Chargers' First Assignment: Stop Travis Etienne
NFL Wild Card - After a humbling Week 18 contest against the Broncos where Mike Williams and Joey Bosa both got nicked up a bit, the Justin Herbert Playoff Era finally embarks on Saturday when the Chargers meet the Jaguars in Jacksonville. The Jaguars looked dead in the water at one point—one point after they slapped around the Chargers in Week 3—but then won six of seven games after their bye week to clinch the annual AFC South participation award.
I’m self-consciously trying to not write anything that gets me the attention of the Los Angeles social media team, but there are reasons to doubt the Chargers in this matchup. Their defense improved down the stretch and notably had a Narrative Owning of Tua Tagovailoa’s middle-of-the-field progressions, but outside of Tua they didn’t really face an offense that challenged them. The Jaguars defense can empathize after facing, in order, Ryan Tannehill, Dak Prescott, Zach Wilson (and Chris Streveler), Davis Mills (and Jeff Driskel), and Josh Dobbs en route to clinching the division.
This game will help set the narrative for whether we believe in Herbert or Trevor Lawrence more as the next potential interloper of the Mahomes throne. (Josh Allen is safely ensconced in his own tier.) Luckily, we all know that the narrative means nothing and that there are 21 other football players on the field at the same time, right? (I’m being told we do not know that.)
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
|DVOA||-0.8% (18)||3.3% (13)|
|WEI DVOA||2.2% (16)||5.2% (13)|
|Chargers on Offense|
|LAC OFF||JAX DEF|
|DVOA||-1.9% (19)||6.1% (26)|
|WEI DVOA||-0.9% (18)||6.1% (26)|
|PASS||8.7% (17)||19.7% (30)|
|RUSH||-8.9% (22)||-11.8% (11)|
|Jaguars on Offense|
|LAC DEF||JAX OFF|
|DVOA||1.1% (16)||7.7% (9)|
|WEI DVOA||0.8% (19)||8.2% (8)|
|PASS||-3.8% (10)||27.1% (6)|
|RUSH||6.7% (29)||-7.5% (20)|
|DVOA||2.2% (6)||1.7% (11)|
If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
The major X factor coming into this game will be if Mike Williams (back) plays. Williams was injured in Week 18’s loss to the Broncos, was unable to walk to the bus without assistance after the game, did not practice all week, and is listed as questionable. This is an enormous injury in the context of “not having good receiver is bad,” but also particularly in the context of the Jacksonville pass defense and Los Angeles’ pass offense. The Jaguars are 29th with a 12.2% DVOA when forced into a nickel defense this year and Williams’ seasonal receiving DVOA is 17.4%, which was seventh in the NFL. With apologies to Keenan Allen, who dealt with a hammy issue much of the season, the other Chargers wideouts just can’t be relied on in big spots. Despite seven different games with eight or more targets, Josh Palmer went over 100 yards just twice and scored only three touchdowns.
The Chargers have a superstar fantasy football running back, and he’s not a superstar fantasy football running back because he runs the ball well. The Chargers are 22nd in rushing DVOA and had just five games with a positive run DVOA in the entire season. The positive news is that four of those five games have come since Week 11, including a 56.8% depantsing of the Rams. The bad news is that Austin Ekeler ran 11 times for 34 yards in Week 18 as the Chargers had just a -67.4% rush DVOA against the Broncos. Jacksonville held the Chargers to a -61.1% rush DVOA in Week 3.
No, most of the reason we pay attention to Ekeler is because of his wildly high catch rate. He essentially acts as Los Angeles’ main short-distance wideout. He’s the only Chargers skill position player with a high broken-tackle rate. Ekeler finished with 59 broken tackles in SIS charting, the seventh-highest total in the NFL. The next-best Chargers player? Gerald Everett, with 18. Some of that is because Los Angeles’ main weapons lost time to injuries, sure. But it’s not like Keenan Allen is known for juking people out of their shoes. The Jaguars have a fairly high 11.8% broken tackle rate. With Williams unlikely to go, a lot of this game is going to be on Ekeler’s shoulders for the Chargers.
