Assessing the loss of Derwin James and how it helps the Bengals against the Chargers

Russ Heltman

The Bengals kick off their 2020 season against the Chargers on Sunday. It's a matchup that got easier in the worst way possible. Cincinnati had been preparing to face a talented Chargers defense led by Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and Derwin James. Unfortunately for Los Angeles, only two members of that star trio are making the trip.

The Chargers placed James on injured reserve after he suffered a season-ending meniscus injury, keeping him off the field for 6-8 months. Pass rushers continue to be the most valuable players on NFL defenses, but Swiss Army knives like James are quickly making up ground in that race.

James is a 6-2, 215-pound missile that is arguably the best safety in the league when healthy. James has lined up everywhere on the field except nose tackle over the past couple of seasons. Only 24 percent of his snaps came at his listed position of free safety. Fifty-one percent slotted him at outside linebacker, 19 percent were at cornerback and five percent came at inside linebacker. He even logged 16 snaps at defensive tackle.

That type of versatility has been a skeleton key for defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and it makes his injury feel like losing three starters on defense, not just one. 

James had 16 pressures as a rookie, which is a record for a first-year safety according to Pro Football Focus. The loss of that immediate impact on the passing game should be the most substantial advantage Joe Burrow has against a James-less Chargers defense. Dealing with Bosa and Ingram off the edge was going to be tough enough. Now Burrow won't have to navigate plays like the one below.

The Chargers pull off a perfect stunt, which forces Eric Fisher to hesitate and guess on the matchup with Jatavis Brown. James gets all the room he needs to bend on the outside and bring down Patrick Mahomes for the sack. A textbook pass rushing down from the smallest player lined up in the trenches.

The Florida State-product is listed as a safety, but he wreaks the most havoc lining up and playing off of the defensive front. He is one of the craftiest players in the league. He does an amazing job disguising coverage, which in turn baits veteran players like Ben Roethlisberger into mistakes.

James lines up as an edge rusher but jumps back into coverage at the snap to cover Vance McDonald on the deep over route. James has free rein to read and react to whatever he sees out of opposing offenses, keeping the opposition off balance which leads to costly mistakes.

James might as well change his name to the eraser because that's often what he did for this defense. Without him, the margin for error tightens up significantly. The star safety dealt with a foot injury last year, limiting him to five games and leaving the Chargers with a defense that forced the fewest turnovers in the league.

The Chargers ran Cover 3 more than any other defense last season. It's going to be hard to do that without James.

Bradley made a concerted effort to let James roam more freely near the line of scrimmage. Conventional wisdom says they go back to more base 4-3 defense. 

The Chargers still boast a deep defensive backfield after losing James. They signed Four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris Jr. in the offseason. He joins a secondary that includes two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Casey Hayward, All-Pro Desmond King, and 2019 second-round draft pick Nasir Adderley. None of those players can fully replace James' production, but Rayshawn Jankins will do his best on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

The fourth-year player out of Miami (FL) notched a 63.1 overall grade from PFF last year. He tied for eighth among qualified safeties with three interceptions on the season. Jenkins is a solid option and this secondary has more than enough talent to make things tough for Burrow, but without James, they aren't unsolvable for the rookie.

Burrow displayed NFL level mechanics last season. His decision making and pocket presence got most of the attention, but eye discipline brought it all together. The Heisman winner kept safeties on a string all year by looking off coverage until the last second, resetting his feet, and tossing an accurate throw.

James is a player who disrupts the timing of an offense and can stymie the most disciplined quarterback. Replacing him with a league-average player allows Burrow to translate these types of plays with fewer variables. The Bengals would love to get the rookie quarterback into a rhythm early in Sunday's game.

Zac Taylor should make things simple for his rookie quarterback, which is less complex with James injured. Burrow won't have to worry about the star safety lining up against Jonah Williams only to have him flash into the backfield for a sack. 

This injury sets Burrow up to get significantly more defined looks out of this defense. Don't be surprised if he taps into the offseason growth of Drew Sample for some shots down the seam. Jenkins is expected to gobble up the majority of James' snaps but the 5-foot-10, 200-pound King has also been playing more safety in camp. Both C.J. Uzomah and Sample have a size advantage over both players.

Coaches talk about quarterbacks like Mahomes and Russell Wilson having "the answers to the test," but James can change those questions mid-play. No one left in this secondary has the versatility to wear all the hats James donned. 

Any time a defense comes to town with this much pedigree, it's a daunting task for a rookie quarterback, but with the former-Seminole on the shelf, Burrow could find a map to pair with his Heisman compass.

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