This was coming. What Brandon Staley is doing on the defensive side of the ball in Los Angeles, first as defensive coordinator of the Rams and now as head coach of the Chargers, was predictable.
The passing game, it's been well established (here, here and here), has exploded in the NFL. And like the known universe in which it exists, it only continues to expand. Horrifyingly so, for some, with no end in sight.
The passing game determines which teams are the league's best. It has driven quarterback contracts to another stratosphere. The deals of players tasked with stopping quarterbacks are climbing quickly, too. It has impacted rules changes, which have subsequently only encouraged more passing. It has forced football lifers to change the way they think about the game.
Defensive coaches everywhere have been trying to find ways to slow the wave of explosive passing offenses before they're swallowed. And Staley has made it clear how he wants his team to survive.
What Staley does, at its core, is defend against the back-breaking pass. Like one of his mentors, Broncos head coach Vic Fangio, Staley often deploys two safeties deep before the snap to try to discourage opposing passers from chucking it deep.
The reasons why are straightforward.
With two safeties deep, corners aren't on islands in coverage the way they are in single-high safety looks. With two safeties deep, defenses are better protected against massive shots through the air that help dictate the outcomes of games in a way it was once thought only turnovers can. With two safeties deep, the fast-motion attacks that are now widely popular create fewer problems.
It makes sense Staley would lean into that approach given where the game is headed. It makes sense given the division in which he coaches, too, featuring what has over the last few years been the league's most potent offense with its most terrifying young quarterback. Playing the Chiefs twice a year has a funny way of determining your scheme choices for you.
But is the Chargers style of defense the right one for Week 8, when the Patriots head to Los Angeles?
The answer there is a decisive "no." The Chargers defense is built for the new-age game. The Patriots have been trying to bludgeon opposing defenses with old-school offense for years.
First, it's instructive to get a sense of how the NFL got to this place. How did the league arrive here, where a highly-regarded defensive mind would opt to take one defender away from the running game and insert that extra body into the secondary?
That's the math, in essence.
In a league still rife with well-worn stop the run then have some fun! defensive thought processes, Staley and others are saying enough is enough when it comes to opposing passing games -- particularly on early downs.
Back in 2017, teams passed on 47 percent of their first downs and had a 51 percent success rate, per Sports Info Solutions. As the game has changed, so too has first-down passing frequency and efficiency. Teams are passing on 50 percent of their first-down plays this year, and they have a 55 percent success rate.
The response? According to Pro Football Focus, the use of two-safety "shells" -- what a defense shows before the snap -- across the NFL has risen 14 percent compared to the first seven weeks of the 2020 season.
For years, the league was dominated by single-high coverages. Due in part to the dominance exhibited by Pete Carroll's Cover 3 scheme in Seattle, his assistants were hired elsewhere, and the system spread like wildfire. Whether teams played zone (as the Seahawks preferred) or man-to-man, single-high safety looks became the rule and not the exception.
It didn't matter that Seattle's defense was inimitable thanks to Hall-of-Fame talents like Richard Sherman at corner, Earl Thomas at safety and Bobby Wagner at linebacker. Teams wanted what they had and tried to reproduce it.
But as that happened, offensive coordinators discovered ways to beat the "Seattle 3" scheme that featured three defenders deep, four in the intermediate area and four at the line of scrimmage.
With eight players able to defend opposing running games at the first and second levels of the defense, offenses answered with spread passing attacks. They came up with creative uses of motion to confound defenders. They took advantage of single-coverage on the outside. They put linebackers in a bind in coverage.
Offensive production skyrocketed as teams found weaknesses in single-high looks. One scheme that was particularly adept at attacking what was en vogue was Kyle Shanahan's offense in Atlanta, where he served as coordinator in 2015 and 2016. He worked against Carroll protege and then Falcons head coach Dan Quinn every day in practice, and he found holes in the scheme everyone was running.
Jets head coach Robert Saleh, another former Carroll assistant, saw it first hand as defensive coordinator under Shanahan in San Francisco.
"Back in the day in Seattle," Saleh said last week, "when we reinvented the wheel, I guess, with three deep and we started doing something that nobody had ever seen before, it took everyone forever to figure it out. I mean, to be honest with you, there's a few teams still trying to figure it out. And because of it, teams could just not figure out how to really attack it, and it took a couple years. So obviously we went to a couple championships and had five consecutive No. 1 defenses in Seattle. Teams started figuring it out, and then I'll give Kyle Shanahan credit because he was with Dan Quinn in Atlanta, and he just started (testing) all this stuff against the scheme because Dan took it to Atlanta. And he exposed it to Seattle. And then from there, the floodgates opened."
