Week 2 when the Chargers played the Philadelphia Eagles, a similar play also resulted in a 21-yard gain. The formation is a little different with a receiver wide to the right, but the outside receiver from the pairing runs a post route just like Green did.
If defensive leaders like Weddle and Butler are struggling to execute the coverage, does that make it a bad call by defensive coordinator John Pagano? Yes, but the problem for Pagano is that it doesn’t really matter what he calls—the secondary struggles both in man and zone coverage.
With very little talent at his disposal, Pagano is doing everything he can. On occasion, the defense posts a solid performance like it did last week, but their problems still linger just below the surface.
Maybe Pagano and the rest of the defensive staff aren't doing a good job of teaching at practice, but we know they aren't the ones making mental mistakes on the field and using poor technique.