After an up-and-down 60 minutes of regulation Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, the Los Angeles Chargers won the overtime coin toss and got possession first. Justin Herbert and the offense started at their own 25-yard line. Score a touchdown, and the Chargers win the game. An NFL team cannot ask for much more: The ball in the hands of its best player with a chance to close it out.
And yet it all unraveled for the Chargers in less than five minutes of game action, as the Titans pulled out a 27-24 win on Nick Folk’s sudden-death field goal.
The margin for error in late-game situations is razor-thin in the NFL. And the Chargers made far too many errors in this overtime period — on offense, on defense, on special teams, in play calling and in game management.
Let’s dive into the weeds.
Chargers lose to Titans to fall to 0-2: ‘Obviously, we’re missing something’
On the opening play of overtime, Herbert had time to throw, albeit with some slight pressure from Titans defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons on the interior. Herbert attempted a pass to Mike Williams down the right sideline into double coverage that fell incomplete. Receiver Joshua Palmer was uncovered on a comeback route to the same side as Williams, about 20 yards closer to the line of scrimmage. Herbert missed him.
On second down, the pocket was collapsing on Herbert. He threw the pass away to the right side instead of escaping and trying to create.
That brought up a third-and-10. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore called a play out of a shotgun formation with a quick-snap cadence. As the Chargers broke the huddle, Williams lined up to the wrong side — left instead of right. Williams realized his mistake as center Corey Linsley got to the ball. Williams tried to run from the left side of the formation to the right. He crossed in front of Herbert, who realized the mistake. He tried to tell Williams to stop. But at that point, Linsley was preparing to quick-snap the ball. Williams continued on. The ball was snapped before Williams was set. Williams did not run a route. Herbert had time, but the play was a mess without Williams in the concept. He threw it away.
“We were going on a quick cadence,” Staley said. “And so when (Williams) was lined up incorrectly, we didn’t allow him to get over there because of the type of cadence that we were on. And so because of the crowd noise, just kind of that stars aligning where we had a tough play there. So we have to do better.”
Staley added that Herbert was not in a position to communicate the mishap with Linsley because he was in shotgun.
On fourth down, the Chargers punted. JK Scott got off a decent kick. I clocked the hang time at 5.06 seconds. It traveled 47 yards. But the Chargers punt coverage was late getting down the field. Returner Kearis Jackson made a clean catch and surged straight ahead for 11 yards before long snapper Josh Harris made the tackle. The 36-yard net punt set the Titans up with good field position at their own 39. Folk’s season-long field goal in 2022 with the New England Patriots was 54 yards. Tennessee needed to gain just 25 yards to give Folk a 54-yard attempt to win it.
Staley’s defense then took its turn. On first down, the Titans called a crack toss run play to the left to running back Tyjae Spears. The crack refers to a player, usually a receiver, blocking from outside to inside on the defensive end. If executed, that block prevents the defensive end from setting the edge, giving the running back a lane to attack the outside of the defense.
Tennessee executed this concept. Receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine crack-blocked on Khalil Mack, getting enough of the Chargers edge rusher to spring Spears to the outside. Chargers cornerback Ja’Sir Taylor was defending Westbrook-Ikhine in the slot. Once Westbrook-Ikhine blocked, it was up to Taylor to re-set the edge. But Taylor hesitated slightly before attacking downhill. That gave Spears a path to the sideline behind left tackle Andre Dillard, who pulled on the play. And it prevented linebacker Nick Niemann, who was unblocked, from getting to Spears.
Spears gained 14 yards on the play to move the Titans into Chargers territory.
“We could have handled it better,” Staley said Monday.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed a swing pass to running back Derrick Henry for a 6-yard gain on first down. On second down, safety Derwin James Jr. and Mack got penetration to stuff a Henry run for a 1-yard gain.
That set up a third-and-2. Spears replaced Henry, who went to the sideline. Henry appeared winded on the television broadcast. The Titans came out for the third down in a three-receiver personnel package. The Chargers matched with their penny package, a variation of their nickel grouping with three interior defensive linemen, two edge rushers, one inside linebacker and five defensive backs.
Staley did not like the personnel grouping once the Titans approached the line in a tight formation. He called timeout to make a substitution, bringing on an extra defensive lineman in place of Taylor. However, this timeout allowed the Titans to bring Henry back into the game for Spears. Tannehill handed to Henry, who bulldozed through multiple Chargers defenders for a first down.
Staley said Monday he had “no reconsideration” on the timeout call despite the stoppage allowing for Henry to return to the game.
“That was a high-leverage situation,” Staley said. “We wanted to get the right grouping in defensively to give us a chance to knock out that run. That’s why we made the substitution. That’s the grouping that we felt like would give us the best chance to knock out that run. It had done so earlier in the game.”
A stop in that situation would have left Titans coach Mike Vrabel with a tough decision, facing a fourth down from around the plus-39-yard line. Attempt a 57-yard field goal? Go for it? Punt it away? We will never know what Vrabel would have done.