Shanahan and the Falcons put up 36 points in a Divisional Round win over Seattle in 2016 before eventually falling to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Atlanta's wide-zone running attack with play-action passes -- stressing single-high coverages and linebackers tasked with difficult responsibilities in coverage -- became the norm against Seattle-inspired defenses and hence the norm throughout the NFL.
What Seattle 3 was to defense for almost a decade, Shanahan-inspired wide zone is to offense today. Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur, Zac Taylor, Arthur Smith, Kevin Stefanski, Shane Waldron, Klint Kubiak and Mike LaFleur are all running different variations of that type of offense at the moment, either as head coaches or coordinators.
"So now teams understand exactly how to attack [Seattle 3]," Saleh continued. "But at the same time, it's on the defense to make sure you're putting enough wrinkles in so teams can't throw haymakers at you every single play. So, for example, Josh McDaniels is one of the best coordinators in all of football as it pertains to finding your run-pass weakness, finding the defender who's got the hardest job with regard to a run-pass conflict and attacking the daylights out of him. As a D-coordinator, you've just got to do a really good job of finding ways to move the issue from player to player so Josh and (any other) good offensive coordinator doesn't catch the defense.
"To answer your question (about why teams are leaning toward two-safety looks), it's the job of a defense to make sure you have enough wrinkles so offenses can't continue to throw their haymakers at you. But at the same time, you don't want to get so complex that your players can't play as fast. And so there's a fine balance there because every coach can run every coverage in football, but can every player? That's where the balance comes in."
For Fangio, Staley and others who see the value in two-high systems, this is the natural progression of things.
Offenses have found answers for single-high safety defenses? Teams across the league are built around explosive play-action attacks that survive on the "haymakers" Saleh described?
"Yeah. I’ve seen the defenses adjust," Bill Belichick said last week. "I’ve seen the offenses adjust, and even the foundations -- whether it’s Pete’s Seattle 3 or the Paul Brown, Bill Walsh West Coast offense so to speak -- they look quite different. But yet if you went to those people that did that and the organizations that did, I’m sure they would be able to say, 'Well, look, here’s the foundation of it. Yeah. These are different than what they were, but the protections are the same. The route concepts are the same. We call it the same. It just looks a little bit different.' ...
"As Coach [Saleh] said, whatever the trends are, if you’re good at them and they’re successful, teams are going to find a way to copy them or use that, and then the other side of the ball is going to find a way to break those down and put stress on those principles that you’re trying to coach. And then, eventually, you’re probably going to have to make some kind of adjustment."
But just because Staley's defense sets up in two-high shells doesn't necessarily mean that those looks are static. The Chargers are versatile. Their safeties can rotate down at the snap, turning a two-high look into a single-high defense, with the second safety inserting himself into the second level to take away intermediate routes or help in the running game.
It's similar to what Staley did as he led the Rams defense to become the best in football in 2020. The Patriots got steamrolled by their scheme last season, 24-3.
"They were the best defense we saw," Belichick said Wednesday. "They had a great year. They’re very well-coached, and he’s carried that over to this year with the Chargers. Coach Staley does a really good job of keeping you off-balance, and, again, we’re going to have to make some good post-snap decisions on a lot of things, whether it’s movement, rotations, how the coverage plays out.
"They do a good job of matching routes. What looks like zone, or what looks like some space, closes very quickly in the passing game. And, again, they’re very well-coached. They do a good job of, as the pattern develops, they just pounce on it. It really plays like man-to-man, but it’s not man-to-man, but it turns out to be man-to-man. Those are challenging for the receivers and the quarterback because the match zones are tough. If teams can do a good job matching zones, like the Chargers do, then that puts a lot of pressure on the offense."
"This is one of the best teams in the league in terms of not presenting you with what they’re actually playing pre-snap," McDaniels said this week. "They make one thing look like another, then they try to spin out of it or rotate late, or just make it a little muddy or gray for the quarterback. I think they do a really good job of that."
The issue for Staley now is that, unlike last year, he doesn't have Aaron Donald at defensive tackle and Jalen Ramsey at corner.
The Chargers are talented in spots. Joey Bosa is one of the league's best pass-rushers. Derwin James is one of its most talented safeties. But they rank last in the league in run defense -- in terms of yards per carry allowed (5.4) and Football Outsiders' rush defense DVOA -- in part because of the approach they've taken to defend explosive pass plays.
And while the Rams in 2020 were excellent in terms of holding up opposing running games at the point of attack -- thanks in large part to presence of all-world talent Donald -- allowing the cavalry to come from the secondary and finish the play, the Chargers don't have the personnel at the linebacker level or in the trenches to do the same.
"One of those two have to be good in this system," PFF's Seth Galina told us on the "Next Pats" podcast this week. "You either have to have great interior linemen or great interior linebackers. And the Chargers don't have any so that's been tough. That's really what it comes down to. If you're going to play with two high safeties, your boys up front gotta win. Especially inside."
