An Analytical Look into the Chargers hiring Brandon Staley
Updated: Feb 8
What does the Brandon Staley hire mean for the Los Angeles Chargers? How will he change the way the team has played the last couple of years? Read the article to find out his unique coaching style and thought process behind his #1 ranked defense this past season using different pre-snap looks and disguises to fool QB's.
On January 12th, 2017, the Los Angeles Rams shocked the football world by hiring 30 year old Sean McVay. At the time, he was the youngest head coach in the NFL since 1938. He transformed the Rams into a Superbowl caliber team with innovative offensive schemes. In his first two seasons, the Rams ranked 5th in Offensive EPA/play. Also, they were the only team in the NFL to finish with a positive EPA/rush over those 2 years. As we all know, the NFL is a copycat league. Seeing how well McVay did over his first couple of years made other teams follow suit. Young coaches like Matt LaFleur and Zac Taylor were hired from the McVay coaching tree in hopes of rebuilding their teams as well as McVay did.
The Chargers were the favorites to hire Bills OC Brian Daboll ever since Anthony Lynn got fired. The links between Daboll and GM Tom Telesco were evident. They both shared the same sports agent and both went to the same high school in New York. Additionally, on this past Saturday, Adam Schefter tweeted that, “Bills OC Brian Daboll has emerged as a favorite to land the Los Angeles Chargers' head coaching job”. So how did Brandon Staley become the next head coach for the Los Angeles Chargers? Well, after Dean Spanos let Anthony Lynn go, he mentioned how the Chargers wanted to become more innovative with how their football team would be run. This can be interpreted to say that former HC Anthony Lynn wasn’t innovative enough. Given Anthony Lynn coached under Bill Parcells and played on a Broncos team with Terrell Davis, it’s easy to see why Lynn was so adamant about running the ball despite having an electric rookie QB in Justin Herbert.
On the other hand, new HC Brandon Staley has been in the league for only 4 years, and only been a coordinator for 1, but he is at the forefront of defensive innovation in the NFL. In 2012, the Legion of Boom began its reign as the top secondary in the NFL. Their vaunted cover 3 defense became a staple in many teams around the league to prevent big plays and keep everything in front of them. As the league moved towards a passing centered league, the old featured defense of Tampa 2 from the early 2000’s slowly fell out of touch. This stayed until the hiring of Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan in 2017. Both of these HC’s brought Mike Shanahan’s famous wide zone run scheme back into the NFL and defenses had no answer for it. As more teams attempt to copy McVay and Shanahan, it is imperative that the Chargers find a way to combat that, and Staley is the answer. Let’s dive into why Staley’s defense was so successful and what he brings to the table with the Chargers.
1. His defense led the league in 2 high safety looks this past year
Staley’s defense featured John Johnson and Jordan Fuller as the two main safeties, and both of them usually lined up outside the box. This means that there would usually only be 3 DLs and 3 LBs or 4 DLs and 2 LBs inside the box. He did this at an 85% clip this year. This look invites teams to run on the Rams, because of the lack of bodies inside the box. It is a very interesting concept, and one that hasn’t been utilized by many teams. On a side note, the next closest team who used this concept was the Broncos who are coached by Vic Fangio, the same guy who hired Staley in the first place (both Fangio and Staley’s defenses ranked in the top-half in defensive EPA/play this year). In interviews, Staley has made sure to make his goal clear: “My big belief system is 1-on-1s in the run game and 2-on-1s in the passing game”. Essentially, this means that his players will go 1 on 1 with an opposing offensive lineman when the offense runs the ball, and he wants 2 players around every receiver when the offense passes the ball. He does this because he understands how much more the passing game is than the running game in today’s NFL.
