Chargers’ pass attack will be key to upsetting the Chiefs

In this weekly Opponent Scout series, I’ll break down the Kansas City Chiefsupcoming opponent by examining their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — and how those things affect the matchup.

Kansas City will battle the Los Angeles Chargers in primetime for the second time this season. Here are the important things to know about the Chargers this time around:


Overview

Two losses in the last three games have given the Chargers a 5-4 record, sitting just outside of the AFC playoff picture due to a tiebreaker. It’s a far cry from their preseason expectations; DraftKings SportsBook gave Los Angeles the sixth-lowest odds to win Super Bowl LVII before the season began.

Unfortunately, the injury bug has been a primary culprit: defensive end Joey Bosa, left tackle Rashawn Slater, cornerback JC Jackson, wide receiver Jalen Guyton, and contributing defensive linemen like Christian Covington, Austin Johnson, and rookie Otito Ogbonnia are all currently on injured reserve .

On top of that, wide receiver Keenan Allen has had a lingering hamstring issue that has limited him to only two games this year, the last coming in Week 7. That is also the last time starting wide receiver Mike Williams has seen the field for Los Angeles. They have both been limited in practice this week, and so was starting right tackle Trey Pipkins (knee) — who missed their previous game.

Offense

As far as healthy, available playmakers to surround quarterback Justin Herbert, the Chargers have one: running back Austin Ekeler. He is by far the team’s leader in touches, with 127 more than any other Charger this season. He is a more impactful player in the passing game than the running game; Los Angeles’ rush attack has rarely produced an efficient output this season.

The first matchup was a great example of that: Ekeler had only 39 rushing yards on 14 carries — never finding space for a run of more than eight yards on the Chiefs’ defense. The lack of explosive runs on early downs put them in 16 third-down situations; Los Angeles only converted five, and didn’t make anywhere they needed more than three yards.

Part of the problem was the absence of Keenan Allen, whose injury occurred in Week 1. There were multiple misfires to wide receivers in conversion situations, but also a lack of separation from coverage at times. That’s where Allen has always excelled: winning at the line, creating separation quickly and knowing how to get open.

His return raises the floor of Los Angeles’ pass game, especially when they need a conversion.

To raise the ceiling, Herbert can do more of what worked the first time: pushing the ball downfield when Mike Williams is in single coverage. Herbert gave him three chances to make plays on vertical routes, and he made two catches — one scoring and the other setting up a touchdown.

That connection disappeared in the second half, and so did Los Angeles’ scoring. A higher volume of testing the Chiefs’ young cornerbacks could be a self-scouted way to be more competitive in round two. There could also be even more room for Williams, if Allen returns and demands more of the safeties’ primary attention.

The other factor in an effective pass game is good pass protection — and that will be a challenge with the injuries at offensive tackle. They’ll use plenty of play action to help set up the pathways for deeper pass attempts.

Defense

The Chargers’ vaunted duo of pass rushers — outside linebackers Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack — were the most significant defenders against the Chiefs last time. With Bosa out, Mack and outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy play as the team’s starters.

Those two play on the edge of a front that has been soft against the run, giving up 200 or more rushing yards in three of their last five games. The injuries along the line have been a huge factor; the front gets pushed around, which makes life much harder for linebackers Drue Tranquill and Kenneth Murray — who already struggle in the box against the run.

The linebackers are much better in space, and that helps them defend Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce over the middle. In the Week 2 game, Kelce only had 51 total yards, and the Chargers’ conscious effort to reduce the space Kelce gets right off the line of scrimmage, which throws off the typical option route that you see Kelce and Mahomes hook up on constantly.

Safety Derwin James will help with covering Kelce as well, matching up with him individually at crucial times. However, James does a little bit of everything; he averages more than two blitzes a game, utilizing his alignment versatility. This season, 42% of his snaps have come in the box, 28% at free safety, 19% in the slot, and 9% at the defensive line.

The bottom line

The Chargers’ best chance at winning this game will be getting big plays through the air, taking advantage of the potential return from injury for Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Allen will get open quickly and help move the chains, while Williams’ big-play ability boosts the scoring ceiling.

On defense, the Chargers play from back to front — which means their run defense is susceptible. Their linebackers are much more comfortable playing in space, so an effective running game for Kansas City could go a long way. Their pass coverage won’t show many open windows.

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