The Best Defensive Coach No One is Talking About
San Diego Chargers Training Camp Report
Site: The Chargers home facility, located amongst a sprawl of Northern San Diego business parks, up against the green sage-brush hillside of Murphy Canon.
What I saw: Morning practice, the team’s first of this training camp. Also, very little shade. And, in my own reflection, the haggard redness of a man ill-prepared for such humidity.
Three things you need to know about the Chargers:
1. They have an “elite” quarterback. Philip Rivers, as good of a pure pocket passer as there, practices the way you’d expect: fully engaged and full throttle. In “offense vs. defense” sessions Rivers did his usual yeoman’s work before the snap, setting the protections by calling out the Mike linebacker and make adjustments based off the defensive front. (With plays being scripted, and this being Day One of camp, there did not appear to be any audibling.) When the second-and third-stringers were working, Rivers took a knee and talked with safety Eric Weddle (the defense’s quarterback). During special teams sessions, Rivers engaged with offensive coordinator Frank Reich and head coach Mike McCoy. Since entering into McCoy’s system in 2013, Rivers has completed 68 percent of his passes (second only to Drew Brees), averaging 7.8 yards an attempt (fifth best in the league).
2. John Pagano is the best defensive coach nobody talks about. Pagano employs a multifaceted scheme that features a breadth of different looks. “We try to disguise on every snap,” he told me after practice. “We start with it on Day One. It’s not something where in Week 5 we say, ‘Hey, whoa, we gotta start doing this.’” (Here Pagano clapped his hands as a gesture of urgency.) “We try to start it Day One, that’s what it’s all about.”
Pagano hasn’t always had great cornerbacks to work with, making his pressure concepts and post-snap coverage rotations all the gutsier. “You always have to still have that attack mode mentality,” he said. Much of these ploys come out of zone, though in this practice, the Chargers primarily worked on man-to-man. Most interesting was watching their corners perform a press coverage drill with their arms crossed shoulder-to-shoulder. Teams these days are finding all sorts of ways to teach corners to not rely on their oft-flagged hands. In the scrimmage portions of practice, the corners primarily matched up to specific wide receivers.
Every game has scenarios that demand man coverage. (Third-down-and-short, for example.) This could explain the heavy emphasis on it this first day. Overall, I’d expect the Chargers defense to continue using a heavy dosage of matchup zone concepts in their base packages. You can set up more disguises from zone than you can from man. This speaks to the point Pagano made to summarize his defensive philosophies: “The game is all about angles.”
3. Eric Weddle may not be happy with his contract situation, but the Chargers have every reason to be happy with him. Weddle is one of the most versatile defenders in the league. In this first practice, he played both deep safety and down near the line of scrimmage. I asked Pagano how important the ninth-year veteran is to their scheme. “Huge, huge, huge,” he said. “It’s like having a coordinator out there on the field. We’ve been together for so long, so he thinks like me. He has that mentality of football.”
What will determine success or failure of the Chargers: Whether their somewhat thin – and in spots, youthful – defense can stay healthy and generate more big plays. Last season, they registered only seven interceptions and 26 sacks, both near the bottom of the NFL.
Player I saw and really liked: Keenan Allen. The third-year wide receiver has very unique body control and a grasp on the nuances of his position. We talked in the afternoon about his route running, which he works on diligently during the offseason. He loves lining up in a tight split (i.e. inside the field numbers, closer to the quarterback).From here, he has more room at his disposal. He brought up Antonio Gates, and how much he’s learned from the likely future Hall of Famer. “He never takes baby steps,” Allen said. “He always takes full strides. That’s what I try to do.”
