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Lions vs. Chargers 5Qs preview: Why LA hasn’t reached full potential

A preview with Arif Hasan about the Week 10 matchup between the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Chargers.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Back and refreshed from the bye week, the Detroit Lions are on track to be back at full strength along the offensive line, as well as at running back with the much anticipated return of David Montgomery to the lineup. The Lions will need all that firepower at their disposal on offense to match wits with the Los Angeles Chargers, another top-10 unit on offense, led by the talented Justin Herbert.

As always, we would never pass up the opportunity to get some intel from the opponent’s perspective. Ahead of this Week 10 matchup between Detroit and Los Angeles, we called on our good friend Arif Hasan to give us some insight into who this Chargers team is on both sides of the ball, the difference offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is making in his first year, and why you should consider the wide receiver depth when you’re considering how to bet this late-window matchup.

We were all led to believe that Joe Lombardi was the problem with the Chargers offense. While they do rank 8th in DVOA on that side of the ball, the rushing game sits in the bottom third of the league (20th in rush DVOA). Since the team rushed for 233 yards on 40 carries (5.8 yards per carry) against the Miami Dolphins in Week 1, the Chargers have failed to gain more than 84 yards on the ground in five of their next seven games, rank 22nd in rush DVOA, and are averaging just 3.4 YPC over those contests. What gives?

Let’s be clear: Joe Lombardi was a big problem. He consistently emphasized weaknesses and de-emphasized Herbert’s strengths. Kellen Moore is also not doing a very good job, but there are significant differences in their approaches. Regardless, the run game production has a lot to do with the ankle injury Austin Ekeler suffered in Week 1. Though he’s returned from injury for some time, it’s been clear that he hasn’t showcased the same burst and agility in those games. Against the Jets, we saw some elements of his gameplay return to form, but he was bottled up there in part because the Jets have an incredible front. When looking at weekly DVOA from FTN, one can see that the Chargers actually had a positive DVOA against the Jets in the run game.

Also, center Corey Linsley’s contributions cannot be understated—he’s been a gem. He was placed on injured reserve because of a heart issue early in the season and god bless Will Clapp but he is not Linsley.

Justin Herbert was a popular MVP candidate prior to the start of this season, as many thought the arrival of Kellen Moore would see the Chargers make use of Herbert’s arm talent to take the passing attack beyond the sticks. His average depth of target this season climbed from 7.0 last season to 8.4 this year, but it still feels like the offense has another level it’s capable of reaching with a guy like Herbert under center. Is it the lack of a threatening ground game, a revolving door of oft-injured pass catchers, a combination of that and more?

Oft-injured pass catchers is an important element. Without Mike Williams or Joshua Palmer, Keenan Allen doesn’t have a downfield complement, which makes it difficult to consistently have a downfield passing game. Everything else you mentioned is a factor—the ground game hasn’t forced teams out of two-high shells, the offensive line pass protection hasn’t given Herbert a ton of time and there’s still some work Herbert has to do to completely integrate his progressions into what Moore needs for the offense—but not having downfield threats is a big reason he can’t throw downfield.

Hopefully, Quentin Johnston continues to improve because he’s been kept off the field as a raw rookie. But he has those tools. More promising might be the fourth-round rookie, Derius Davis, who has incredible speed. Either way, we may see more in the way of downfield play if their young pass-catchers acclimate to the NFL.

The Chargers are tied for 1st in turnover differential (+9), and their defense has 15 takeaways, tied for fourth in the NFL, including nine fumbles recovered (first). Even with the fortuitous bounces, the Chargers defense ranks 23rd in DVOA, and gives up the 5th-most yards per play (5.6) in the NFL. Since turnovers are such a fickle statistic, are those turnovers propping up an otherwise below-average unit despite having Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa?

In some ways they are and in some ways they aren’t. They are benefiting from extraordinary fumble recovery luck and that should go down but they can’t really catch the ball on defense. FTN just recently published interception-worthy-throws to interception ratio on defenses through Week 8 and the Chargers have the fourth-worst conversion rate of pick opportunities to picks (when including PDs). They also have lower pick opportunities in general. So most of their defensive turnover production comes from fumbles.

I think we’ll see turnovers go down, but not by much; we haven’t quite seen the same Joey Bosa for most of the season—perhaps residual recovery from his groin tear last year—but the last four games have shown a more in-control, more in-balance and explosive Bosa. Before the bye, their pressure rate was 30.1 percent. After the bye, they’ve generated a pressure rate of 36.1 percent (PFF). That’s a modest increase but it’s also meaningful. Overall, the Chargers defense suffers from being too comfortable giving up short and intermediate yardage in order to prevent big plays over the top. That leaves a lot of space over the middle manned in part by an underwhelming Kenneth Murray.

On the other side of the ball, however, I do expect more turnovers to come from the offense—Herbert has a very generous interception-to-turnover-worthy play ratio right now and unless he can figure out how to work with the Moore offense, it’s going to be a problem. The Chargers need their defense to tighten up from down to down and need their offense to calm down.

This secondary for the Chargers features some unheralded players like former undrafted free agent Michael Davis–the team’s starting outside cornerback opposite of Asante Samuel Jr.–and Ja’Sir Taylor, a sixth-round draft pick in 2022 who leads the team in slot snaps. The team moved on from high-priced free agent addition J.C. Jackson earlier in the season and the team is still allowing the 4th-most net yards gained per pass attempt (6.6) in the NFL.

Is this a product of players like Davis and Taylor getting increased playing time, the playmakers like Samuel Jr. and Derwin James not making enough plays to help out this secondary that’s had to adjust on the fly?

Whew. Well, Michael Davis looked very good last year. That hasn’t continued into this year, but it’s something to note. And it’s important not to forget that Alohi Gilman is a very good player, too. So it’s not just James out there at safety working around the cornerbacks. But yes, there are problems with Taylor and Davis and the scheme magnifies those problems by giving up large swaths of field in order to prevent explosives. And in the first half of the season, the pressure just wasn’t coming. There’s not much more to add here other than the fact that defenses are often defined by their weakest link and the Chargers have a few of them.

What’s one nugget of Chargers’ intel that a gambling Lions fan would find useful for their bet slip this weekend?

Derius Davis is electric. You may have seen him score on the punt return touchdown and add a little bit more in the way of an occasional big play, but my sense is that he’ll get more snaps going forward and could outperform Quentin Johnston. I’d bet on him. Also the Chargers are, by far, a first-half team. They rank fourth in the NFL in first-half point differential, but 26th in second-half point differential. I would skip past the spread and over/under and start hunting for first half/second half props with that in mind.

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