Film Room
Analysis beyond the numbers

Film Room: Chargers vs. Ravens

by Derrik Klassen

If not for the historic season that Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs are enjoying, the Los Angeles Chargers would be AFC West champions and the cream of the crop in the conference. Of course, any team could use an "if" to better their case as an elite team, but it is particularly Chargers-esque to have their best season in a decade and still manage to play second fiddle in the division.

The Chargers were featured in Film Room in October as one of the league's most explosive and effective offenses. Throughout the remainder of the year, that sentiment remained mostly true. Despite some struggles in December, the Chargers' offense still finished third in offensive DVOA, including a second-place finish in passing DVOA. Only the Chiefs and Rams topped the Chargers in overall DVOA, with the Chiefs being the lone superior passing offense.

In a vacuum, the Chargers' dip in play in December may seem like nothing more than some regression or misfortune, but their lackluster performance vs. the Baltimore Ravens in Week 16 could prove to be an omen. That Saturday night game produced one of only three negative-DVOA performances by the Chargers on offense this year (the others: Week 4 vs. San Francisco and Week 17 at Denver). Both their rushing attack and passing game were smothered by a Baltimore defense that was coincidentally designed to dampen the Chargers' offense. With the Chargers now being tasked with playing the Ravens again in the wild-card round, a few things need to change in order for Los Angeles to come out on top this time around.

First, let's examine what it is about Baltimore's defense that hurts Los Angeles specifically, then what other factors may have contributed to the Chargers' demise in prime time.

As per usual for the Chargers, the offensive line is a disaster. Though injuries have played a hand in that, as they always seem to for this team, it is impossible to ignore the impact of the Chargers' poor offensive line. The right side of the line, now comprised of guard Michael Schofield and tackle Sam Tevi, might be the worst in the league. The Ravens faced little resistance in getting home with four-man rushes, and their blitz packages felt unstoppable.

via Gfycat

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Nothing about this four-man rush from Baltimore is confusing or innovative. The Ravens simply let their guys get after it, and they were better on that rep (and almost every other rep that night). Had Philip Rivers not been pressured as soon as he hit the top of his drop, he may have been able to find a target down the field, something Rivers has done with great success all year.

Any amount of pressure on any quarterback is troubling, but four-man pressures and immediate blitz pressure in this particular matchup was critical in the Chargers' collapse. The Chargers' offense has relied on explosive passing plays down the field, which should have matched up well against a Ravens defense that ranks just 16th in deep passing DVOA despite their overall defensive dominance. The Ravens' defense is suffocating on a down-to-down basis, but can be susceptible to giving up big plays, especially when their deep safeties are the target. Just last week, the Cleveland Browns abused the Ravens' safeties down the field on full-blown vertical concepts.

Unfortunately for Rivers, since he was hardly ever working from a clean pocket, he seldom got the opportunity to comfortably scan the field and attack down the field. Most of Rivers' deep passing attempts during the contest were either rushed or thrown late in the game out of desperation.

The Chargers' offense has been good enough this year that one would assume they could at least move the ball well with quick passing, though. Against most other defenses or during any other week, that may have been true, but the Chargers' passing offense was not equipped to beat Baltimore's defense.

Along with their susceptibility down the field, one of Baltimore's other minor blemishes is their inability to shut down opposing tight ends. While their defense ranks eighth or better against No. 1 wide receivers, No. 2s, "other" wideouts, and running backs, they are 22nd against tight ends, primarily because their linebacker group is not made up of exceptional athletes and their safeties are not adept in manning up with tight ends. Given that the Chargers' only real option at tight end is an aging Antonio Gates, there was not much opportunity for them to take advantage of a potential weakness.

Chargers receiver Keenan Allen was also playing at less than 100 percent that day. Allen had missed the game against the Chiefs the week before with a hip injury, but returned to action against the Ravens at less than full capacity. In watching Allen's individual performance, it was clear he was not the same shifty, aggressive player within the first 10 yards that he typically is. Allen got bullied and disoriented in a way that does not happen to the star receiver when he is healthy.

via Gfycat

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Allen (13) is lined up as the inner-most receiver in the bunch at the bottom of the screen. He does not normally get redirected behind the line of scrimmage and lose his sense of spatial awareness like this. Allen is often a sharp and strong player who would not have allowed Matt Judon (99) to shove him back across the line of scrimmage, nor would Allen have lost his bearings and looked confused in trying to find space on the shallow route. A healthy, fully functioning Allen would normally maintain his position across the line of scrimmage and have little issue in finding a space to sit on the shallow route for Rivers to earn a quick completion.

via Gfycat

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In this example, Allen gets outmaneuvered and outmuscled at the top of the screen by cornerback Marlon Humphrey. Humphrey has been an elite cornerback this year, but Allen is regarded as one of the best receivers in the league at winning off the line of scrimmage and in short areas. Allen shows neither of those traits on this play. Instead, Humphrey mirrors Allen's initial stem perfectly and stays on top of him. Allen then tries to turn back on a hitch route and shield Humphrey away from the ball, but Allen does not provide the same suddenness in his route and aggression in working back to the ball that he normally can. As result of Allen's diminished state, Humphrey is able to mirror all of Allen's movements and collapse on the catch point to defend the pass.

In some ways, the Chargers could not really help any of the aforementioned factors. Deficiencies along the offensive line, a lack of receiving threats at tight end, and a less than optimal Allen are all either offseason problems or injury related. Injuries happen, and sometimes a team builds a good roster that is still not equipped to beat certain opponents. That being said, the Chargers still failed to approach the game the way they should have.

