A year ago at this time, he was coordinating a defense that would finish the season leading the NFL in fewest points and yards allowed.
The 2020 Rams were the third-toughest team against which to convert a third down.
Now as head coach of the Chargers — a job he landed in part because of his defense’s performance last year — Brandon Staley’s latest version remains very much under construction.
The 2021 Chargers are fourth against the pass but rank last in rushing yards permitted. Only two teams have surrendered a higher conversion rate on third down.
Among the 10 worst defenses in average points allowed per game, the Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders are the only teams with winning records.
Still, Staley said he’s encouraged given the schedule the Chargers have played and how the defense is trending nine games into the season.
“I’m proud of our guys because I think that we’re improving,” he said. “As a coach, you know what you see on a daily basis and you know the way it should look. It’s getting closer to being that way.”
The most consistent issue has been a run defense that has allowed three 100-yard rushers. Seven of the Chargers’ past eight opponents have run the ball at least 30 times, helping lead to some glaring disparities in time of possession.
But in their three most recent games, the Chargers have limited the opposition to 3.8 yards per carry. On Sunday against Minnesota, they had three tackles for loss against the run.
Forcing negative plays has been one of Staley’s recent points of emphasis, the logic being that pushing the offense backward would lead to longer third-down situations.
Of the Vikings’ 14 third downs, nine required them to gain at least seven yards. Six were 10 yards or more. The Chargers prevented Minnesota from converting six of its first seven third downs.
“I like the way that we are playing on third-and-five-plus,” Staley said. “… I’m optimistic about how we’re playing. I think that the product that we’re putting on the field is more of what I’m used to seeing.”
The problem Sunday was what happened after the defense opened the game so impressively. Late in the third quarter, Jerry Tillery and Linval Joseph combined to stop Dalvin Cook on third and goal from the one-yard line.
The Vikings opted to go for it on fourth down, with Kirk Cousins hitting an open Tyler Conklin for a touchdown after safety Alohi Gilman, who was slightly out of position, collided with teammate Derwin James.
“Our guys were ready for it,” Staley said. “I have to do a better job of putting ’Lo through that so he’s sure of that location.”
With the touchdown, the Vikings led 20-17, setting up their final two possessions that sealed the game and fittingly summarized the growing pains of the Chargers defense.
Minnesota converted three third downs on a drive that ended with Cook scoring from a yard out. The Vikings then converted a third and six and a fourth and two on a final series that ate up the remaining 4:36 of the clock for a 27-20 win.
Reserve cornerback Tevaughn Campbell, playing in place of injured Michael Davis, was beaten by Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen on two late completions that doomed the Chargers.
Staley said Campbell was victimized mostly by poor technique. Defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill said Thursday that miscommunication also played a major part in the fourth-quarter struggles.
“You can’t let off the gas,” Hill said. “You got to make sure that you over-communicate to guys to make sure that we can get off the field and get the offense the ball back.”
On Sunday, the Chargers return to SoFi Stadium to play a Pittsburgh team that might be without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who remains on the COVID-19 reserve list. His absence could be a significant boost for Staley’s defense.
But when the Steelers most recently visited Southern California, in October 2019, their quarterback was reserve Devlin Hodges and they beat the Chargers anyway, 24-17.
So, either way, the defense will face another test in its push to improve.
“I think that we’re figuring it out,” Staley said. “We’ve figured out the right combinations. What we have to continue to do is survive the attrition of the NFL and thrive when guys go down.
“I thought last week was a good example of that. … You have a bunch of guys out. Are you still playing tough? I felt like we’ve been doing that. There’s still a lot of room for us. That’s what I’m excited about because I think that, at the end of the year, hopefully, we can be playing our best.”
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert was added to the team’s injury report Thursday because of an oblique issue. But Herbert did practice in full.