Today’s NFL might be dominated by creative approaches to offense, but the Chargers went to Baltimore on Sunday and won a playoff game with a daring and innovative blueprint for their defense.
Just 15 days after quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Ravens rolled up 159 yards on the ground against the Chargers, L.A. returned the favor by trotting out a smaller, faster defense that stifled Jackson and limited the Ravens to 90 rushing yards and five fewer minutes of possession time. The trick? On 58 of 59 snaps, the Chargers had seven defensive backs on the field. Head coach Anthony Lynn credited defensive coordinator Gus Bradley with the idea, but what’s striking is that the Chargers never needed to abandon the plan, in part because they discovered how predictable much of the Ravens’ scheme could be.
The Ravens went 6-1 after Jackson took over for Joe Flacco, a stretch in which they averaged 229.6 rushing yards and ran it 52.2 percent of the time. Jackson had 17 scrambles in that time—fourth-most in the league, per Pro Football Focus—while running a scheme that reminded Bradley of Navy’s triple-option, according to Sam Fortier of The Athletic. To contain Jackson, then—and to force him into passing situations—Bradley decided to put seven DBs on the field at once. It’s a grouping Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas said the Chargers call their “quarter” package.
As Chargers safety Rayshawn Jenkins told Vrentas:
“Lamar Jackson ran a 4.3. We needed some fast guys, right? We needed guys who could run sideline to sideline and still help in the passing game if they got fooled. Not saying our linebackers couldn’t do it, but let’s be honest, DBs are faster than linebackers.”
Part of this was necessity, and part was an extension of what the Chargers typically do. They were already banged up at linebacker, with Denzel Perryman and Kyzir White on injured reserve, and Jatavis Brown out with an injured ankle (for which he too is now on IR). But the Chargers also came into the game having used dime personnel (six DBs) far more frequently than any other team in the league. Against the Ravens, there were risks to the seven-DB approach, not least because Baltimore complements Jackson with a pair of bruising running backs in Gus Edwards (238 pounds) and Kenneth Dixon (228). Per NBC’s Peter King, when Bradley came to head coach Anthony Lynn with the seven-DB plan, Lynn said, “Are we insane, or what?” But the Chargers had gone with seven DBs on at least one occasion late last season, and they went ahead and began installing the scheme on Monday.
The game plan revolved largely around using safeties Jahleel Addae (195 pounds) and Adrian Phillips (210) at linebacker, while all-pro rookie safety Derwin James (215) spent 38 of his 64 snaps either in the box on on the defensive line, per PFF. Addae had typically been the Chargers’ free safety, but on Sunday that role went to Jenkins instead. As Vrentas reported, the Chargers’ defensive linemen clogged the middle by frequently positioning three players over the center and guards and having them either shooting the gaps to disrupt the guards’ attempts to pull to the outside or by stunting into Jackson’s possible running lanes. Fortier reported that the D-linemen played some two-gap, too. Nose tackle Damion Square told Vrentas the Chargers knew what was coming “60 to 70 percent of the time.”
There’s a reason for that. As Fortier wrote:
Afforded a second look at film of the Ravens in three weeks, Chargers defenders saw that Baltimore’s offense, though complex, seemed to change little week to week. They solved parts of it and picked up clues, like left tackle Ronnie Stanley’s feet. When Stanley set them about even, it was a run, and when he set his left foot further back, it was a pass “almost 100 percent” of the time.
And when the Ravens ran out of the pistol formation, a tight end in the backfield on the same side as the tight end at the line of scrimmage almost always meant one of two running plays: “counter” or “cut belly.” On Sunday, players said it was as if Baltimore changed nothing from the first game.
Another part of this, as Square told Vrentas, is that the Chargers noticed Jackson likes to break to his left when the pocket breaks down. “You see tendencies,” Square said. “Guys react the same way all the time to pressure. We saw that on tape. We knew where he wanted to escape, and we showed up in those gaps.”
As late as with nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Ravens had 74 total yards, Jackson had minus-2 yards passing, and the Chargers led 23-3. Lynn did say L.A. was prepared to scrap the seven-DB attack, if necessary. It was never necessary.