San Diego Chargers

Chargers defense can’t afford to play bend-don’t-break versus Falcons

June 14, 2016 - San Diego, CA, USA - SAN DIEGO, CA San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano looks on during mini camp (Photo by K.C. Alfred/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by K.C. Alfred/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

A week after holding the Broncos offense to 13 points and limiting Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to a combined nine catches for 75 yards, the Chargers are rightfully feeling confident in their secondary moving forward. It’s one thing to shut down both of Denver’s top targets on any given night, but the Chargers’ performance is more impressive when taking into account the absences of Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers from the lineup.

Despite going without his top two cornerbacks, defensive coordinator John Pagano refused to get over-creative with his personnel decisions in the secondary, dropping his safeties low in coverage and utilizing a zone scheme to keep the Broncos off their toes. One week after watching Casey Heyward get out-bodied by Michael Crabtree on a crucial reception while Craig Mager struggled to keep up with Amari Cooper, Pagano ditched the man coverage scheme and utilized his safeties to aid his corners in keeping the Denver receivers at bay.

But just as Pagano handled last Thursday’s challenge differently than the week prior, he’ll have to change up his game plan again this week as the Chargers head into Atlanta for what’s sure to be a shootout with the Falcons.

While Atlanta doesn’t boast the one-two punch of Thomas and Sanders, the main haymaker they’ll be throwing at the Chargers on Sunday comes in the form of Julio Jones, the league’s top receiver through the first six weeks. The term “uncoverable” hasn’t assigned to him without justification.

Now, if the Chargers were taking on the Falcons in Week 1 instead of Week 7, Pagano would stick his top man Verrett on Jones one-on-one and let his Pro Bowl corner do his best to keep the Atlanta receiver at bay. And while the knock on him coming into the league in 2014 was his diminutive size, throughout his professional career Verrett has performed at his best when facing off against larger receivers.

But reality won’t allow for Pagano to put his best man on Atlanta’s best man and spend the rest of his effort crafting up a gameplan against the rest of the Falcons offense, and Jones becomes the Chargers’ greatest concern headed into Sunday’s tilt. Much of San Diego’s performance will depend on the health of Flowers, who was limited in his participation in practice on Tuesday and remains questionable to make his return to active duty on Sunday after suffering a concussion in Week 3.

Flowers’ possible presence on Sunday would be vitally important for the Chargers and if he’s in there he could be one of the main players asked to monitor Jones. But even if he is able to suit up Pagano will need to create a special game plan just for Jones. He can’t ask Casey Hayward or Flowers to cover Jones one-on-one, as both corners have given up crucial plays when matched up against larger targets. But allowing Jones to find open spaces in San Diego’s zone will just result in Matt Ryan creating time in the pocket and finding his top wideout in the cracks of the Charger defense.

Rather, to have any hope of containing Jones and walking out of the Georgia Dome with a win, the Chargers have to both create pressure in the backfield with only a four-man rush and Pagano can’t let his love for his defensive backs get in the way of realizing their limitations. Much of San Diego’s success last week in getting off the field on third down came thanks to a defensive line and outside linebacker corps that was able to get in the backfield without an overbearing utilization of stunts and extra blitzers.

October 13, 2016 - San Diego, CA, USA - The San Diego Chargers' Joey Bosa, left, and Dexter McCoil celebrate after Jatavis Brown caused the Denver Broncos' Demaryius Thomas to fumble in the fourth quarter at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. The Chargers won, 21-13 (Photo by K.C. Alfred/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by K.C. Alfred/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

If Joey Bosa continues the hot start to his rookie season while Brandon Mebane and Corey Liuget perform their individual roles as they have through the first six weeks of the year, San Diego will put enough pressure on Ryan to force the ball out of his hands with urgency. Any sense of consistent pressure in the backfield is heaven sent news for the secondary, who would only have to stay in coverage for a few seconds at a time.

But as for the secondary, Pagano needs to be creative with his approach towards containing Jones.

Putting a combination of Hayward and Mager on Jones while Flowers handles Muhammad Sanu on his own allows the Chargers to keep a consistent double-team on the Atlanta star without dooming the rest of their secondary to a constant barrage of attacks. If Flowers can’t suit up, Hayward should be put on an island with Sanu while Mager and a combination of Adrian Philips and Dexter McCoil provide extra help on Jones on a play-by-play basis.

There’s no way the Chargers are going to escape Atlanta without conceding a few impressive completions to Jones, the Atlanta receiver’s simply too good. But by shadowing him with the CB2 and CB3 or the CB2 with safety help while putting the top corner across the field in man coverage, Pagano’s defense can get enough stops to put its offense in position to leave Georgia with a shiny new 3-4 record.

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