There’s no backup plan to the backup plan when you’re keeping a 53-man roster. And yet, the San Diego Chargers continue to be forced to resort to their reserves, having endured more than their fair share of injury attrition over the early course of the season.
All of the players that San Diego’s gone from putting in their starting lineup in Week 1 to placing on the injured reserve shortly after are of notable impact to the franchise’s welfare on the field, but there’s no question that there’s a couple individuals whose presence is missed more than the others. Keenan Allen’s torn ACL in Week 1 was heartbreaking for player, team and fan base, all of whom were chomping at the bit to see the quality of performance he’d put up in his first full season as the Chargers’ go-to receiver.
Allen’s injury was devastating, but no injury was more frustrating than the partially-torn ACL that Jason Verrett suffered against the Colts in Week 3, not finally revealing the nature of the injury until after Week 4’s loss to New Orleans. Coming off of his first Pro Bowl appearance, 2016 was primed as Verrett’s ascension into the elite of the NFL’s defensive backs, a rise that was well on its way after Verrett shut down Jeremy Maclin and Allen Robinson in back to back weeks to open the season.
But once again, injury struck the 2014 first-round pick, and he’ll have to wait until 2017 to have another chance at asserting himself back into the conversation of the league’s top cornerbacks. San Diego’s depth has allowed them to cope with injuries at other positions without incredible dropoff in performance - none of the Chargers’ four losses can be chalked up to simply not being talented enough to win - but losing Verrett for the long-term didn’t come without its additional short-term repercussions.
Through Tuesday’s practice report — in which the Chargers listed player probability of playing ahead of Thursday night’s game at Denver — we’ve still yet to see Brandon Flowers practice since sustaining a concussion against Indianapolis in Week 3. The head injury — the third of its kind to come Flowers’ way in the three years he’s been in San Diego — is far more important to tend to than the concern of his playing status, but the Chargers would be remiss if they weren’t eager for his return.
In the one week that San Diego’s had to deal with both Verrett and Flowers out of uniform, Oakland’s passing offense seemingly advanced the ball at will, only finding drives stifled when San Diego’s defensive line created pressure or Derek Carr missed his mark.
First, it’s best to start with the bright spot, and that bright spot is Casey Hayward.
The former Green Bay Packer already has three interceptions in the early part of his Chargers career, and was tasked with shadowing Michael Crabtree against the Raiders. Crabtree burned Hayward for a critical fourth-and-two touchdown in the third quarter, but San Diego’s default CB1 held his own on the day and was not the reason the Chargers passing defense was taken advantage of to the tune of 317 yards and two touchdowns.
When Verrett’s injury was announced and he was moved to the IR, San Diego brought back Steve Williams to the active roster. San Diego’s fifth-round pick in 2013, Williams was part of the final cuts to the active roster before Week 1, as the Chargers chose to bring in Pierre Desir off waivers from Cleveland rather than keep the former California corner on the backend of the roster. But sans Flowers and Verrett, it was a matter of time until Williams came back.
What wasn’t expected — and what shouldn’t continue — is the amount of playing time he received and the situations in which he was put into Sunday against the Raiders. Williams played in 71 percent of San Diego’s defensive snaps, spending them attempting to cover Amari Cooper to little avail.
Against the Raiders’ Pro Bowl wideout, Williams looked exactly like a cornerback who was watching the prior Sunday’s football from the couch. When Williams wasn’t in the game, it was second-year player Craig Mager who stepped in, and he didn’t impress either, as Cooper ended his day gashing the Chargers for six catches for 138 yards and a touchdown.
But what’s most concerning from San Diego’s secondary is that the player that the Chargers chose over Williams at the start of the season couldn’t find his way into the game at all against Oakland. Desir’s 6-foot-2 frame is easily the largest amongst the San Diego cornerbacks, and much of his appeal was the ability to match up against larger receivers and not simply be overmatched physically. That’s the problem that Hayward faced in covering Crabtree, being able to stay with him through the entirety of the route but just not having the size to attack the ball in the air when Carr lofts balls to his 6-foot-3 wideout.
And yet, it was Hayward on Crabtree all day and the combination of Williams and Mager left to battle Cooper, a matchup that was never going to work out in the Chargers’ favor. So the question must be asked whether or not the Chargers are choosing to play the players they have previous years of familiarity with or if Desir simply isn’t of quality to find his way on the field.
One would think that after watching Cooper tear up his secondary early on, defensive coordinator John Pagano would move Hayward across the field to cover the former Alabama receiver and insert Desir into the game to combat with Crabtree’s size. But Desir didn’t earn a single defensive snap all day, and the remaining members of San Diego’s secondary that were playing were simply over-matched by Oakland.
To expect backup cornerbacks to deal with Oakland’s elite receiver corps and not get burned at all is to expect something that simply isn’t going to happen. But as San Diego continues to deal with Verrett’s absence and however long Flowers will be out moving forward, Pagano needs to get more creative and take advantage of the size he does have in his secondary.
On Thursday night, the Chargers will be tasked with dealing with two elite receivers again, as Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders will line up across from whoever San Diego throws out there. After watching Hayward’s valiant performance end in another futile effort and Flowers still far away from returning, it appears to be time for Pagano to get more creative with his defensive backs - and maybe even start using them all.