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 the matchup.
For the home opener on Thursday night, Kansas City is hosting the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday afternoon. Here’s everything you need to know about the current version of the Chargers:
The Chargers are entering their second season under head coach Brandon Staley and offensive play caller Joe Lombardi. It’s the third campaign with quarterback Justin Herbert under center. Last season, they missed the playoffs with a 9-8 record. They started the 2022 season with a 24-19 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders at home.
In 2021, the Chargers finished fifth in total points and fourth in total yards among NFL teams. They ranked sixth in yards per play, fourth in third-down conversion rate, fourth in red-zone conversion percentage and had the fourth-lowest sack rate in the league. Los Angeles earned the fourth-highest Offensive DVOA rating in the NFL.
On the flip side, last year’s Chargers allowed the NFL’s fourth-most points, along with the eighth-most yards per play. The run defense ranked in the top three for most yards, touchdowns, and first downs allowed. Their third-down defense ranked dead last in conversion percentage. Los Angeles earned the 26th-ranked Defensive DVOA rating.
The Chargers trust Justin Herbert; he dropped back to pass at the NFL’s third-highest mark in 2021. In Week 1, they relied on their running game to help them outlast the Raiders, with Herbert having the third-fewest dropbacks in any one game in his career. But by maximizing Herbert’s strengths, the Los Angeles passsing game still made the difference.
Herbert used play action on 47% of his dropbacks, the third-highest rate in Week 1. On those 16 dropbacks, he completed 13 passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns.
Justin Herbert can beat you in a lot of ways, and the under-center play action shots where he can really step into his throw might be the worst— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 13, 2022
Not much you can do at times. Just tight coverage, and relentless pass rush to try and cut off these runways for him to throw from pic.twitter.com/Ibc6T30fxM
Herbert can beat a defense in a lot of ways, but giving him that play-action pocket with longer-developing routes downfield is what you want to avoid. In wide receiver Mike Williams, he has a downfield target with which a cornerback like Trent McDuffie simply cannot match. It will be hard to avoid the effectiveness of play-action, because the Chargers are an under-center team that will rush with running back Austin Ekeler. This causes off-ball defenders who are hungry for a run stop to sometimes overcommit on the wrong snap.
On Monday, Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo talked about the Chargers quarterback.
“He just gets better and better,” said Spagnuolo of Herbert. “He’s got the whole package in my opinion. From the chin to the hairline, he’s really smart — that’s why they do a lot of things with him. He’s big and can throw over people. He rarely takes a hit because he gets rid of the ball. He gets them in and out of bad plays and into good plays.”
But there is good news: No. 1 wide receiver Keenan Allen missed all of this week’s practices and has been ruled out for the game.
Among an impressive offensive line, right tackle is where Los Angeles could be exploitable; fourth-year pro Trey Pipkins earned the job in training camp, beating out last year’s right tackle Storm Norton.
The Chargers have a strong OL to support Herbert and their weapons. The weak link is RT— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 13, 2022
Trey Pipkins had a hell of a day dealing with Maxx Crosby. Any #Chiefs edge rush success likely coming against him rather than Pro Bowl LT Rashawn Slater pic.twitter.com/hUVeIP1G07
The Raiders’ left defensive end Maxx Crosby filled up the box score against the Chargers, primarily playing over the right tackle. He earned 10 tackles, one tackle for loss and seven quarterback pressures — with two turning into a hit.
The Chiefs’ pass rush plan should center around attacking Pipkins’ pass coverage, challenging him with stunts and creative edge blitzes that put stress on him to make the right decision.
Los Angeles plays from a 3-4 base front, requiring their defensive linemen to play two gaps and control blocks at the line of scrimmage. Their offseason moves have upgraded those roles, bringing in former Los Angeles Rams’ nose tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day and former New York Giants’ defensive end Austin Johnson.
Outside of them, the line of scrimmage is occupied by the two outside linebackers: Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa.
Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa on the same team is kind of insane. Orlando Brown Jr. can match both of their power, but can the right side?— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 13, 2022
Expect plenty of chip help from TEs for both OTs. Those initial 7-man protections may limit the #Chiefs situational play calling pic.twitter.com/coRrdeEzM2
Bosa and Mack are two of the league’s best edge defenders — and both can win a pass-rush rep in many ways. But it’s the power element of each of their games — especially that of Mack — that will be the most threatening to Kansas City’s pass protectors.
Chiefs left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. can handle a powerful rusher — but can the same be said about right tackle Andrew Wylie for an entire game? The answer is no — and the Chiefs know that. You can expect to see plenty of chip help from tight ends and running backs — especially on Wylie’s side. Even if that extra attention keeps Mack or Bosa at bay, it will also limit the Chiefs by reducing the number of pass-catchers who are out on routes.
Chargers went to a 3-man rush with just a NT and the 2 OLBs on the line a handful of times v. the Raiders. Brought blitzers on some— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 13, 2022
The 3-man rushes were something that seemed to trip up the #Chiefs offense in the AFCCG
Curious to see if L.A. was warming it up for KC pic.twitter.com/MSLL6jbswt
In Week 1, the Chargers’ pass rush was highlighted by the two edge rushers’ performance — but there was also a certain package to which the Chiefs should pay particular attention. On a handful of passing downs, the Chargers aligned with only the nose tackle, Bosa, and Mack on the line of scrimmage, sending only those three pass rushers.
That specific wrinkle may be in reaction to how badly the Chiefs handled a three-man rush in last year’s AFC Championship game. I’ll be intrigued to see if this is a key part of the Chargers’ defensive game plan on third downs and other obvious passing situations.
Behind the pass rush, watch out for safety Derwin James, who will likely be shadowing tight end Travis Kelce throughout the game. It didn’t work well for Arizona Cardinals’ linebacker Isaiah Simmons in Week 1, but James is a much more worthy opponent.
The bottom line
The Chiefs’ defense will have its hands full with a passing game that will attack all areas of the field, run by a quarterback who is willing to test tight windows deep. Kansas City’s pass rush will need to help by mucking up his pockets, denying him the platform to make those big-time throws.
When the Chiefs have the ball, they’ll need to be cognizant of the Chargers’ top edge rushers at all times — in addition to knowing where James is on any snap. Those three are the unit’s biggest playmakers, so neutralizing their impact will be part of a recipe for success.