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How the Chargers Defense Stymied Miami's Top Passing Offense


The Bolts are 7-6 with four games to play.

Here are five takeaways from Monday's media session with Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley:

1. Simple yet effective

The Chargers defense both flustered and dominated the Dolphins passing attack Sunday night.

Through three quarters, Miami had completed just four passes — a season-low for any team this season.

And while Miami's final numbers look a little respectable thanks to a long touchdown and late fourth-quarter yardage, the Dolphins still ended with a season-worst 127 net passing yards.

Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley and his staff unveiled a masterful game plan that worked to perfection, even as the defense was missing a handful of starters.

With that in mind, Staley said he tried to keep things simple by always keeping the same core personnel group on the field against Miami.

Five players — Drue Tranquill, Alohi Gilman, Asante Samuel, Jr., Michael Davis and Nasir Adderley — played all 51 defensive snaps. And four more — Khalil Mack, Kyle Van Noy, Kenneth Murray, Jr. and Ja'Sir Taylor — were on the field at least 90-percent of the time.

"When you're playing with as many new guys in a gameplan, the last thing that you want to do is jerk them around, when you're playing with as many backups as we were on both levels," Staley said. "What you don't want is a bunch of in-and-out of the game. We're used to doing that when we're at full strength. We're used to doing it because we built our front lines to be able to play that way. That's kind of a hallmark of the way we play.

"But when you get cleaned out, what you really want to do is take an approach where you feel like you can get consistency from the group out there so that they can play fast," Staley added. "Then, have enough disguise, have enough variation within that grouping of what you're playing — blitzes, coverages, all that — so that they can get in a comfort zone."

Staley's quote breaks down how an undermanned Bolts defense shut down Miami's passing game.

They essentially rolled out the same group play after play, but mixed things up to confuse Tua Tagovailoa and his playmakers.

Take the third play of the game, for example. (Note: this is just one play, but it illustrates what the Bolts did against Miami).

At the snap, it appears rookie cornerback Ja'Sir Taylor is lined up in man coverage on Jaylen Waddle. And after the snap, Taylor follows Waddle up the field.

Screen Shot 2022-12-12 at 4.11.19 PM

Yet Taylor switches into a zone coverage when he notices Tyreek Hill on an out-breaking route. In essence, Taylor switched from playing man on Waddle to playing a zone after noticing Hill come into his area.

Taylor and Samuel team up to force the incomplete pass and force a three-and-out to start the game. The early drive set the tone, as Tagovailoa completed just three of his first 17 pass attempts.

Screen Shot 2022-12-12 at 4.11.57 PM

Staley said that "post-snap rotation" is critical to what the Chargers want to do defensively, and that the plan worked because the Bolts were able to disguise coverages against Tagovailoa.

Staley said that while numbers might show the Chargers defense played a lot of zone coverage in Week 14, some of that was actually masked as man coverage, and vice versa.

"If we play a pattern-match coverage, that's a zone in a breakdown for you. It's quantified as a zone, but it's going to play like man-to-man a lot," Staley said. "It may not play like man everywhere in the coverage, but it's going to play like man in a lot of the coverage. We're a pattern-match zone team.

"It doesn't play like zone where you're just dropping to a spot and there's a bunch of air in the covers. We don't play that way," Staley continued. "Our goal was to be close to them, whether we were in pattern-match zone or man-to-man. We played a healthy amount of both last night and I think that the tape will reflect that when you watch it.

"I don't know the exact numbers right now, but I think what you'll see is a healthy amount of both of what I'm talking about," Staley added. "We certainly did not want them running through areas. That's when I feel like they become just really, really tough to cover."

The plan was perfectly crafted through the week and then beautifully executed Sunday night.

And it all led to a dominating performance from the Bolts defense through the air.

2. Herbert thrives on the move

Justin Herbert probably won't win any footraces with some other quarterbacks across the league.

But when it comes to throwing on the run, there might not be anyone better in the NFL.

According to NFL's Next Gen Stats, the Bolts quarterback was on fire Sunday night in that regard.

With the Chargers still not at full strength in terms of starters along the offensive line (Foster Sarell started in place of Trey Pipkins III), the Bolts tried to get Herbert outside the pocket numerous times against the Dolphins.

