Shane Steichen Strikes Right Balance for Chargers in OC Debut
Jason B. Hirschhorn
CARSON, Calif. — Halfway through the 2019 NFL season, Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn made the difficult choice to fire longtime offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. While one game doesn't prove the wisdom or folly of such a decision, the unit looked like an entirely different creature during the first game of the post-Whisenhunt era, a one-sided victory over the Green Bay Packers Sunday.
In the eight weeks prior to the coordinator change, the Chargers leaned away from their ground attack in most situations. They threw on 58.7 percent of snaps when tied or playing with the lead and dialed up passes 66.7 percent of the time overall. Though Whisenhunt's approach worked well in the past, Los Angeles struggled to put away opponents in more recent years. The team won just three games by more than a touchdown over its last 16 contests, the equivalent of a full season.
Those issues clearly frustrated Lynn, who refused to blame the Chargers' running backs during the height of Whisenhunt's rushing futility in October. "I don't think it has anything to do with Melvin Gordon," Lynn said following a Week 6 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. "We've got to open up more running lanes."
Enter Shane Steichen, the team's 34-year-old quarterbacks coach with no prior history of calling plays. Though Steichen worked within the foundation of Whisenhunt's system, he called a more balanced offense with a higher tempo while stacked plays differently than his predecessor. As a result, the Chargers posted their highest run rate of the year (55.9 percent) and managed 68 total plays from scrimmage, their second highest mark of the year.
"Shane did an outstanding job," Lynn said following the game. "Like I said, I'm always wanting to get involved, but Shane would never have to look over his shoulder when calling plays. He did an outstanding job. I thought he was aggressive when he needed to be aggressive and he did a good job establishing the run when he had to."
Rather than almost exclusively ride Gordon on the ground and deploy Austin Ekeler mainly as a receiver, Steichen used both extensively in each part of the offense. The wide receivers also motioned in and out of the backfield frequently, with Mike Williams even seeing a carry during the first half. The more varied approach allowed the Chargers to push the pace of the game and keep the same players on the field, a tactic that kept the Packers defense in disadvantageous personnel groupings.
"We just pushed our tempo on offense," Ekeler says. "So, after we get a first down, we got right on the ball, ran another play and not let them substitute. Let's just run a play. We tried to get a tempo going with some rhythm and see what happens."
"We just balanced today," Gordon says. "We ran the ball well and passed the ball well. Everybody made their plays on all phases. So, that really helped with the output of the game."
Perhaps the ultimate vote of confidence in Steichen came during the fourth quarter. The Chargers held a 19-point lead after kicker Michael Badgley converted a 19-yard field goal. However, Packers cornerback Tony Brown lined up offsides, giving Los Angeles the option to take the points or attempt a fourth-and-goal from inside the 1-yard line. Lynn opted to go for the kill, and Steichen dialed up an inside run to Gordon. The running back crossed the plane moments later.
"I want fourth-and-one and we had a chance to extend the lead, get a touchdown, make a statement," Lynn says. "We did it."
The Chargers' head coach would not have risked turning a three-possession game into a two-possession affair if he didn't have faith in his offensive coordinator. In Steichen, Lynn has a hand-picked play-caller he trusts.
"When you are around him, his work ethic, his energy, his passion for this game, he knows what he's doing," Lynn says. "He's a good young coach. He's going to be around for a long time."
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH