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Giants vs. Chargers: What to expect when Los Angeles has the ball

Los Angeles Chargers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

The New York Giants travel to California on Sunday to face the 7-5 Los Angeles Chargers. The conservative nature of former Chargers’ coach Anthony Lynn is long gone now that Brandon Staley has assumed head coaching duties. Staley is a wunderkind defensive mind who rose from Division III head coach to an NFL gig in just five years.

Staley hired former Saints offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi to call plays for Justin Herbert in his second NFL season. Lombardi’s offense is ninth in points, with an average of 26.2 points per game. They rank eighth yards per game with 382.1, with 281.1 passing yards. Their rushing game ranks 22nd with a 101-yard rushing average.

Los Angeles started the season hot with a 4-1 record. The Chargers were on a three-game winning streak until Wek 6; they haven’t won consecutive games since. They’re coming off an impressive 41-22 victory in Cincinnati over the Joe Burrow led Bengals.

The AFC race is very tight, and the Chargers are currently the fifth seed. Even with Mike Glennon or Jake Fromm being the signal-caller, I wouldn’t expect them to take the Giants lightly. New York lost 20-9 in Miami last week and is now on its second consecutive road game. Even with many key offensive personnel in question, stopping Justin Herbert will not be an easy task for the Giants’ defense.

COVID issues

After the victory over the Bengals, star slot receiver Keenan Allen tested positive for COVID-19. Allen had a two-touchdown game against the Bengals, and his presence in the slot is invaluable to the offense. Allen caught 86 of 120 targets for 929 yards and 4 touchdowns on the season.

Allen’s absence would open opportunities for downfield threat Mike Williams, who appears to be playing on Sunday. Williams was a close contact with Allen and landed on the COVID list, but he never tested positive. He is, reportedly, unvaccinated, but he may play on Sunday if he continues to test negative through Saturday.

Defensive slot cornerback Chris Harris Jr. also landed on the COVID-19 list, but he has intimated that he should be available for Sunday. If the Chargers miss Allen and Williams, opportunities will arise for Jalen Guyton and rookie Josh Palmer. However, I would expect a more 12 personnel type of approach with the offense running through running back Austin Ekeler and tight ends Jared Cook and Donald Parham.

When healthy, the Chargers run 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) 27 percent of the time. That’s towards the league’s upper echelon in that category, but not nearly as much as Miami or even Atlanta or the Giants. The Chargers are mostly in 11-personnel, with the three receivers being Allen, Williams, and Guyton.

Justin Herbert

It pains me to believe Justin Herbert would be in Giants’ blue if he had decided to leave school after his junior season. He possesses rare arm talent and play-making ability. Herbert’s thrown for 3,547 passing yards with 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions this season. His passing yards rank 4th in the NFL. He has a touchdown percentage of 5.9 percent, which ranks seventh in the NFL. Daniel Jones’ touchdown percentage is at 2.8 percent on the year (definitely not just a quarterback stat).

According to Pro Football Reference, Herbert’s on-target percentage is 81.5 percent. That puts him fourth in the NFL, and his bad throw percentage is 14.7 percent, which ranks 27th in the NFL. His average time in the pocket ranks 10th at 2.4 seconds, which is tied with many other quarterbacks around the NFL.

Herbert has been pressured 108 times with a 20.7 percent pressure rate. His protection ranks 27th in the NFL in terms of pressure rate; last season, his pressure rate was 28.7 percent - a stark difference in protection and Herbert’s ability to get the football out of his hands.

Opposing teams blitz Herbert. Defensive coordinators blitzed Herbert 119 times this season, ranking just behind Daniel Jones at 120 (Herbert has attempted to throw 112 more times this year). Defenses have sacked Herbert 25 times this season.

I expect Patrick Graham to utilize the blitz but not overly rely on it. Five-man pressure packages featuring the slot defender or a Tae Crowder stunt off a slanting defensive lineman will more than likely be used in an attempt to slow this Chargers offense down.

The Ravens blitzed Herbert at a high rate in the Chargers 34-6 loss in Baltimore. Graham isn’t nearly as aggressive as Wink Martindale, but he’s not shy to blitz with man coverage on the backend in middle of the field closed looks during third and short situations.

Stop Austin Ekeler

Graham has recently used a fair amount of Cover-3 defense, which leaves the flats vulnerable by design. New York forces the check-down pass to the flat and then rallies to tackle. Ekeler, however, is tough to tackle in space and is one of the best-receiving backs in the NFL. He has 56 catches on 68 targets for 518 yards and 7 touchdowns to go along with 663 yards on 149 carries (4.4 yards per carry) and 8 touchdowns.

He is one of three Chargers receivers who have more than 55 receptions on the season:

The Giants execute well with their open-field tackles outside of the Raiders, Saints, and Broncos games. If they fail to do so against Ekeler, they will pay dearly. Lombardi uses Ekeler often in the passing attack as a check-down option. New York typically plays softer coverage in zone.

Offensive line

The Chargers’ rookie tackle Rashawn Slater is as good as advertised and has helped a poor offensive line. He is the seventh-highest ranked overall tackle in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus.

The tackle/guard combination of Slater and Feiler is one of the better run-blocking combos in the NFL. The addition of Corey Linsley, who signed with the Chargers in the off-season from Green Bay, is also a significant upgrade to the offensive line’s overall protection and run blocking.

New York can possibly gain an advantage and win one-on-one matchups against right tackle Storm Norton and right guard Michael Schofield III. Graham used Leonard Williams as an EDGE defender 11 times last week. With Williams in that alignment and Dexter Lawrence at 2i-Technique to the right side, the Giants can really stress protection.

If New York wants to use speed, the Giants can align Williams as the 2i/3-Technique with either EDGE on that side. However, New York must protect the left side on running downs and ensure there are no critical vulnerabilities that can result in large chunk runs from Ekeler.