"It's a great way to affect the defense, to protect your quarterback and to be able to get the explosions," Staley said. "Any time we can live in that world, whether it's quarterback under or quarterback gun, that's what we want to do. We want to challenge the end of the defense. We want to change the launch point.

"We think Justin throws really well on the move," Staley added. "We were able to hit quite a few things last night … we want to continue to be multiple that way."

According to NFL's Next Gen Stats, Herbert leads the league in completions (69), yards (718), and touchdown passes (8) while throwing on the run this season.

3. The timeline for Bosa & Slater

The Bolts might be getting some big-name reinforcements back in the coming weeks.

Staley said Monday that outside linebacker Joey Bosa, who was on the sideline at SoFi Stadium and in the postgame locker room, is trending in the right direction.

Bosa injured his groin in Week 3 and has been on Injured Reserve ever since. The next step for Bosa and the Bolts would be to activate a 21-day practice window, during which Bosa could be put on the active roster at any time. If he is not activated during that window, he's out for the rest of the season.

"I think the individual workout is going better. In terms of opening up that window, that's still kind of in motion," Staley said. "We're working through that. He looks good. It was good to have him on the sideline last night."

Is a return to practice in the cards for this week?

"I think anything is possible," Staley said, "but we'll let you know as soon as that window opens and make sure that's communicated to you guys before practice."

Another Pro Bowler — left tackle Rashawn Slater — has also been out since Week 3 with a biceps injury.

Staley noted Monday there's a chance the Chargers get the 23-year-old back before the end of the regular season.

"There is a potential for him to return. I do think that we're weeks out, but he's rehabilitating in our facility and doing well," Staley said. "That timeline certainly — I know you guys are compelled to continually ask about these players. His timeline is definitely the same as Joey Bosa.

"I think there is definitely a chance — I'm a pretty optimistic person, just in general. He's given me pretty good reason to be optimistic," Staley said. "He's healing well. I would expect that if Rashawn could do it, he will."

Staley later added this on Slater:

"What I would say is that it's not impossible. It has not been communicated to me that it's impossible. That's all I can say. He's doing well."

Get an inside look at the Chargers celebrating their Week 14, 23-17 win over the Miami Dolphins at SoFi Stadium!

4. A little bit of fumble luck

A trio of plays could have bounced the other way Sunday night.

The final result showed that two them went the way of the Bolts, while the one for Miami was a monumental swing.

"The football Gods, you just never know what they're thinking, guys, when that ball is on the ground," Staley said with a smile. "It's not a basketball, where you can predict where it's going to go. Certainly, we saw both sides of things last night."

The pigskin hit the turf three times in Week 14, with the first being a forced fumble by Alohi Gilman that somehow ended up in the end zone after a recovery by Hill.

But in the final minutes of the game, the Bolts were able to secure a win by getting some fumble luck of their own.

With four minutes to go in regulation, the Bolts led 20-14 and had second-and-goal at the 6-yard line.

And although the snap exchange was fumbled, Herbert was able to recover it to keep possession to the Chargers. That led to a crucial field goal and a nine-point lead.

Later on, linebacker Nick Niemann pounced on the loose ball in a scrum after an onside kick. His gritty play allowed the Bolts to run out the clock and secure the win.

"The fumbled snap, Justin was able to get right on it, which we're excited that we didn't kick it or something," Staley said. "Obviously, the onside kick at the end, that has a personality of its own, that play.

"I just think hustle has a lot to do with, I would say, changing your fortunes. I think hustle has a way of evening the math out," Staley continued. "That's something that we preach in our program.

"I think we'll learn a lesson on the Tyreek play," Staley added. "We'll also learn a lesson on the onside kick play because hustle — Nick's hustle, ultimately, won us the game at the end."

5. Other injury updates

Finally, Staley provided a handful of injury updates Monday.

Bryce Callahan (core muscle), Sebastian Joseph-Day (knee) and Trey Pipkins III (knee) will be back in practice this week. 

Staley said the Chargers will hold a walk-through on Wednesday, the same as they did last week, but that trio will be involved Thursday.

As for Derwin James, Jr., his status remains more up in the air with a quad injury.

"Derwin is still day-to-day," Staley said. "You will know as we go through this week. That's where that is at."

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