Five dot-dot-dot observations about the Chargers: First-round rookie running back Melvin Gordon looks the part. He showed eye-popping short-area lateral agility and cutback prowess. He both glides and explodes in his movement and can reach the second level effortlessly….Another Melvin who is critical to this team: Ingram. The fourth-year outside linebacker lost 20 pounds this past offseason, which surprised me considering that he already possessed outstanding horizontal burst for a 260-something pounder. But Ingram explained to me it was “bad” weight that he lost. And that his horizontal burst isn’t a purely physical thing anyway. “It’s about 50-50 for God-given ability and (something that’s) learned,” he said. “You’re given the ability but you take it to that next level by practice and film study, and (specifically) practicing lateral movements.” Ingram also said one of the more interesting tidbits about film study that I’ve heard: “In the pros, you have to do it to be successful.” So in college are you saying it’s just more of a bonus then? “Yep.”…..Stevie Johnson is replacing the departed Eddie Royal as the No. 3 receiver. Johnson is patient and acrobatic, which we were reminded of when he made a twisted (literally) adjustment for a catch against perfect man-to-man slot coverage by Steve Williams. The patience and acrobatics are necessary because Johnson doesn’t have great quickness. That’s where Royal will be missed…..Danny Woodhead has plenty of quickness, and he displayed it with no visible remnants of the fractured fibula that wiped out his 2014 season in Week 3. Woodhead also has a new little mustache, which looks either sharp or creepy, depending on your perspective….Charger fans haven’t lost any love for Antonio Gates, despite his four-game suspension for a PED violation. The media also seems to be still very fond of the veteran.
The one name on the roster I’d forgotten about: Austin Pettis. Not that I’m kicking myself for this. The former Rams third-round pick joined the team this past January. I only remembered him because during special teams gunner drills, which Pettis was partaking in, some kid up against the fence kept yelling his name. “Austin I know you hear me,” the kid eventually shouted. Pettis was left with no choice but to acknowledge the screamer, which he did by looking over (helmet off) and gently sticking an index finger in the air.
The one thing I’ll remember about San Diego: Qualcomm Stadium, and how absolutely hideous it looks from the freeway. “Yeah, and have you seen inside of it?” one Chargers staffer asked me. I have not. I’ve just seen its exterior of crisscrossing slabs of concrete. “It’s like a dinosaur,” the staffer said.
Gut feeling about this team as I left town: This has the feel of a 9-7 club. Maybe that’s just because the Chargers have won between seven and nine games each of the past five seasons. There’s talent here, but a lack of depth along the defensive and offensive lines. And there are unproven young players, like cornerback Jason Verrett and outside linebacker Jerry Attaochu (he ran with the first unit), who need to be stars for this defense to truly prosper. Maybe they can be; both are capable. In that case, the Chargers could win 11 games. But I’ve learned not to trust “maybes” in the NFL. So I don’t know. Just not a whole lot feels different about what’s been a good but certainly not great Chargers team.
Sights seen at Chargers camp today:
1. Handfuls of expensive cars in the Holiday Inn up the street. The Chargers are holding training camp at their regular facility, but the players – even the decorated veterans – are all staying at the hotel until mid-August. This is to create more of a camp atmosphere and to better accommodate the evening meetings that can run until 10:00 p.m. Coaches all have rooms at the hotel, as well, but most of them are sleeping in their offices.
2. Waves and waves of baggy blue shorts worn by players…and then Keenan Allen with his shorts cut off several inches above his kneecaps. But not to worry, Allen wore white spandex under the shorts. Still, it looked a little, um, well, dorky.
3. I didn’t see, so much as hear, Jason Verrett grunting. Every team has a grunter – a guy who makes guttural sounds off fully exerted movement. Verrett’s grunts were frequent, matching the chop of his feet on a press coverage drill.
4. Players leaving the field with helmet, pads and shoes off. It’s a nice soft grass field, so stocking feet aren’t a problem. But it looks just a little preemptive. About one out of four players – maybe one out of three – removed his shoes before exiting the field. Philip Rives was one of them.
5. An entire cooler of Gatorade falling off the back of a cart that was high-tailing to midfield after practice. A rainbow of, sealed bottles hit the ground, along with the ice they were packed in. Two other coolers still remained on the cart, and it was apparent the driver was unsure whether to carry on and reach those who awaited hydration or go back and retrieve the spilt beverages. After some hesitation, he carried on. Safety Jahleel Addae and undrafted tight end Brian Parker, the two people closest to the spill, bent down and kindly gathered the drinks.