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Chargers Mailbag: Here's How the Bolts Can Get Going 


Welcome back to the Chargers Mailbag!

We'll be running one of these every week during the regular season, so send in submissions for the Mailbag here on Twitter or by sending me an email.

Off we go...

Welcome back to the weekly rollercoaster ride that is the Chargers 2023 season.

I've written about the emotions of how the NFL is a week-to-week league, meaning the result you walk away with Sunday defines how you are perceived for the next week.

Win, and people you're on top of the world.

Lose, and the sky is falling.

That's somewhat of a fair assessment given how monumental each of the 17 games are.

And given how Sunday's game unfolded, there is valid frustration because it's a recipe that has played out before, whether it's this season or in previous years.

Justin Herbert and the offense, even with a slow start, put up 38 points. Special teams put together a solid game. But the defense couldn't get a final stop to turn the tide of the final outcome, something that was said to a man whether in the postgame locker room or in recent days.

Derwin James, Jr. said as much Sunday afternoon, and Chargers Head Coach Brandon Staley echoed it both Sunday and Monday.

"It was a good enough offensive performance for us to win today and Justin was at the front of it," Staley said Sunday afternoon. "Just didn't do enough on defense."

Now, after saying all that, the Chargers season is not over. And the path to the playoffs that Jed is asking about remains the same as what I wrote here ahead of Week 8.

Let's run through it again…

Win 2 of 3 against NFC North foes: A win over Green Bay checks off this scenario.

Win 2 of 3 against the Jets, Ravens and Bills: The Chargers need a win against Baltimore or Buffalo here.

A win over the Patriots: The Bolts have to get this one for conference record purposes.

Win 3 of final 4 AFC West games: This includes two games against Denver and one against Kansas City (home) and Las Vegas (road).

If that very plausible scenario shakes out, the Chargers will have 10 wins. Again, I can't predict that win total will ensure a playoff spot. But it will certainly mean the Bolts are right there.

Look, I know the Chargers 4-5 record doesn't look great at the moment.

But keep in mind that the Bolts remain just one game out of a playoff spot. And that the AFC is a jumbled mess that features 12 teams with either four, five or six wins.

**ESPN’s Football Power Index** currently has the Bolts with a 37.9 percent chance to make the playoffs.

That's the eighth-best odds in the AFC and shows how close the sprint for a playoff spot will be.

Are the Bolts out of the race? No.

Is it time for the Chargers to get going? Yes.

A final note here:

I would be remiss if I don't note that this team was 5-3 last year, then 5-5 and then 6-6.

After the Week 13 loss to the Raiders, people were sending me mailbag questions trusting this team was going to make the playoffs. My point is, each season is new and circumstances change.

But the gist of each NFL season does not and you have to believe the tide will turn at some point. If you don't, that's OK. But we aren't at the point in the season where all hope should be lost given how last year went and the core foundation of this team.

Yes, the Bolts work on this. But it's also one of the toughest offensive schemes to defend.

Jared Goff's average time to throw Sunday was just 2.72 seconds, which was the sixth-quickest among all quarterbacks in Week 10.

Here is what Staley said Sunday about the lack of pass rush on Goff:

"The ball is just out. The way that they play, the ball is out," Staley said. "They throw a lot of screens, a lot of keepers, where it's well-protected.

"We couldn't get it into a third-down-and-long type of football game, a second-and-long type of football game," Staley added. "We couldn't make it that type of game. We were behind and they were able to stay on schedule. They blocked us, they beat us."

Staley's emphasis on third downs in his quote is what stands out to me the most.

In Week 8, the Bears averaged third-and-6.86 on their third-down plays.

In Week 9, the Jets averaged third-and-7.29 on their third-down plays.

The Lions actually averaged 7.46 yards to go on their third downs, but that number is inflated by an early third-and-23 play and then a third-and-11 in the final seconds when Goff took a knee.