On the ensuing first down, the Titans needed just three yards to set up that 54-yard attempt. (For what it’s worth, Folk’s career long is 56, which he hit with the New York Jets in 2010.)
Staley decided to bring a blitz to try and, as he said Monday, “get them out of range and hopefully create a negative play.”
He brought seven rushers — three interior defensive linemen, two edge rushers and both inside linebackers. The Titans had the perfect counter called. Not only did they keep seven players in protection, they also moved Tannehill away from the pressure on a sprint right. The Titans had two receivers to that side of the field, with DeAndre Hopkins matched up one-on-one with safety Alohi Gilman. Hopkins won on an out route, and Tannehill delivered a pinpoint strike on the run to move the Titans firmly into field goal range.
“We had pressure in his face,” Staley said. “But give credit to Ryan for throwing a good pass there.”
This five minutes of game time had it all: a misread from the quarterback, a protection breakdown, a procedural error on offense, poor special teams coverage, poor defensive execution, a bad timeout and a losing play call.
And that is how you give away an overtime game in the NFL.
• The Asante Samuel Jr. experiment at Star — Staley’s nickel/slot position — is evidently over after only one game. Staley said Monday that Taylor will be filling the Star role for the foreseeable future. Samuel led the Chargers with 22 defensive snaps in the slot in the Week 1 loss to the Miami Dolphins, according to TruMedia. The Chargers gave up 466 passing yards to the Dolphins. On Sunday, Samuel played all 63 of his defensive snaps at outside corner, according to TruMedia. Taylor led the Chargers with 26 defensive snaps in the slot.
• The Chargers had a rotation going at outside corner against the Titans. Staley said this was because J.C. Jackson is still in a “ramp-up” from his return from knee surgery. Michael Davis replaced Jackson for 24 snaps. Davis told me after the game in Nashville that he struggled to find a rhythm amid the rotation. Staley said Samuel, Jackson and Davis will continue to compete for playing time at outside corner. “As we continue to play these games and perform, then the competition is going to express itself, and then two guys will emerge and we’ll be able to settle on our starting two,” Staley said. “But right now it kind of is where it is and we need to keep moving forward.”
• The Chargers gave up two deep-field explosive passes that flipped this game in regulation — a 70-yard completion to Treylon Burks in the second quarter, and a 49-yard completion to Chris Moore in the fourth quarter. Both receptions led to touchdowns.
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) September 17, 2023
The most concerning aspect of these two completions is they came in the same coverage: quarter-quarter-half, or Cover 6. This is a staple coverage in Staley’s scheme. He has called it on almost 16 percent of his defensive plays since taking over as head coach in 2021, according to TruMedia. I did a thorough breakdown of the responsibilities in this coverage in last week’s film breakdown — because Jackson gave up a 35-yard touchdown to Tyreek Hill in the coverage. So head there for more details.
But the more important point is this: The Chargers have played quarter-quarter-half on 12 passing plays in 2023, according to TruMedia. They have allowed explosive passes on seven of those snaps, including three of at least 35 yards. All three plays of those plays attacked the same player: the outside corner to the quarters half of the field — Jackson on Hill’s touchdown, Samuel on Burks’ 70-yarder and Davis on Moore’s 49-yarder. Jackson and Samuel both misplayed their leverage, allowing the receiver to take an outside release. Davis played the right leverage and was in tight coverage but did not make a play on the ball.
MOORE OF THIS 🚀
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) September 17, 2023
Staley said there is “no problem” with his messaging when it comes to this specific coverage: “You got to move the hard down around in the NFL. You can’t protect both corners when you’re playing against a top running back in the NFL. And so we moved the hard down around. That’s part of how we play. When you do get the tough down, you got to win your fair share. Those are the 50-50 plays that you got to be able to make at corner in the league. And again, we’ll continue to coach the disguise and leverage and all of that. We’ll continue to emphasize it. But we’ve got to do better and it starts with me.”
• There were a couple of positive defensive developments from Sunday. The run defense held up against Henry. Kenneth Murray Jr. was a big part of that, playing what Staley called his “best game since I’ve been the coach.” The Chargers were also able to generate pressure on Tannehill on money downs. Tannehill was pressured on 70 percent of his third and fourth down dropbacks, according to TruMedia. Staley unveiled a three edge rusher package for the first time this season on Sunday, with Joey Bosa, Mack and rookie Tuli Tuipulotu all on the field. Bosa had two sacks out of that package, both on third down. Tuipulotu played 50 defensive snaps and was a difference-maker as a pass rusher and run defender. He had his first career sack in the fourth quarter and is looking like a potential standout complementary piece to Bosa and Mack. Bosa only played 19 snaps in the game as he was nursing a hamstring injury.
(Top photo of Justin Herbert: Christopher Hanewinckel / USA Today)
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