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Opponent Scout: Chargers’ red-zone offense matches Chiefs’ red-zone defense

Something will have to give as two units with abysmal red-zone play will go head to head on Sunday.

Kansas City Chiefs v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

In this weekly opponent scout series, I’ll break down the Kansas City Chiefs’ upcoming opponent by examining their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — and how those things affect their matchup with the Chiefs.

With both teams fresh off their only loss of the season, the Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers will meet at Arrowhead Stadium for each team’s first game within the division.


Overview

The Chargers are 1-1 this season, with a 20-16 victory on the road against the Washington Football Team in Week 1 and a 20-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys at home in Week 2.

The 37 points they’ve put up are the sixth-fewest among all NFL teams, even though they’ve racked up the fifth-most total yards and the second-most first down conversions. The main culprit has been turnovers: 25% of their offensive drives have ended in a turnover, which is the highest rate in the league. They are ranked 20th in offensive DVOA so far this season.

On defense, they’ve allowed the seventh-fewest points in the league — surrendering only one passing touchdown so far. They’ve faced the fewest pass attempts in the league because teams have run on them successfully: they’ve allowed the second-worst yards per carry rate in the NFL. Just like their offense, they are ranked 20th in defensive DVOA.

Offense

The Chargers’ offense is primarily centered around the performance of quarterback Justin Herbert. They’ve trusted him to attempt the third-most passes in the NFL so far this season, and that is a result of their failures on first and second down. They’ve had the second-most third-down attempts in the NFL this season. Fortunately for them, they also have the league’s highest conversion percentage; they earn a first down on 61.3% of third downs.

Herbert has completed 76% of his passes on third downs, earning a 107.1 passer rating and averaging 10.8 yards per pass attempt. He looks poised in those situations, even as defenses tend to blitz and disguise coverage to confuse quarterbacks on those plays. He has noticeably calm footwork and tends to make the right decision.

As successful as they are in those situations, they have an opposite success rate in the red zone. They’ve scored a touchdown on three of their league-leading 10 red zone attempts, which is the second-worst rate in the NFL.

It’s the only situation Herbert has looked uncomfortable in this season. When the field gets smaller, and the windows are tighter, he has either made inaccurate throws or just held on to the ball too long because he doesn’t want to trigger into those tight throwing lanes. This year, Herbert has completed 8/16 passes; he’s thrown two scores, been intercepted once, and has been sacked three times in the red zone. He has a 69.8 passer rating as well.

On the ground, the Chargers have been mostly ineffective; it’s the main reason they’ve gotten themselves in so many third-down situations. The team has the 22nd-ranked yards per carry rate so far at 3.9 yards. Running back Austin Ekeler is as dangerous as ever with the ball in his hands, but he hasn’t made much room to work with on traditional runs.

One reason is the absence of right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who missed the second half of their Week 1 game and didn’t play in Week 2; he was placed on IR and will miss Week 3 as well. His replacement has a great name — Storm Norton — but struggled in Week 2; he surrendered nine pressures, including four quarterback hits in pass protection.

The Chargers’ offense has two primary playmakers — Ekeler and wide receiver Keenan Allen — but don’t underestimate the players after them. Wide receiver Mike Williams has had a great start to the year, catching 15 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns this season. Also, wide receiver Jalen Guyton is a threat to take the top off the defense on any snap.

Defense

Just like how the offense starts and ends with the performance of Herbert, the Chargers’ defense revolves around safety Derwin James. After missing two seasons, he’s back and looks like one of the most impactful defenders in the NFL.

He’s the unit’s best cover player, being trusted to cover the opposing team’s best receiving weapon when the situation dictates it — like third downs or the red zone. It doesn’t matter the position, he has the quickness to cover quicker receivers but also has the size and length to defend tight ends or bigger-bodied wide receivers.

He’s also a sure tackler, as sure as any defensive back in the league. His physicality makes him a very tough defender to block on the perimeter, and that has shown through two weeks on quick passes to the flat that he has blown up.

The other player that impacts opposing offenses the most is defensive end Joey Bosa. He’s gotten six pressures so far this season as a pass rusher, notching one sack and another quarterback hit. He also has lined up over the right tackle on 86% of his snaps this year.

There was a glaring weakness in the run defense against the Dallas Cowboys, who have an impressive offensive line when they’re healthy. The Cowboys gashed the Chargers for 198 rushing yards at a clip of 6.4 yards per attempt. The defensive linemen weren’t stout, but I was underwhelmed by the performance of Chargers linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr. — who was selected in the first round of the 2020 Draft.

The bottom line

The Chiefs’ defense has been woeful in many areas this season, especially in the red zone. This will be a good test to see just how bad it is, considering the Chargers are equally as bad in that area on the offensive side. Before they reach the 20-yard line, they’ll need to close passing lanes and slow down Los Angeles’ passing attack.

For Kansas City’s offense, they’ll want to avoid Derwin James as much as possible — and one way to do that would be to run between the tackles. This is a big opportunity for running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire to bounce back.