How the Chargers might attack the Chiefs on Thursday night

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·8 min read
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  • Kansas City Chiefs
    Kansas City Chiefs
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Los Angeles Chargers
    Los Angeles Chargers
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  • Rashawn Slater
    Rashawn Slater
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  • Joe Lombardi
    American football coach
  • Chris Jones
    Chris Jones
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  • Justin Herbert
    Justin Herbert
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|

The heads of most NFL fans must be spinning at the moment, thanks to a whirlwind of news coming out of the league. A tumultuous tenure as an NFL coach ended for Urban Meyer in the overnight hours, in the wake of a story that he had kicked former kicker Josh Lambo during training camp. The story was just the latest in a slew of incidents during Meyer’s stint as a head coach.

Of course, the league is dealing with a COVID outbreak as well, as a number of teams are approaching Week 15 with critical players sidelined due to positive tests. For example, the Cleveland Browns might kick off a pivotal Saturday game against the Las Vegas Raiders with the following players and coaches sidelined:

  • Quarterback Baker Mayfield

  • Guard Drew Forbes

  • Tight end Austin Hooper

  • Wide receiver Jarvis Landry

  • Right guard Wyatt Teller

  • Left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr.

  • Defensive end Takkarist McKinley

  • Cornerback Troy Hill

  • Safety John Johnson III

  • Defensive tackle Malik McDowell

  • Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo

  • Head coach Kevin Stefanski

COVID is even overshadowing what could be an incredible game tonight between the Los Angeles Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs. With the Chiefs holding a one-game lead in the division, and Los Angeles having won the previous meeting between the two teams, tonight’s game will be huge in crowning an AFC West division winner.

But both teams are dealing with absences. For Kansas City, linebacker Willie Gay Jr. and Chris Jones were both placed on the COVID reserve list. Gay has already been ruled out while Jones still could play with negative tests. They are also dealing with the absence of cornerback L’jarius Sneed following the death of his brother.

Then for the Chargers, they will be without left tackle Rashawn Slater, following his positive test earlier this week.

Yet, with the game still set to kick off later tonight, how might the Chargers construct a plan for Justin Herbert?

Moving the pocket

(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Whether Jones can play for the Chiefs tonight might play a big role in determining how offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi handles the game plan and game script. While Kansas City began the season by using Jones on the edge more, their acquisition of Melvin Ingram at the trade deadline might have been a critical component to their recent defensive resurgence. With Ingram in place, that has allowed defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to slide Jones back to the interior, where he can use his pass-rushing skills against guards and centers.

Whether Jones goes or not, the Chargers are going to be without Slater, so protecting Herbert might be a bit more difficult. One potential idea? Moving Herbert around, and moving the pocket a little.

Now this is certainly not a new concept. After all, the origins of the “moving pocket” can be traced to, of all teams, the Chiefs. It was Hank Stram who constructed the idea of the moving pocket, sliding Len Dawson around and forcing the defense to adjust. As our own Doug Farrar wrote in his brilliant book “The Genius of Desperation:”

The moving pocket was something that Stram and Dawson had perfected by the end of the decade. Again, this wasn’t just Dawson scrambling. He was moving to specific locations between the tackles to get different throwing lanes, to cut the field in half, to make reads under pressure easier, and to force the defense to play a wider pocket when bringing that pressure.

This season, Lombardi has moved Herbert around behind the line, catering to his athleticism as a passer. These plays have often come off of run-action, rather than designed rollouts or “moving pockets” as utilized by Stram and the Chiefs. But the ideas are the same: Create different throwing lanes, make the reads and decisions easier on the quarterback, and force the defense to adjust and vary their pass-rushing lanes.

Take this play from last week against the New York Giants:

Again, Herbert aligns under center and carries out a run fake to his left, before booting back to the right. The Chargers set up a three-level passing concept, with Keenan Allen releasing to the flat and Mike Williams attacking vertically. The middle element to this concept? Tight end Donald Parham, running the crossing route working from the backside. That is who Herbert hits for a gain of 19 yards on the play.

There is of course another element to these designs that one must consider when thinking about Herbert.

The vertical element.

After all, the second-year passer has demonstrated over the course of his short NFL career the ability to attack downfield whether throwing from the pocket, or outside of it. That has led Lombardi to dial up some creative concepts using the “flow” of the play against the defense. Take this play, a touchdown from Herbert to Williams against the Browns:

By using boot-action or moving the quarterback, the Chargers can roll Herbert to the right, and distance him from the left tackle spot vacated by Slater. So they can minimize the impact of his absence a bit, give Herbert some half-field concepts to run, but also set up these throwback elements that cater to his arm strength and stress the defense vertically.

Attacking downfield

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Now, taking deep drops in the pocket and letting it rip downfield might not sound appealing when you are playing without your Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate at left tackle. Yet one of Herbert’s strengths as a passer is in the vertical game. According to charting data from Pro Football Focus, Herbert’s Adjusted Completion Percentage this year on throws of over 20 yards downfield? It clocks in at 57.8%, second-best in the NFL among qualified passers. Only Kyler Murray has performed better on such throws.

On those 45 attempts, Herbert has completed 24 of them for 834 yards, seven touchdowns and just two interceptions.

Tonight, they will face a defense that, according to charting data from Sports Info Solutions, has given up 17 completions on throws of over 20 air yards for 662 yards and four touchdowns.

However, those numbers do need a bit of context. Since Week 7 and their defensive resurgence, the Chiefs have given up just three such completions. One was a scramble drill throw from Jordan Love to Reggie Cobb, one was an underthrown vertical route by Daniel Jones that John Ross managed to catch while working back to the football, and then there was this from the Las Vegas Raiders a few weeks ago:

However, more critical to the analysis here is this play against the Giants from last week:

Herbert’s athleticism, and ability to make deep throws while on the move or working outside the pocket, could be another way to neutralize the Chiefs’ pass rush and/or the absence of Slater on the edge. On this play, the Giants get pressure with four, but the quarterback is able to slide to his right and buy time, before uncorking an incredible throw deep downfield for the touchdown.

So while at first blush the idea of attacking downfield in the passing game without your cornerstone left tackle might not seem appealing, Herbert’s ability to extend and still deliver in the vertical passing game might be a weapon for the Chargers tonight.

Turning to the RPO game

(Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

One last card that Lombardi might look to play tonight? The run/pass option card. By using such designs, Lombardi can put his offense in position to be successful by playing the numbers game, and perhaps neutralizing some of the pass rushers that could cause the Chargers problems during the game.

Take this play from the Eagles against the Chiefs, from back in Week 4:

On this snap the Chargers have an outside zone element, with backside double slants. From the offensive perspective, Los Angeles has six to block the seven defenders in the box, as the Chiefs use 4-3 personnel on this play and bring safety Juan Thornhill down into the slot over Allen. Rather than handoff to Austin Ekeler and force the issue against the numbers disadvantage, Herbert pulls and throws the outside slant to Williams.

You’ll also notice that Jones aligns over Slater and, using an inside move, gets a bit of pressure on Herbert. But because the decision and throw come so quickly, that pressure is neutralized and instead of a sack, the Chargers get a big play.

So this could be another part of the script tonight for Lombardi and Los Angeles.

Now, predicting how an offense might construct their gameplan is usually difficult enough before factoring in absences due to injury or COVID. However, studying these two units this season, as well as Herbert over the past two years, if I am Lombardi these are some concepts I am looking to during this pivotal AFC West showdown.

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