The Chargers once again have an opportunity to climb over the .500 mark for the first time this season. To do so, they’ll have to beat the NFC North-leading Lions. Detroit visits SoFi Stadium while having only lost one game on the road this year.
While the wins over the Jets and Bears were critical for the Chargers to be able to tread water in the AFC wild card field, this is the game that will tell us a lot about who this Chargers team is. Let’s talk about what the Chargers can do to get a win over Dan Campbell and company.
Mind the YAC
Everyone remembers the rather infamous defensive gameplan the Chargers deployed against the Chiefs in the first half of their Week 7 matchup. While there were some man coverage concepts, it was what Kansas City did after the catch against zone that killed LA on big plays repeatedly.
Ben Johnson’s offense is predicated on a lot of concepts that create some yards after catch opportunities for his players. Sam LaPorta is eighth amongst tight ends in YAC. Amon-Ra St. Brown is tenth amongst wide receivers in the same category. In general, expect a lot of modified mesh concepts and certainly some shallow crossers.
Running back Jahmyr Gibbs has been one of the most explosive players in the league in the run game and the Lions are actively trying to get him more involved in the receiving aspect. Gibbs has 20 targets in his last three games.
Simply put, the Chargers have to mind what the Lions are going to do in the short game as opposed to respecting the deep ball. If Brandon Staley comes out with a soft zone in this one, the game could get out of hand quickly if the Chargers aren’t creating a lot of pressure.
Another stellar pass rush week against a tougher O-Line
PFF ranks the Lions 1st among all offensive lines in the league. They’re bolstered by the performance of Penei Sewell at right tackle. After allowing 28 pressures last season, the former Oregon prospect has allowed just five this season.
The rest of the offensive line has been solid as well. Frank Ragnow is still one of the league’s top centers. Left Tackle Taylor Decker has rounded into form recently after returning from an ankle injury. They also have above-average depth in the league behind their main starters.
The Chargers’ defensive front has been great at stopping the run and for the most part, I expect that to continue. The real question is whether they can maintain the pass-rushing production they recorded against the beleaguered Jets and Bears offensive lines.
The 31 pressures they got against the Jets are probably out of the question, but I’d be impressed if they could get 15-20 pressures this week. Considering the state of the Chargers’ cornerback room, they’ll probably need to. It would be great to see more of the NASCAR package that they deploy with Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack, Morgan Fox, and Tuli Tuipulotu. It’s been one of the most efficient pass-rush groupings in the league.
Maintaining the red zone advantage
Kellen Moore came to Los Angeles with the reputation of being a very efficient red zone playcaller. Dallas ranked 1st in the league in red zone conversion percentage last year. The Chargers so far in 2023 are 2nd in the league in RZ% in 2023. Detroit’s defense meanwhile ranks 27th in red zone conversion percentage allowed.
The Chargers are also middle of the pack in red zone defense at 16th while the Lions’ red zone offense ranks 25th. When LA gets a chance to put up six on the board, they have to take advantage. The opponent in this case also calls for it.
Brandon Staley has been rather conservative in the Chargers’ wins against the Bears and Jets on fourth down and I’d even say to some extent the loss against the Chiefs as well. Against Chicago and New York, punting as much as they did was understandable given the circumstances. Don’t give those teams a red zone opportunity they themselves can’t create. But against Detroit, Staley needs to be more aggressive about going for touchdowns instead of field goals. The guy on the other sideline certainly will be.
Pay attention to Jahmyr Gibbs in the receiving game
Jahmyr Gibbs’ inaction in the Lions’ offense might’ve been a storyline early on in the season but the rookie’s usage has now steadily increased every week. He’s one of the top backs in explosive run rate on his sample size.
Gibbs has also been getting more targeted in the receiving game, as mentioned earlier. With the return of running back David Montgomery on deck, the Lions will still want to keep Gibbs involved. He’ll get his fair share of runs, but I’d also expect Johnson to get him some designed opportunities for open-field targets.
As mentioned with LaPorta and St. Brown earlier, things can get out of hand if the Chargers allow Gibbs to get some high-quality YAC opportunities.
Can the run game show some life?
The Chargers have just had no success in getting a sustained rushing attack going in the last three weeks. Austin Ekeler averaged 3.4 yards per carry against the Jets and the team rushed for 84 yards. Outside of one Ekeler carry that went for 20 yards, the teams’ other 20 carries went for 64 yards.
The offensive lines’ run blocking is a problem. So is Ekeler’s efficiency. Since his return from an ankle injury, Ekeler hasn’t graded nearly as well in rush success rate
Austin Ekeler since his return against the Cowboys in Week 6, via PFF:
53.9 Offense grade (46th out of 50 eligible RBs)
60.2 Rushing grade (42nd out of 50)
50.0 Pass blocking grade (44th out of 69)
Ekeler also ranks 48th out of 50 eligible RB's in receiving grade. pic.twitter.com/gczVG761nQ
— Alex Insdorf (@alexinsdorf99) November 9, 2023
Unfortunately for the Chargers, Detroit ranks 3rd in opponent rushing yards per game this year with only 76.8 allowed per contest. If the offense is once again unable to run the ball efficiently, it could be a long day for both Herbert and the offensive line in pass protection.