The Bolts defense wasn't bad on third downs against Detroit as the Lions converted on just four of 13 tries.

But given the Lions talent on offense and within their offensive line — and their aggressiveness on going for it on fourth downs five total times — it just made for a long day for the pass rush.

One thing that is clear is that when the Chargers can pressure and sack the opposing quarterback (see games against the Raiders, Bears and Jets), the defense plays better overall.

When they don't, such as the zero sacks on Goff on Sunday, the unit doesn't fare as well.

If the defense wants to make a difference down the stretch, they need a consistent pass rush from their edge rushers.

This was the talking point of Staley's press conference on Monday.

Detroit ran for exactly 200 yards in Week 10. More than half of those yards — 110 to be exact — came on two runs.

A Chargers run defense that had been pretty sound most of the season was hit for two long runs that helped define the game.

"You can't give up two runs for 110 yards, so it wasn't good enough," said Staley, who said the Bolts were hurt by poor tackling in the secondary and an inability to defend cutback runs.

The pass defense, meanwhile, was a continuation of something that has been a concern all season.

The Chargers allowed six pass plays of 20 yards or more, something Staley said is a theme with his defense through nine games.

"The theme is explosive plays, mainly in the pass game this year," Staley said. "In terms of 2023, it's just been the passing game. Just haven't done a good enough job of sustaining high-level play.

"I think that there's a lot of good film, and then there are a couple of plays that just really hijack your game, and they can't happen," Staley added. "Whether it's a communication or a technique being played, we haven't been consistent enough. Again, it starts with me."

It's pretty much that simple.

Kenneth Murray, Jr. told me earlier this season that the Bolts defense could play great for 65 plays, but if the 66th play was a big play then it might mean the difference between a win or a loss.

The Bolts emphasis needs to continue to be on finding a way to limit explosive plays, whether that means keeping receivers in front of them or making the first tackle to ensure short passes don't turn into long gains.

Way too early to answer the second part of the question on Murray. That stuff gets sorted out after the season and once free agency rolls around in late February and early March.

But to answer the first part of your question, no. And it's a pretty strong no.

Murray is playing the best football of his career and Eric Kendricks has been solid in his first season with the team.

Behind them, Nick Niemann has been steady when he's filled in for either of them. And rookie Daiyan Henley has flashed a bit when he's been on the field in late-game situations in blowout wins.

Has this group been perfect? No position group on the Chargers has been.

But they've collectively played well for most of the season, a credit to the defensive staff including first-year linebackers coach Jeff Howard.

The weather in Green Bay might need to be 30-below to slow down the Bolts offense, which was humming Sunday, especially in the second half.

Right now it appears the temperature at kickoff is expected to be around 40 degrees. Chill, yes, but not bitterly cold.

I know that fans tend to focus on the negatives after a loss, but we're going to give plenty of kudos to Herbert and the offense here.

Let's not take for granted how special of a player Herbert is, and how fortunate the team is to have him under center for years to come.

He played like an MVP on Sunday and has done so in multiple games this season.

Keenan Allen? The man is aging like fine wine and is on track to shatter all of his career bests in his age-31 season.

Right now he's on pace for 137 catches for 1,690 yards and 11 touchdowns. Enough said.

The Bolts receiver room is banged up with Mike Williams and Joshua Palmer on Injured Reserve with knee injuries, with Williams out for the season.

But we saw Quentin Johnston and Jalen Guyton both step up with clutch touchdown catches Sunday.

Johnston's was the first of his career and came at a pivotal moment in Week 10. He also drew three defensive pass interference calls, meaning he's winning more often that not on his routes.

All in all, the Bolts offense was electric Sunday … and that was against a good Lions defense.

If the offense can continue to play like that and get some help from the defense, the odds are that the Bolts will win more of those close games than they lose.

A win Sunday gets the Chargers to 5-5 and right back in the hunt of the AFC playoff picture.

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