After a Monday night win over the New York Jets, the Chargers are back to .500 at 4-4.
How they got there is most important. Los Angeles’ defense resembled a sieve through most of the first seven weeks of the 2023 season, but in the last two games the Chargers have allowed a combined 19 points. They’ve won both contests by double digits, signaling a potential shift toward a brighter future.
“I think that it’s getting closer. Probably, for us, we’ve been healthy and we have the right combination of people out there,” head coach Brandon Staley said Wednesday, via the team’s transcripts. “That helps you, I think, play to your level. What I’ve seen, the last two weeks specifically, is just us playing with the right energy from the first whistle to the last one. I just think that in all three levels of the defense, we’ve played consistent football.
“We’ve done the things that winning defenses do, starting with the run game, and how you rush the quarterback, how you defend in the passing game, keeping the ball in front of you. Then, we’ve turned the football over. We’ve been able to get the takeaways consistently, really, throughout the season, but the last two weeks. Then, situationally, I think that we’ve been sharp. I think we’ve been on it. We’re just at the beginning. This group continues to improve. Just one week at a time for this group, but we’ve made improvement.”
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It helps that Joey Bosa is healthy again. A reemergence of Khalil Mack didn’t hurt, either. Los Angeles’ eight sacks recorded on Monday night stood as an example of the defense’s potential — a production level most expected from a unit filled with enough talent to perform at a rate higher than it reached earlier this season.
Such a performance also helped out Los Angeles’ offense, especially on a night in which most everything was difficult for the group. Justin Herbert finished with a career-low 136 passing yards on Monday night, yet the Chargers won comfortably, 27-6.
Austin Ekeler ended up being the star of a muted offensive show for the Chargers, totaling 70 yards from scrimmage and two rushing touchdowns. Such numbers typically wouldn’t suggest a standout performance, but because the Chargers couldn’t put together a whole lot offensively, Ekeler’s contributions proved to be essential.
What ended up being most important was how the Chargers capitalized on opportunities produced by takeaways. Of their four scoring drives, none required Los Angeles to gain more than 68 yards in one possession. That is, of course, thanks to a defense that consistently provided Herbert and Co. with short fields — and a special teams unit that chipped in with an 87-yard punt return touchdown.
When the defense is succeeding, the offense isn’t expected to carry most of the responsibility. And when short fields are provided to the offense, the Chargers become less predictable, leading to favorable outcomes. After building a lead, the defense is afforded the chance to focus on pressuring opposing passers. The latter is what produced Los Angeles’ eight sacks, and what Staley believes led his team to a win Monday night.
“To me, I think our formula has been in the run game. When we get people in the known-pass, and then we get the lead,” Staley said. “I think in both games we’ve had a two-score lead in the first half, and that allows you to have more opportunities to rush.
… “I think any defensive coach will tell you, if you have good pass rushers, the more opportunities you can get for them to rush, the more that they’re going to capitalize on those opportunities. Then, I think in the secondary, in the back seven, we’ve just been really sound. Our guys have played together. That’s a formula that we have to keep moving forward, just making sure that we’re connected in the back seven.”
The Chargers are far from a perfect team, and even their win on Monday night wasn’t the prettiest. But they all count the same, and if Los Angeles believes a more balanced approach is their best chance of success, then they’ve found their formula.
The key going forward, then, is to follow the blueprint: Build an early lead and let the defense work its magic. They can expect a greater challenge this weekend against a Lions team that doesn’t willingly surrender early advantages. Perhaps then, Staley’s team will be tested appropriately. But after two straight wins, he has plenty of reason to feel as if his squad is headed in the right direction.
The Chargers host the Detroit Lions (6-2) in Week 10.
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