Los Angeles heads to Jacksonville seeking survival and revenge after losing to the Jaguars 38-10 in Week 3. The Chargers, of course, need a win this time to continue in the AFC playoff bracket.
Here are four reasons to be nervous about the Bolts’ chances heading into Saturday’s contest.
Jamaree Salyer has played admirably in place of the injured Rashawn Slater. Still, as his rookie season has gone on, we’ve seen why NFL teams let him fall to the sixth round and why many of them, including the Chargers, saw him as a professional guard despite success at tackle for Georgia. One word is all you need here: speed. Salyer struggles against speedier rushers because of subpar length (his arms measure 33 ⅝” at the combine, ⅜” shorter than Zion Johnson’s). He’s built to be a power player, but the disadvantage of optimizing in such a fashion is that rushers can run around you if you can’t reach out to stop them, and Salyer lacks that ability. On the other side, Jacksonville’s Josh Allen and Travon Walker make up one of the more athletic pass-rusher duos in the league. Salyer has the benefit of having gone up against Walker in practice at Georgia, but it’ll have to be a gem from the rookie if the Chargers are going to keep Justin Herbert clean.
The Mike Williams issue
As of Wednesday, Williams has not practiced after suffering a back contusion in Sunday’s game with the Broncos, which is beginning to cloud his status for Saturday. At the top of the week, Brandon Staley said the plan was for Williams to practice at some point before playing on Sunday. There’s now one practice left on Thursday, and we’ll see what his participation status is. Regardless, it looks like Williams will be limited in some capacity on Saturday. 50 or 60% of the veteran is better than some of the other options on the roster, but Williams has pushed his luck like this earlier in the season to dismal results. This Chargers offense struggles mightily without Williams at his best because there’s nobody else on the roster who threatens opposing secondaries down the field. Like, at all. Williams’ presence, even if in name only, opens up the offense underneath, where Joe Lombardi wants his offense to do most of its damage. If he can’t go, Jacksonville can congest the shallow areas of the field even more than normal, and Justin Herbert will have to bail LA out.
This is the only playoff game this week that pits two 4,000-yard passers against one another – Herbert has 4,739 on the season, while Trevor Lawrence finished the regular season with 4,113. In some ways, Lawrence profiles like the “next” Herbert, a funny concept considering LA’s quarterback is only in his third NFL season. Still, the similarities are certainly there: a big-armed signal-caller with all the tools which showed flashes in his rookie season before breaking out in a big way as an NFL sophomore. Lawrence and this Jaguars squad put up 38 points against this Chargers defense in Week 3, and yes, LA has become a much different team since then. Still, I think it’s safe to assume that this game will be closer to a shootout than anything else. The Chargers have only scored 28 or more points four times this season against the Texans, Browns, Rams, and Broncos. If the defense doesn’t show up on Saturday, do we trust this team to keep pace?
Jacksonville isn’t built to launch the ball downfield, which is where the Chargers have struggled for the most part this season. They are, however, built to expose the holes in LA’s run defense on the second level. Brandon Staley is unlikely to adjust away from the lighter boxes up front, which raises the question of how they stop the run. Drue Tranquill, Kenneth Murray Jr., and even Derwin James have had issues diagnosing the run when they haven’t been kept clean. So, how do you keep them cleaner other than asking the defensive line to…play better?
Deeper in the defense, rotating Ja’Sir Taylor in for Asante Samuel Jr. on run looks hasn’t yielded results despite Taylor being the bigger body. Samuel has looked like a less confident player since Taylor started rotating in, which has partially contributed to Michael Davis overshadowing the rest of the secondary. So, you can keep Samuel on the field full-time, which may sacrifice some run defense benefits, and try to pump his confidence back up with a strong first half. Or, you can rotate Taylor in and stop the run at a higher clip but run the risk that Doug Pederson schemes up designed shots right at the sixth-round rookie because your top-50 pick is off the field.
There are a lot of questions to be answered, more than usual. How does the Nasir Adderley/Alohi Gilman split go? How much can you move someone like Kyle Van Noy around with Joey Bosa potentially still slowed by groin surgery? The playoffs are, generally speaking, not a good time to have all of these questions. Ideally, your team has an identity by now, one they can lean on and trust. Right now, it just doesn’t feel like LA has that. Maybe Brandon Staley comes out with the best game plan of the season, but maybe that feels like a tall ask.