Fresh off of a dominant Week 1 win, the Kansas City Chiefs get a bit of a mini-bye before their first divisional matchup of the season: the Los Angeles Chargers, who are coming off of a low-scoring win over the Cincinnati Bengals — and will need a better offensive output to hang with the Chiefs offense.
The Chiefs defense will see a lot of new faces in Los Angeles. The Chargers have a new starting quarterback, new offensive weapons and a new right tackle. With limited tape to study, that presents a challenge for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his coaching staff.
With that in mind, let’s dig into the Chargers personnel — and a concept we may see on Sunday. Then we’ll discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down — and get ahead in the divisional race.
For the first time in 14 seasons, the Chargers will not have Philip Rivers at quarterback. Despite spending a first-round pick on Justin Herbert this offseason, the Chargers have started the season with Tyrod Taylor at the helm. Taylor is a smart player who can extend plays with his legs, giving his receivers extra time to get open.
With running back Melvin Gordon gone in free agency, the Chargers are leaning on Austin Ekeler to shoulder the load. The Chiefs are quite familiar with Ekeler — particularly through the Chargers passing game — as he was targeted 23 times last season against Kansas City alone. Justin Jackson was expected to be the primary back to spell Ekeler, but rookie Joshua Kelley looked quite good in his debut, rushing 12 times for 60 yards and a touchdown.
The Chargers continue to have excellent wideouts in 2020, with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams starting on the outside. Allen is one of the league’s best route runners and can easily create separation against good cornerbacks. Williams is a bruising, physical receiver with the speed to stretch vertically. Both will present major tests to the shorthanded Chiefs secondary.
Fortunately for the Chiefs, there will be some falloff when the Chargers go to their three-wide receiver sets. Jalen Guyton got the primary reps in Week 1, but behind him they have two rookies: Joe Reed and K.J. Hill. Reed is a vertical threat, while Hill is a more savvy route runner underneath.
The Chargers started the season with plenty of 12 personnel looks, utilizing Hunter Henry and Virgil Green together. When healthy, Henry is a dynamic receiving threat who can wreck the middle of the field. Green is more of an in-line blocker, but can move well enough in space to give Chiefs linebackers trouble.
While all of the Chargers’ offensive skill players are currently healthy, the same cannot be said of their offensive line. Starting center Mike Pouncey is having hip surgery and will miss the rest of the year; Dan Feeney will start in his place. Right guard Trai Turner has been dealing with a knee injury and missed the Week 1 matchup; if Turner can’t go, Tyree St. Louis will once again step in. Forrest Lamp rounds out the interior of the offensive line, but is starting only the fourth game of his career after being selected 38th overall in the NFL draft four years ago.
Bryan Bulaga was the biggest offseason addition to the Chargers’ offensive line. He lines up at right tackle after 10 years protecting Aaron Rodgers for the Green Bay Packers. Sam Tevi starts at left tackle for Los Angeles after the organization failed to address the position during the offseason.
The offensive concept: Flood concept with backside shallow drag
LAC utilized several flood concepts with Allen as the shallow drag to the opposite flat in Week 1.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 17, 2020
PA boot against man covg. Jet motion holds the linebacker, Allen drags across the formation into the flat with the CB having to navigate through trash/TE. Easy throw and pickup. pic.twitter.com/KE1p0hW45k
In their Week 1 game against the Bengals, the Chargers offense utilized a few flood concepts to stress both man and zone coverages. Through three-man route combinations, Williams, Allen, and Henry flood one side of the field at different levels, giving Taylor an in-line read as he moves out of the pocket.
This first example shows the defense in man coverage. At the snap, the Chargers motion the field receiver back across the formation, forcing the cornerback to track him away from the flood concept. The play action bootleg — and jet motion — delay the linebackers and safeties from dropping into coverage, putting Taylor outside of the pocket while the routes come across the field.
Perhaps the most difficult assignment on the play goes to the cornerback in man coverage against Allen. Allen comes back across the formation — pushing the cornerback through the trash and a small pick by the tight end — into the opposite flat. It is difficult enough to track Allen throughout the route in space — let alone with traffic in the way.
The result is an easy rollout for Taylor and a quick pitch and catch to Allen, who then has plenty of space to run after the catch.
This flood concept creates levels against zone as well, stressing the boundary CB and the apex as the play develops.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 17, 2020
Vertical route clears the CB, apex has eyes on the shallow drag, creating space for the deep out. Hook defender can't rotate in time, and LAC hits a chunk play. pic.twitter.com/nwKpqXtvW2
Here we see that flood concepts can also stress zone coverage. After finding success with the earlier back -side drag, the Chargers went back to it against the Bengals’ Cover 3 zone.
The vertical route along the boundary clears out the cornerback, leaving a single underneath defender to move to the flat. The apex defender sees the approaching shallow drag from the back side, but can’t get enough depth to take away the deep out behind him. The hook defender in the middle of the field can’t get to the out route quickly enough — and there’s ample space to throw.
The result is an apex defender in no man’s land — and a chunk play for the Chargers. Even if the hook defender could have managed to get to the tight end, the back-side dig route — Taylor’s fourth read — would have come open.
Flood concepts are typically long-developing routes that can stress zone and man concepts, forcing defenders to communicate well in the secondary. With the Chiefs starting multiple young defenders, there could be a few blown assignments if the pass rush can’t get home quickly.
The bottom line
While the Chargers’ offensive weapons could pose a threat against a depleted Chiefs secondary, the health and quality of Los Angeles’ offensive line is likely going to have Tyrod Taylor running for his life most of the afternoon.
Frank Clark was particularly dominant when he faced Tevi at the end of last season — and Clark looks even more explosive to start this season. Chris Jones has manhandled Feeney in their matchups to date, registering 4.5 sacks, five tackles for loss and 14 quarterback hits over five games against the quick-to-throw Rivers — not Taylor, who typically ranks alongside Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson for longest time to throw.
The Bengals also found success in Week 1 through A and B-gap blitzes from second-level defenders. They weren’t particularly well disguised; they were simply delayed rushes that stressed communication against the Chargers’ thin offensive interior. Against Houston in Week 1, Spagnuolo brought a diverse set of blitzes; it stands to reason that he’ll bring the heat again on Sunday. Simply stated, the Chargers’ offensive line will have to perform at a much higher level — or Taylor will be scrambling more often. Against the Bengals, that resulted in passes being floated into the secondary.
I do think that early on, the Chargers will be able to move the ball with their running game. Ekeler, Kelley and Taylor were effective against the Bengals — and there’s going to be a dedicated effort to slow down the Chiefs offense. But I think Los Angeles will be playing from behind for most of this game, forcing a pass-heavy script like we saw from the Houston Texans. The Chiefs can’t dismiss the danger of Allen, Williams, Henry and Ekeler in the passing game, but the lack of protection for Taylor against the Chiefs’ stellar pass rush could make this game get out of hand early.