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Los Angeles Chargers: Can Brandon Staley retool his defense in one offseason?

Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley watches play against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second half at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

“The NFL is amazing because you do what you have to do, not what you want to do.”

In February 2021, there wasn’t much reason to have tempered expectations for the Los Angeles Chargers. Top-10 pick Justin Herbert was the best rookie in the NFL, and Brandon Staley was hired as the head coach after leading the Los Angeles Rams to one of the best defenses in recent history — installing new defensive schemes virtually as the league navigated its way through the pandemic. Not only was there a new energy in the building, Staley was (and is) part of a shift in the way defense is played, and the Chargers were directly changing gears from the Legion of Boom’s influence (Gus Bradley) to someone off of Vic Fangio’s coaching tree to implement the 3-4.

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That honeymoon phase is squarely over after a calendar year, as it always has been in a league that jokes about its acronym — Not For Long. At Staley’s media availability during the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine and in conversations with anyone attached to the Chargers’ brain trust, the message was consistent to a man: maintain continuity for Herbert, and aggressively pursue impact players at positions that unlock the best versions of Staley’s scheme.

So far, Los Angeles’ offseason tracks with the public-facing messaging. Wide receiver Mike Williams went from a franchise tag candidate to signing a three-year extension, and news broke Thursday of a trade between the Chargers and Bears for star edge defender Khalil Mack, who Staley coached in his time as outside linebackers coach in Chicago. Mack’s pairing with Joey Bosa will have immediate returns — and not just in the pass-rushing sense. With Mack in the fold, the Chargers join the Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rams as the only teams running the odd front with two edges earning 75.0-plus PFF defensive grades. Setting the edge in the run game will be almost as valuable as the havoc the pair can create while getting after the quarterback.

If those two moves are any indication, the Chargers have little interest in leaving this spring with a handful of C-plus acquisitions or low-profile players. The work doesn’t begin and end with the stars, though. Staley’s defense already had a couple of guys who have played at an All-Pro level in their career (Bosa, Derwin James), and it still allowed the ninth-highest expected points allowed per play number in the NFL last season. To maximize Los Angeles' defensive approach, the players standing beside the stars have to deliver versatility and a high level of football acumen to execute what’s being asked of them.

To get an idea of what this defense has in tow, and what it still needs to accomplish between now and OTAs, we’ll lay out the issues the Chargers had in the “odd” front (3-4 structure) and how it can be fixed by identifying the “key factors” that Staley is looking for.

First Level, First: Defensive Interior

The odd front and the 3-4 defensive philosophy is rooted in a reliance on the three interior defensive tackles to play with heavy hands and great anchors. In short, you need bigger bodies to eat up linemen and interior gaps so that edge and second-level defenders can play with a clear picture. Last season, the Chargers ranked 21st in run-defense grade and 14th out of the 17 teams with at least 25 snaps in an odd front.

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