At the midway point of the season, the Chargers were at the bottom of the NFL, leading the league by letting opposing teams rush for over 140 yards per game.
It was a trend that started from the first week of the season when Washington Football Team’s Antonio Gibson ran for 90 yards on them. Then they got gashed by Tony Pollard, and Ezekiel Elliott for a combined 179 yards plus two touchdowns.
The following week Kansas City Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire ran for 100 yards on 17 carries on the defense.
The Chargers held Josh Jacobs in check during their Monday Night game against the Raiders. They would then get trucked for a combined 222 yards and three touchdowns by Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.
At this point, the Chargers were 4-1, so it seemed like it was a bend and don’t break style. They would allow opposing teams to get a lot of yards both on the ground and in the air while not allowing them to score.
Before the bye week, the Chargers faced the Baltimore Ravens and three aging running backs in Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman, and Latavius Murray. They combined for 115 yards on 25 carries and three touchdowns. It turned out to be a blowout loss.
After the bye week, defensive tackle Justin Jones came back after missing five games with a calf injury. They also had been in Staley’s defensive scheme for a couple of months and still learning how to play in it.
For the game against the Patriots, Eagles, and Vikings, the defense started to show flashes of being able to slow down the run but still faced an uphill battle. They gave up 80 yards to Damien Harris, 71 yards and a touchdown to Jordan Howard, and 94 plus a touchdown to Dalvin Cook.
They faced the Steelers on Sunday Night Football with Jerry Tillery, Linval Joseph, and Christian Covington missing the game, so it was Jones along with rotational linemen plus some practice squad players. The Chargers looked like a NASCAR crew team that night, rotating their defensive line and keeping them fresh.
Their defense held Najee Harris to 39 rushing yards on 12 attempts with a touchdown. By far, their best performance of the season.
They didn’t maintain it because against the Broncos, running backs Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams combined for 137 rushing yards plus a touchdown.
“On film, the games that we have lost it’s because of the things we didn’t do,” Jones said. “We didn’t follow some of the scheme. Maybe guys weren’t running as hard as they could. We got in our own way. Once we get outside of that, we’ll be the team to beat — just like we are now, the team to beat.”
Since that Broncos game, things have improved in the trenches. They faced Joe Mixon’s Bengals a week later and held him to an average of 2.8 yards per carry while also causing him to fumble.
In the next two weeks, the defense held New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley to 64 yards on 16 carries, and Edwards-Helaire ran for 32 yards on nine carries.
“To play good run defense — you’ve heard me talk about it — you have to play team run defense,” Staley said. “It’s not just the front; it’s all 11 guys. I really felt like it was a team operation today. You know how much respect I have for both of those runners. They’re really, really good. It was a good performance by us today.”
They had a hiccup against the Houston Texans when many of their defensive players were put on the COVID list. Texans running back Rex Burkhead ran them over for 149 yards and two touchdowns, which led to a big upset.
Last weekend, they faced the Broncos again, but Gordon and Williams couldn’t get themselves going on the ground. They finished with 73 yards on 24 attempts.
The recent play of the defensive line has the Chargers in a good spot heading into Las Vegas this weekend. They will face Jacobs again, and he is a big back.
“He’s a heavy runner,” Jones said. “He runs hard, very strong. He’s pretty fast. He has some good moves.”
Jacobs has been slowed down by various injuries this season, but the defense can’t let up against him. This year, he only has one 100-yard season, which happened two weeks ago against Denver, rushing for 129 yards on 27 carries.
Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olsen could use Jacobs the same way this weekend giving him the ball over 25 times and seeing what the back could get out of it. He could think the Chargers haven’t improved and try to attack them on the ground.
Jacobs has played against the Chargers four times and averages 3.7 yards per carry while scoring three touchdowns against them.
This defense has improved against the run in the last month or more of the season. They have had big performances when needed, especially against some of the better teams in the NFL. In three primetime games this season, the Chargers have held their opponent to 63 rushing yards per game.
If the Chargers can make the Raiders one-dimensional, it will significantly help their chances to advance.
“At the end of the day, you know stopping the runs a group effort, so when you plan a guy like that, you got to make sure you swarm tackle,” Jones said. “You got to make sure you guys get hats to the ball. You got to make sure that everybody’s hitting the pile and knocking him back and making it a frustrating day for him.”