2. By using a 3-4 base defense, he normally lines up 5 bodies along the offensive line:
There are 3 linemen, and 2 OLBs that the offensive line has to worry about. This means it is difficult for them to get up to the second level without taking out the 2 OLB first. John Johnson and Jordan Fuller are also lined up in a split safety look which is a staple in the defense. Because of the 5 bodies along the offensive line, the ILBs don’t have to attack the gaps immediately because there are defenders already there. This helps the defense because the ILB’s aren’t attacking the gaps as hard, they are less likely to get caught by play action and crossers.
The whole goal for this defense is to prevent big plays by spreading out the defense. They are allowing teams to run as much as they want, while also making sure they are prepared for any playaction calls or deep passes. Per Next Gen Stats, the Rams ranked first this year in defending deep passes of 20 air yards: They only allowed 10 completions (1st), 1 TD (1st), 6 INT (3rd), and allowed a 27.4 passer rating (1st). They also allowed the fewest 20+ yard passes, and 40+ yard passes this year. One of the biggest problems with the Chargers this year was leaving their corners on an island. Although the Chargers ranked in the top 10 in both 20+ yard passes and 40+ yard passes allowed, the Rams were better, and did it with 2 UDFA corners starting in Troy Hill and Darious Williams.
Let’s compare the Rams defense and Chargers defense from this past year. The Chargers’ DC Gus Bradley had problems not adjusting his defense in the 2nd half of each game this year by allowing 0.108 EPA/play which ranked 26th in the league, a huge step down from allowing -0.049 EPA/play in the 1st half which ranked 5th this past year. On the other hand, the Rams were flat out dominant. Staley’s ability to make halftime adjustments helped the Rams play better than they did in the first half. The Chargers blew five 17+ leads this past year and most of them occurred in the second half due to lack of adjustments. Hopefully Staley can fix this problem next year.
3. Rams played a much more diverse coverage scheme under Brandon Staley.
The Rams made sure to use a variety of coverages which can be used with a 2 high safety look. For 4 years under Gus Bradley, the Chargers have consistently shown a 1 high safety look with the other safety in the box around the line of scrimmage. As a result, the 2 main coverages you can run are cover 3 and cover 1. (Shoutout to @ryanweisman12 for making these graphs. He’s doing some really cool work and you guys should definitely check him out).
Looking at the Chargers, they used cover 3 quite a lot last year, and it was their primary coverage scheme that they utilized over 50% of the time. They also ran a decent amount of cover 1 and cover 4. Now the Rams were a little bit different. Rather than utilize 1 coverage, they decided to play a whole bunch of coverages to throw offenses off. Thanks to their 2 high safety looks, it allows them to play almost any coverage they want as one safety can drop down to play cover 3, or both play back and they can run some variation of cover 4 or cover 6. That’s what the Rams did this past year. Their 3 most used formations turned out to be cover 3, cover 4, and cover 6. Again, with a 2 high safety look, opposing QBs might suspect that the defense is playing cover 2 or cover 4, but the look allows for so many possibilities which is why the Rams had a ton of success.
Now it’s one thing to play a ton of different coverages. Their effectiveness is another story. In these graphs, you want the bars to be negative, because these graphs represent defenses and the coverages they run. A negative EPA/play means the coverage was successful. On the Rams side, they had success utilizing cover 3, cover 4, and cover 6, which were their most frequent coverages. Staley knows how to mix up his defenses and give different coverage looks to the QB which allows them to perform better. The Chargers on the other hand had more coverages producing a positive EPA/play than negative which is not a good thing. Another thing to note: The Rams were not a blitz heavy team. In fact, when they ran both cover 0 (all-out blitz) and cover 2, they struggled, just like the Chargers did. Staley likes to create 1 on 1 matchups in the passing game which allowed players like Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd to shine. Luckily for the Chargers, this should allow guys like Joey Bosa, Uchenna Nwosu, and hopefully Jerry Tillery to get favorable matchups and allow them to go 1 on 1. This can also be made possible thanks to NT Linval Joseph who fits perfectly in a 3-4 (will touch on that in a future article), and is a guy that commands double teams due to his massive frame.