That’s because the Chargers, despite brandishing one of the most impressive quarterback arms of the last 20 years, are a short-pass offense under Joe Lombardi. It’s one of the most confounding examples I can remember of an offensive coordinator asserting his will over the talent of his team. Herbert’s 6.7 average intended air yards (per NFL Next Gen Stats) is the third-lowest total in the NFL, above only Matt Ryan and Daniel Jones. Williams is by far the most talented deep receiver the Chargers have, and non-Williams receivers have only a 46% success rate on deep targets.
Jacksonville’s great cornerback play has naturally made them a defense you want to attack in the middle of the field. Amongst corners in SIS data with at least 15 starts, Tyson Campbell finished third in yards per target allowed at 4.77. Darious Williams was in the top 20 with an even 6.00 yards allowed per target, and that number is somewhat inflated by him playing in the slot at times despite being much more successful outside. The Jaguars were 30th in DVOA against passes over the middle, however, with two rookie linebackers Devin Lloyd and Chad Muma getting a lot of playing time next to Foyesade Oluokun. They also were dead last in DVOA allowed to tight ends and surrendered 62.2 yards per game to them, fourth-highest in the NFL. Yes, this is the official Gerald Everett DFS signal boost.
One key factor for the Jaguars in their Week 3 stomping of the Chargers was heavy pressure. The Chargers, who at that point were still stuck on this idea of “Storm Norton,” allowed 10 pressures in 46 Herbert dropbacks (per Sportradar charting) as Los Angeles dealt with the effects of losing Rashawn Slater live and in real time. Slater was cleared to return to practice this week, but coaches said that he would not play against the Jaguars. Meanwhile, the Jaguars remain an extremely pressure-reliant defense. They’re fourth in the NFL with a 28.0% pressure rate, and Josh Allen finished with 44 individual pressures, fourth-highest in the league. When Jacksonville does poorly as a pass defense, it is due to a lack of pressure. They managed just six pressures in 43 Jared Goff dropbacks in Week 13, four pressures in 35 dropbacks against Patrick Mahomes in Week 9, and 10 in 58 dropbacks against Matt Ryan in Week 6 despite blitzing 18 times (all data from Sportradar)—those were their three worst defensive DVOA games of the season.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Brandon Staley brought two-high shells to Los Angeles and has spent the years under-delivering on the promise that he could actually stop the run. The Chargers were 29th in rush defense DVOA after they were 30th in rush defense DVOA in Staley’s first season. This despite big investments in players such as Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson to nominally help man the interior line. The depth here has not been good, and injuries have helped spotlight the depth in ways that have not been productive. They don’t like to put players in the box, and the players they have played there have not been broadly good.
To speak to that further, James Robinson had 425 rushing yards this season, and 100 of them came against the Chargers in Week 3. The Chargers played the Jaguars early enough in the season that Jacksonville hadn’t even integrated Travis Etienne as the No. 1 back yet. It did not matter. Robinson had a 50-yard touchdown run—the Chargers are great at allowing long runs—that broke Los Angeles’ spirit in the third quarter of that matchup. Etienne has been a fantasy football gold mine since taking over as Jacksonville’s main back outside of the two times they played Tennessee. In his game before that, he lit up the Texans for 108 rushing yards, 32 receiving yards, and a touchdown—in a game where he was benched at halftime. The Los Angeles run defense had been better in Weeks 14 to 16, but fell apart with 371 total rush yards allowed in Weeks 17 and 18. If Jacksonville gets out to a lead, they certainly seem more than capable of establishing it on Los Angeles.
Trevor Lawrence has had a successful sophomore season in the sense that he has flashes of utter brilliance mixed with some horrendous throws at the worst possible times (think: red zone interception versus the Texans in Week 5, his missed throw in the red zone against the Titans in Week 18). You can clearly see what he is meant to be, but he is still percolating to become that player at this point. Lawrence has a 43.3% success rate against man coverage, averaging 6.6 yards per attempt, while he has a 51.4% success rate against zone, averaging 7.6 yards per attempt. The Chargers play more man than zone, which will put a lot of pressure on Lawrence to hit the throws which we have all seen that he can, if not consistently.