More specifically, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt should look to punish the Ravens more on the boundary and in space in the upcoming wild-card game. In their first meeting, the Chargers turned to an overwhelming amount of condensed formations and passing concepts that allowed the Ravens to funnel everything between the numbers on the field. That is playing right into Baltimore's hands. The Ravens love to funnel passing plays inside for their cornerbacks to collapse on and play the run in tight boxes, and they do not want to run in space. What is more is that the Chargers had success in spreading the Ravens out and forcing them to the boundary, they just did not do it often enough.

via Gfycat

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Not every attack to the sideline has to be a reverse-type play such as this one, but the goal should be to force Baltimore's linebackers and safeties to play outside the hashes. Baltimore's defense is elite when the ball is funneled toward the middle of the field, but they do not want to run or be forced to tackle in space. As Allen and running back Austin Ekeler enter this next game (hopefully) a bit healthier than in past weeks, Whisenhunt should possess enough tools to work the Ravens' defense into uncomfortable situations on the perimeter with wide receiver screens, reverses, motion across the formation, and wide runs.

A final note for improvement the Chargers ought to heed is cutting down on offensive penalties. In their first contest vs. the Ravens, the Chargers committed seven offensive penalties, many of which set up unreasonable second- or third-and-long situations. Between the penalties and aforementioned sacks, it felt as though Los Angeles' offense was constantly playing behind the sticks. If they want a better chance in the wild-card game, they have to stop shooting themselves in the foot with penalties, especially along the offensive line.

Between poor health and an imperfect game plan, it is fair to believe the Chargers' were worse in that first game than they would be in an average performance against this Ravens team. That is not to say the Chargers should be expected to shred the Ravens defense like they have done to so many others, but a healthier Chargers offense equipped with hindsight from the last game can put up a better fight the second time around. Rivers can not let this season end with a rerun of his worst, and almost only, poor performance on the year -- though it would perfectly fit the canon of his career.

Comments

3 comments, Last at 08 Jan 2019, 10:27pm

1 Re: Film Room: Chargers vs. Ravens

Interesting read, thanks. Hopefully Hunter Henry can make the difference - even if it's mostly as a decoy.

One question to my American based brethren; how bad is Forrest Lamp if he can't beat out Schofield? Wasn't he supposed to be a can't-miss prospect at Guard last year? He's only played a few downs as far as I can see and is a healthy inactive most weeks. What's the story?

2 Re: Film Room: Chargers vs. Ravens

The word earlier in the year was that Lamp still hadn't recovered his explosiveness even though it had been more than a year since the ACL tear. Later, Coach Lynn said that he didn't want to make an o-line change because the unit was doing well (which is no longer the case).

He played about 10 snaps against the Broncos in week 17 in garbage time and did fine, but definitely looked slow out of his stance. Didn't really get any push in the run game.

He was converted to guard because he supposedly lacks the length to be an NFL tackle. I wonder if he might be better off back at tackle though. Tevi is pretty good at run blocking but awful at pass protection (he's a good athlete but has poor technique), and the Chargers offense might execute better overall with Lamp out there at RT instead.

3 Re: Film Room: Chargers vs. Ravens

I watched the replay of this game several times for wagering purposes, and I have a hard time believing LA will have much trouble in the rematch...if they merely get a fair shake on officiating.
Several marginal calls repeatedly wiped out a lot of offense for LA. You see 8-69 vs 4-40 under team penalties in the box score and it looks benign, but when you consider that included 7 offensive penalties wiping out 75 yards of positive plays for LA, and the 40yds in Balt penalties amounted to nothing other than those 40 yards, it's pretty dramatic. That's 100+ total net yards handed to the Ravens, a huge difference in a tight game. Not just that, but the manner in which the secondary was allowed to play all night magnifies it.
Wiped out 1st downs, wiped out large gains. You've got a Balt secondary that plays hands on all game, yet you get Keenan Allen called for one of the most bizarre OPIs I've seen in quite some time...you really call OPI when a WR uses a swim (tap on the shoulder) to get away from the DB who initiated first contact in the first place??? In 2018? In the NFL? with these rules? For real? The DB reaches out and grabs Allen as he sees his sharp break has him beat. Allen merely 'swims' away from the grasp with a tap on the shoulder (20+ yards down field he's being grabbed but the foul is on him???) and is called for the shoulder tap negating a 28 yard gain...in the NFL...in 2018...bizarre...watch it 50 times if you like and I can't believe anyone would say that was a correct call...or even debatable. Then watch the entire game and take in the amount of clutching and grabbing that is constant from the Ravens corners without a single defensive holding call, and tell me that's a good OPI call. Look at it through that lens and you realize how absurd the officiating was.

One more amazingly dubious non-call...the first video above in this article of the sack of Rivers...watch that a few more times and tell me when in the 2018 version of the NFL does that not get called as roughing the passer??? If that's Brady's head bouncing off the turf...or Rodgers...or Brees...or even Mahomes...after a clothesline tackle??? There would be 8 flags on the field. "Contact around the head or neck area" of the QB is strictly prohibited. You only have to graze them in the head or neck area and the flags come flying, and the only contact he made was around the neck...he literally made no other contact, and you can't even possibly say that RIvers "ducked into" it, he's 6'5" and was fully upright when the arm went across his neck...that's unbelievable in this day and age in the NFL.

Other than the 1pm start and the real possibility of the same bizarre officiating, I don't see anything that keeps the Ravens in this game. It's a money line LA pick, probably win by 10-14 points.

Oh, and I'm also thinking the west coast teams should insist on a playoff scheduling rule whereby they are not subject to that Sun 1pm EST start as long as there are alternatives. Makes no sense when you have two east coast road teams in wild card games that you place the west coast team in that time slot. But then again, the ownership in LA is bottom 3 in the league and I don't think they could care less about hearing some bellyaching from them.