When addressing the media on Thursday, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said he was pleased with the progress of linebacker Uchenna Nwosu and the steadiness of cornerback Casey Hayward, two players crucial to the Chargers’ defensive effort this Sunday against the Steelers.
Nwosu, who strip-sacked Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco last week, is proving to be a valuable piece of Bradley’s defense.
“He has really good strength at the point of attack,” Bradley said. “(He) played really well in those positions as far as setting the edge and stuff. That was impressive. He has always had the ability to find a way to affect the quarterback.”
“(Now) you’re starting to see some technique (and) some pass-rush moves,” Bradley said. “He not only has (the) effort, but if he can incorporate those moves and really learn how to attack tackles and things like that, it will be to his benefit. He has made big plays for us over the last couple of years. He did again [this past] Sunday.”
Nwosu and the Chargers defense will be up against a Steelers offense anchored by wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, a former USC teammate of Nwosu’s. When asked if he’s given some extra advice to his teammates on defending close friend Smith-Schuster, Nwosu mentioned that he “definitely” has given his teammates a heads up.
“Aw man, he’s a really good player,” Hayward said. “He plays hard, it’s hard to tackle him, he’s a good route runner, and he has strong hands. He does a really good job of breaking tackles and getting open.”
In the midst of multiple injuries to the Chargers’ secondary, Hayward’s consistency and reliability will be key in defending Smith-Schuster, according to Bradley.
“He’s been very important, because you can count on him,” Bradley said. “You know what you’re going to get from him every game. He’s a pro. I know that he missed a practice last week, but he’s a guy that really studies and he’s in-tune to it even if he misses a practice here or there.”
Hayward’s ability to always remain in the ebb and flow of Bradley’s defensive system is something the corner attributes to having played in the NFL for seven seasons.
“Being a vet, (I’m) always trying to stay ahead of the game (and) watch the film,” Hayward said. “I also try to still pay attention to what we’re doing… because we might change something each week. I just watch everything going on, so if I’m not practicing (and my teammates) are practicing, I’m in-tune with exactly what my spot’s supposed to do.”
The Pro Bowler’s work ethic has resulted in some “big plays” this season, according to Bradley, including his interception against the Lions in Week 2 and constant disruption of the passing game.
“He’s made some plays,” Bradley said. “Casey is a very instinctive football player. He can see the ball and has a good feel for the routes. He just is smart out there. He understands concepts. I guess the big thing is that he sees the big picture, and it allows him to make some plays.”
Hayward, Nwosu and the rest of the defense have spent all week preparing to face either Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges at quarterback for the Steelers. However, with Rudolph officially listed as “out” for Sunday’s game, the Chargers will face Hodges, who will be making his first career NFL start.
“There’s a little bit of an unknown with his skill set,” Bradley said. “What are they going to do with him? Do they trust him to be a read-option guy? ... We really just have to play some of that stuff ‘rules ball’ and just go for it and probably make adjustments during the game as we see the personality that they take on.”
Although Bradley attested that he will have to be flexible in his strategy going into the game, the Chargers defense remains confident.
“If we still play our game, we still play our keys, (and) we still play our technique, we’ll be alright,” Nwosu said.
Kickoff against the Steelers at ROKiT Field at Dignity Health Sports Park will be Sunday at 5:20 p.m. PT.