Doug Pederson has shown a varied approach this year, picking on weak links and areas he identifies via game-planning. For instance, Marvin Jones had 18 targets, 13 catches, and 165 yards against the Texans in two games this year. He had 63 targets, 33 catches, and 364 yards in his 16 other games. The Jaguars pounded the rock outside against the Chargers in Week 3, with 20 targets combined going to Zay Jones and Christian Kirk. They mainly went after Michael Davis, whom Sportradar has charted with eight catches allowed for 64 yards and a score in Week 3. Because J.C. Jackson fell apart this season with injuries and the new demands of zone coverage schemes he wasn’t used to, Davis has had to play a surprising amount of snaps. He actually finished fourth in the NFL amongst corners who started 10 or more games with only 5.0 yards allowed per attempt in the SIS rankings.
Staley remains a good defensive signal-caller and can bring some unexpected pressures, so this figures to be the higher-quality side of coaching in this one. The Chargers have shown some high-upside defensive games with their destruction of the Dolphins as well as playing Patrick Mahomes pretty tightly this season. Even though their defensive DVOA was horrendous against the Jaguars, they managed to hold them to three early field-goal attempts despite a few turnovers gifting Jacksonville short fields in the first half. They were just bludgeoned with the run, especially after Joey Bosa got hurt.
While Bosa has made it back, he has been eased into life with the Chargers so far. He played just 47 snaps in Los Angeles’ last two games, then appeared on the injury report this week with a groin designation yet again. Bosa appeared to re-aggravate the injury while sacking Russell Wilson. If the Bosa/Khalil Mack combo can be fully activated for this game, with Bosa playing 90% of the snaps like he did in Weeks 1 and 2, perhaps there’s some upside for the Chargers defense that their seasonal stats would not give them enough credit for.
Finally, one other thing to look for in this game is the Los Angeles play-action defense against Jacksonville’s play-action offense. The Jaguars do not use play-action an exceptional amount of the time, but finished third in yards per play at 8.5 when they did. Los Angeles allowed 8.1 yards per play against play-action, the fifth-highest amount in the league. In a game where one haymaker could potentially change a lot, the Jaguars sure would appear to be able to land one with play-action if they properly set it up.
Well it’s your friends the Los Angeles Chargers, they’re always bad at special teams, and this year they’re … wait, they’re sixth in special teams DVOA? Are we sure that’s right? The Chargers have used three kickers this year and seem to have found something in rookie Cameron “Dicker the Kicker” Dicker, who has missed just one field goal in 20 tries as an undrafted free-agent find. DeAndre Carter has done yeoman’s work as the kick and punt returner this year, outside of his customary fumbling problems. But it is 2021 Jags punter JK Scott who has added the most value to this unit in 2022, as Chargers punts were their biggest strength this season. (Did we really need to see another reason for Brandon Staley to not go for it?)
The Jaguars had a respectable finish (and turnaround) of their own this year, also gaining most of their value off punts with free-agent signee Logan Cooke. Jamal Agnew has done most of the returns despite being banged up over the course of the middle of the season, with JaMycal Hasty and Christian Kirk kicking in some work when necessary. Rookie Riley Patterson took over field-goal duties and went 30-of-35 with one missed extra point.
On paper this is certainly a tight contest despite the blowout in Week 3. The 2.5-point spread we have listed in our premium picks has gotten haggled down from Chargers (-1) earlier in the week. Having put in the research, especially if Williams doesn’t play, I like the Jaguars with the points and to win outright. I can’t deny that Staley’s defenses can play at a different level than we saw in Week 3 and that he’ll have a full game of tape to work with, potentially with a healthy Bosa. But I just have a hard time imagining the Chargers stopping the run successfully in this game, and also a hard time imagining them jumping out to the kind of lead that would force the Jaguars to stop running.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.
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