That's where the Patriots should be able to take advantage.
They've thrived as a downhill rushing attack all season. They use fullback Jakob Johnson extensively and are third in the NFL in their usage of 21-personnel packages, with two backs and one tight end. They also have the ability to go heavy by rolling their two highly-paid tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith onto the field simultaneously.
If the Chargers respond to New England's bigger personnel groupings by dropping a safety down into the box -- as they did against the Raiders with good results (2.7 yards per carry allowed) -- or swapping a defensive back for a linebacker, then that would put pressure on Mac Jones and the Patriots passing game to rise to the occasion. With more single-coverage on the outside, with more space to operate in the deep passing game, it could come down to the rookie's right arm.
But this one could be decided by personnel more than it is by scheme.
The Chargers simply may not have the strength or skill up front to stop the Patriots from running up the gut -- New England averages over 5.0 yards per carry when they run behind their guards, according to Sharp Football Stats -- which could be their downfall.
They allowed 230 yards on the ground to the Browns in a shootout win, 47-42. They allowed 187 yards rushing to the Ravens in the process of getting poleaxed, 34-6. Both of those Chargers opponents made heavy use of heavy personnel, meaning Staley would've been encouraged to get away from his two-high looks in those matchups. It didn't matter.
The Patriots might not score against the Chargers at the same rate Cleveland or Baltimore did. But it's well within the realm of possibility that they do enough to grind out an old-fashioned win over a defense designed to excel in the modern game.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Chargers 24
X-Factor: Jonnu Smith
Despite having some talent in the secondary with James as the queen-on-the-chess-board piece, veteran corner Chris Harris and rookie Asante Samuel Jr., the Chargers are one of the worst teams in football when it comes to defending opposing tight ends.
Part of the reason for their numbers against tight ends -- 10.6 yards per target allowed (31st in the NFL), 71 percent success rate allowed (32nd) -- may be because they've already played two of the best in football in Kansas City's Travis Kelce and Las Vegas' Darren Waller. But the Patriots should try to be the next in line to run up numbers with their tight ends.
To revisit the scheme conversation, if the Chargers opt to play two high safeties and try to limit the New England running game by playing five defensive linemen ... that doesn't leave very many bodies for intermediate-area defenders. And that's where both Henry and Smith should go to work.
"There’s a lot of five linemen," Belichick said of Staley's defense, "and you don’t see that a lot."
Smith was used early and often against the Jets in Week 7 as he apparently worked his way back into the staff's good graces as a passing-game option. In Weeks 5 and 6, 70 percent of his snaps came as a run-blocker. Last weekend, he was targeted five times and he took a handoff in just 17 snaps.
Smith was used wide. He was aligned as a fullback. He aligned as an offset back when the Patriots were in shotgun. He was deployed in-line. He was, in effect, used the way many thought he would be when he signed this offseason.
Smith has been limited in practice this week with the shoulder injury that knocked him from the Jets game early. But if he's healthy enough to be a legitimate factor in the game plan, he could make the difference against a defense that has proven ill-equipped to handle tight ends thus far this season.
Number to know: 31.4
That's the difference in quarterback rating Justin Herbert has posted when he's kept clean (105.7) versus when he's under pressure (74.3), per PFF. Sizable.
That shouldn't be all that surprising. Most quarterbacks are better when kept clean. The vast majority, in fact. But as a rookie last season, Herbert actually had a better rating under pressure (99.4) than he did when clean (97.7). His yards-per-attempt figure (7.6) was better when under pressure compared to when he wasn't (7.1).
Those numbers weren't sustainable, though, and Herbert is finding that out this season. Though he's performed as one of the best quarterbacks in football overall, he's decidedly worse when pressured in 2021. Not only does his rating drop significantly, but so too does his yards per attempt when pressured (4.7) versus kept clean (7.9).
So how can the Patriots bother Herbert?
Attacking the right side of his offensive line would be a good place to start. With starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga out injured, Storm Norton has been the fill-in. He has the sixth-most pressures allowed of any tackle in the NFL, and he's only played in about five and a half games. Backup right guard Michael Schofield is going to be forced into action with starter Oday Aboushi out for the season with a torn ACL.
Blitzing Herbert might work, too.
According to PFF, he's been blitzed 63 times this year which has resulted in 21 pressures. Because Herbert hasn't torched the blitz -- he's averaging 6.8 yards per attempt when blitzed and completing just 59.0 percent of his passes -- rolling the dice and sending an unexpected rusher at the second-year quarterback could pay dividends for Belichick.
Given how Herbert has performed when pressured, if one of every three blitzes results in some heat, the Patriots may be willing to take that risk. In the shellacking the Chargers took from the Ravens, Herbert was blitzed on one third of his dropbacks. He completed 46.2 percent of his throws, and he averaged just 4.5 yards per attempt.