4. My final note on the Rams’s coverage is their blitzing. I touched on it briefly above, but the Rams blitzed right around the league average. However, the good news for Chargers fans is that when the Rams did blitz, they were highly successful. They ranked 3rd in EPA/blitz, which is a huge step up from where the Chargers ended up. While the Chargers ranked last in blitz rate, they also failed to successfully get to the QB when blitzing which leaves them in the bottom 7 in EPA/blitz. Luckily for the Chargers and Staley, there are a couple players on the team who can allow Staley to call creative blitzes. First off, Derwin James. Unfortunately for James, he hasn’t been able to stay healthy, but he is a tremendous blitzer when given the chance. He recorded 4 sacks and 19 pressures as a rookie and produced a 86.0 pass rushing grade while rushing from the safety position. The next person who can help Staley when blitzing is Kenneth Murray. He is an instinctive violent tackler who has sideline to sideline speed. He was used more in a coverage role this past year and that might change next year. He could potentially move to OLB near the line of scrimmage and be used more as a blitzer or a guy who spies the QB. Hopefully this allows him to play without thinking and having to be the defensive play caller, a duty bestowed on him by the Chargers this past year.
5. The Rams ran a 3-4 defense last year, but spent most of their time in nickel just like the Chargers. The main worry that people have with Staley and the Chargers is the defensive scheme he employs. Now it will be hard to make assumptions about what Staley plans to do because it is very early in the offseason and free agency and the draft will tell more about what the defensive plan is for the Chargers. However, a 3-4 base isn’t something that should be worried about when looking at the Chargers defense.
The Chargers mainly used their 4-2-5 and 3-3-5 nickel packages this year on defense. There is a reason they signed Chris Harris last offseason so it isn’t a surprise to see them use defensive packages that will help keep him on the field. Now the Rams don’t run a 4-3, they run a 3-4. But they rarely used their 3-4 base package. Instead, they opted to use their 3-3-5 and 2-4-5 nickel packages along with their 2-3-6 dime package the most this past year. Now depending on how the 2-4-5 package looks, it could very well be similar to the Chargers 4-2-5 nickel package. The only difference is the 2-4-5 personnel has the 2 OLB line up very wide.
Again, Staley looks to try and isolate his best pass rushers to get 1 on 1 matchups for them. It is very early to speculate how the Chargers defense will look in this package, but I think it makes sense that star DE Joey Bosa lines up at OLB with either Uchenna Nwosu or Kenneth Murray opposite him.
Even though the Rams used many different personnel, the stat that sticks out the most to me is how successful they were with every formation they used. In their 3 most frequently used formations (3-3-5, 2-4-5, 2-3-6), they all produced a negative EPA/play over the whole season. It is clear that Brandon Staley knows how to play to his strengths. It also shows that his play calling from this last year was tailored to whatever personnel he had on the field. On the flip side, the Chargers struggled mightily when they went into their dime package, as well as their nickel package. Both of them produced a positive EPA/play. In fact, the Chargers best personnel this year was their 4-3 base package. Denzel Perryman had a career year this year on limited snaps as he played fast, and violent and produced a career best 83.3 PFF grade and ranked 9th in tackling efficiency among all LBs.
To wrap it up, Brandon Staley is a terrific hire as he should be able to transform the modern day NFL defensive scheme just like the Tampa 2 did back in the early 2000s and the LOB cover 3 did in the early 2010s. His staff has yet to be filled out, and free agency hasn’t even begun, so there is no point talking about what his scheme could look like on offense and defense and what players would play where. Ideally, the offensive coordinator he brings in will look to pass the ball on early downs more than the Chargers did in 2020. It should be a very interesting offseason for the Chargers as they have quite a few free agents departing, and it is likely that Staley brings in some of “his guys” from the Rams as they have familiarity within his system. All in all, an excellent hire for the Chargers, and if he turns out to be the defensive minded version of Sean McVay, this could be the most important hire in Chargers history